Before blockchain, get the right address: open data mapping & unique IDs to jumpstart collaboration

Natalie Grillon By Natalie Grillon

Blockchain. Traceability. Digital IDs. Transparency. So many of us have heard talk of these exciting new models and technologies flying around the halls of apparel industry conferences, as we look to solutions for a more sustainable garment industry.

But there’s an industry wide problem, rarely discussed, that must be solved before the potential power of these ideas and technologies can be vetted and realized.

We’ve got the wrong address.

And by that, I mean thousands upon thousands of incomplete, incorrect or varying addresses, differing even for the same facility.

The challenges of bad data

Databases of organizations including software providers, brand/retailers, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) and auditing firms contain errors in the names and addresses of apparel facilities. This results in hundreds - even thousands - of hours of manual data entry and analysis to even make practical use of supplier lists. It also means that software systems at different organizations can’t communicate and share data on a per facility level.

Geocoding a facility to a precise location with an incomplete or incorrect address raises challenges for logistics, operations and transparency. Auditors turn up at the wrong facility and brands can struggle to trace even their first tier supply chain.

Given the dynamic nature of apparel supply chains, with some major global brands updating their supplier base as frequently as every month, data accuracy is of paramount importance and it starts with facility names and addresses. How can we realize the potential positive outcomes of supply chain traceability, RFID tagging and more if we have bad data to start with?

Open data for shared outcomes

The Open Apparel Registry (OAR), launching this week, aims to not only become the go-to source for identifying all global apparel facilities and their affiliations through a standardized industry wide open database of supplier names and addresses, but also to encourage collaboration towards improved outcomes for all stakeholders in the industry.

The OAR is an open source tool, mapping garment facilities worldwide and assigning a unique ID number to each. It collates disparate supplier lists from industry stakeholders into one central, open source map and database. Anyone will be able to identify an apparel facility, understand its affiliations and contribute to accurate facility information.

The collated database of facility names, addresses and affiliated parties, pulled from public and contributed data, is powered by an advanced name and address-matching algorithm, developed by geospatial software firm, Azavea. The free-to-use tool can be used by any organization to update and standardize a supplier list against the database, view facility affiliations and use the OAR ID as a unique and shared ID across software systems and databases.

Collaboration in action

Once we as an industry move to a common, standardized set of names and addresses and a central, shared ID, so many opportunities will start to arise and catalytic collaboration can start. With this open database and map, the apparel industry can move past our status quo of inaccurate data and duplicated efforts to a future of shared, accurate data, system interoperability and collaboration across supply chains.

We are already seeing these types of collaborations take shape; in one of our OAR working groups, major software providers and industry MSIs are working together to develop an OAR API integration to standardize data across their databases. Imagine all major platforms having the same name and address for a facility and the resulting capability to share data profiles which provide a comprehensive overview of a facility.

And right now, NGOs are using the platform to proactively contact brands and retailers affiliated with facilities in their region to develop new programs. Brands have shared their plans to use the OAR to publish their public supplier lists, rather than publish maps or PDFs on their own sites.

What next?

While the OAR is in its infancy, with new features planned for release over the next couple of years and user feedback to take on board, we are eager to see how the industry uses the OAR and the tangible outcomes that can come from this shared, open resource. We hope the OAR will spark more open data projects and collaborative technologies across the industry, leading to positive, tangible outcomes for all stakeholders.

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We believe that fashion has the power to improve the lives of the women and men behind our clothes and to enhance the lives of everyone the industry touches. A fair and sustainable future for the industry depends on the action we take. As a part of a new series “Fashion as a Force for Good: disrupting the status quo” you will hear from some of our partners and how their organisations are working to transform the fashion industry into a force for good. 

About the author

By Natalie Grillon

Natalie Grillon is the Project Director of the Open Apparel Registry. She has led stakeholder and external engagement since the project’s inception in 2017. Previously she co-founded Project JUST, an online tool to help consumers change the way they shop for clothing. She is an Acumen Fellow and Returned Peace Corp Volunteer Mali ’09.