How Blockchain, Autonomous Tech Help Keep ‘Fair Fashion’ in Style

eWEEK BLOCKCHAIN CASE STUDY: A lot of people don’t understand how blockchain technology works. Here’s a cool use-case example of how it can work in the real world. Jyoti-Fair Works uses retraced’s blockchain application, powered by the Oracle Cloud, to give customers a view into its humanitarian supply chain.

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By Sasha Banks-Louie

Jyoti-Fair Works, a small German “fair fashion” label that sources goods ethically from an Indian workforce, is continuing to pay its seamstresses their full wages and guarantee their continued employment despite a COVID-19-related government lockdown.

Since all of the seamstresses have sewing machines and embroidery tools in their homes, “We have decided to use this time to introduce a new line of patchwork blankets, products which are usually too time-consuming to make during regular production schedules,” said Carolin “Caro” Hofer, who helped found Jyoti-Fair Works in 2014.

The company also provides its employees with seminars on women's and employee rights, English language courses and professional training across each phase of production, including how to up-cycle pieces of leftover fabric to make bags, bowties, jewelry and other accessories.

Visibility Sorely Needed

Such working conditions are the exception in a region where millions of garment workers put in long hours in dilapidated factories with no health-care benefits or educational opportunities, and where wages are often as low as 15 cents an hour. Despite some apparel brands’ efforts to mandate decent working conditions from first-tier factories in India, there isn’t much visibility into the increasing volume of subcontracted work.

To maintain that transparency and to better explain it to the company’s customers, Jyoti-Fair Works has started using a blockchain software application developed by retraced, a participant in the Oracle for Startups program whose platform is powered by Oracle Blockchain Cloud.

By mapping its supply chain data into retraced’s application—including certified details about the cotton growers, textile manufacturers, fabric dyers, designers and seamstresses— Jyoti-Fair Works can update order, delivery and production schedules and then create, print and affix QR codes to both physical and digital garment tags.

When a new blouse is posted to Jyoti-Fair Works’ website or shipped to a fair fashion retailer in Berlin, consumers can use their mobile devices to scan the QR code “and see instantly that the cotton was grown organically by a local farmer, processed without hazardous chemicals at a nearby textile factory, dyed using environmentally friendly plant-based extracts and then woven into biodegradable fabrics, which are then cut, sewn and embellished by a fair trade artisan,” said Tai Ford, head of sales and marketing for retraced. 

After these chain-of-custody details are entered and mapped into the blockchain, suppliers are invited to download retraced’s application and create a user account. When an order is placed—say, for 10 women’s blouses—the application automatically pre-populates with details about the materials needed to produce Jyoti’s blouses and sends each supplier a request to accept the order. Upon acceptance, the supplier is added to the chain, so that its activities can be tracked throughout that order’s lifecycle.

“The application goes all the way down the chain to the growers and back up to the weavers, so that Jyoti-Fair Works knows exactly when the cotton bolls are shipped from the farm, when they’re processed into yarn by the gin, and when the yarn is dyed, woven into fabric, and then sent to Jyoti’s sewing workshops to stitch the finished garments,” Ford said.

Transparency Available at Scale

Retraced’s application helps Jyoti-Fair Works store, map and verify the authenticity of its suppliers’ activities in an Oracle Autonomous Transaction Processing Database, which runs on the company’s cloud infrastructure.

“Having the infrastructure, database and blockchain application running on one platform made it so much easier for us to expand our platform very quickly and at scale,” said retraced co-founder and CTO Peter Merkert.

The application’s microservices architecture quickly pulls in fabric images, onboards new suppliers or adds orders to the blockchain. Its Container Engine for Kubernetes “lets us run multiple instances simultaneously, even when the application is getting hit with thousands of requests at once,” Merkert said.

With its Oracle database, “it really doesn’t matter how many processes I’m running. I can just click to get more storage, click again to get more CPU power, and boom, it’s there,” Merkert said. While much has been written about the scalability of microservices architectures, they “can actually become a bottleneck,” he said. “They can scale only as much as the database and resources running behind them can provide.”

This ability to scale while maintaining a fully transparent supply chain is exactly how Jyoti-Fair Works plans to grow. “The whole thing we’re doing with retraced is to create an even more transparent supply chain, and to let our customers be a part of it,” Hofer said. “We’re also aiming to establish a transparency standard, so that conventional producers might one day tell the story of their products, too.”

For a fair fashion company such as Jyoti-Fair Works, transparency is everything. “The more people know about our value chain—how many women sewed their dresses, how many hours of work were involved—the more they seem to care about their clothes and trust in our brand—and, hopefully, the more they start to ask questions about the textile industry and refuse to accept its hidden exploitative practices.”

Sasha Banks-Louie is a writer at Oracle, covering cloud infrastructure, startups and research institutions.