Fashioning the Fu­ture

Samir Alam de­codes Blockchain tech­nol­ogy and re­views its po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise the ap­parel in­dus­try. Here is part one of the story.

Apparel - - Contents -

De­cod­ing Blockchain tech­nol­ogy and its po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise the ap­parel in­dus­try

In the last few decades, tech­nol­ogy has been mak­ing rapid strides. How­ever, the ap­parel in­dus­try hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced any ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal over­haul that would change the very fab­ric of its func­tion­ing. But…imag­ine a world where a tech­no­log­i­cal tool could al­low for a easy and cheap track­ing of a gar­ment - from its ma­te­rial pro­duc­tion stage to its fi­nal pur­chase. Think of a mar­ket­place where con­sumers could just use their smart de­vices to check an item of ap­parel to know its en­tire life cy­cle – learn where dif­fer­ent parts and pro­cesses of a gar­ment were pro­duced, cul­ti­vated, spun, wo­ven, as­sem­bled and sold. The im­pact this kind of trans­parency and trace­abil­ity could have would be im­mense, as it would help put sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion poli­cies in ac­tion, and even play a ma­jor role in eas­ing tar­iff and duty is­sues be­tween na­tions. This tech­nol­ogy would put power and choice in the hands of the cus­tomer, like never be­fore. This tech­nol­ogy is known as ‘blockchain’ and it is tak­ing the world of com­merce by storm.

The afore­men­tioned ad­van­tages are only a small part of the po­ten­tial that blockchain tech­nol­ogy holds, when ap­plied to fash­ion and ap­parel. As a phe­nom­e­non, this tech­nol­ogy has al­ready been part of mas­sive de­bate and dis­cus­sion in ev­ery in­dus­try from fi­nance to farm­ing, but very few peo­ple still have a clear idea on how it works and what it can be used for in the busi­ness world. This ar­ti­cle will walk you through a brief his­tory of blockchain, its work­ings, and how it may com­pletely rev­o­lu­tionise the fash­ion and ap­parel trade.

THE CON­TENT ISN’T THE POWER BE­HIND BLOCKCHAIN, BUT THE MAN­NER IN WHICH THAT CON­TENT IS STORED.

BREAK­ING DOWN BLOCKCHAIN

Most peo­ple may have heard of blockchain in re­la­tion to the con­tro­ver­sial dig­i­tal cur­rency - Bit­coin. While Bit­coin is no­to­ri­ous for its volatile and du­bi­ous con­nec­tions in the vir­tual world, blockchain is sim­ply the tech­nol­ogy that un­der­lies the work­ings of Bit­coin. It has taken the world a few years to recog­nise that the dig­i­tal cur­rency that has at­tracted so much at­ten­tion is just one of the many ap­pli­ca­tions of Blockchain tech­nol­ogy.

The best way to think of blockchain is to imag­ine a dig­i­tal ledger that main­tains a record of in­for­ma­tion. Now, imag­ine that in­stead of there be­ing a sin­gle copy of this ledger it is mul­ti­plied across a net­work of in­ter­con­nected com­put­ers. The records con­tained in this ledger could be any kind of in­for­ma­tion that you wish - from in­ven­tory track­ing to sci­en­tific equa­tions. The con­tent isn’t the power be­hind blockchain, but the man­ner in which that con­tent is stored.

In a busi­ness sce­nario, we can imag­ine that a man­u­fac­turer and a sup­plier are us­ing a dig­i­tal ledger to main­tain records of the pur­chase of raw ma­te­ri­als. Ev­ery time the sup­plier sends a spe­cific ship­ment of raw ma­te­ri­als to the man­u­fac­turer for money, this trans­ac­tion is recorded in this dig­i­tal ledger. Each trans­ac­tion is then con­sid­ered a block of in­for­ma­tion, or the block in the blockchain. Ev­ery time a trans­ac­tion oc­curs, its de­tails are recorded into a sep­a­rate block, but each new block is linked back to a pre­vi­ous block, which in turn is linked back to the block be­fore it, all the way un­til the very first trans­ac­tion record. This cre­ates a chain of blocks where the link be­tween se­quen­tial blocks is se­cured us­ing dig­i­tal en­cryp­tion, which then cre­ates a blockchain. This blockchain record is cre­ated con­cur­rently across a large num­ber of de­vices on a net­work, so there isn’t just one copy. Now, this alone may not seem that im­pres­sive. But here is where the in­no­va­tion hap­pens.

BUILD­ING BLOCKS OF TRUST

Take, for ex­am­ple, a sce­nario in which one of the par­ties wishes to make a change in the record, without in­form­ing the other party. In that case they would need to not only ‘ hack’ or by­pass the se­cu­rity en­cryp­tion on the block with the

record they want to change, but would also be re­quired to change all the blocks that come in the chain af­ter it due to the way these ledgers are linked to­gether. Think of each block hav­ing its own per­sonal ID or ‘ hash’ which is de­rived us­ing ad­vanced math­e­mat­ics based on the con­tents of the record. No two blocks can have an iden­ti­cal per­sonal ID or hash, un­less they are made un­der iden­ti­cal pa­ram­e­ters. The per­sonal ID of each block is a part of the in­for­ma­tion in the block af­ter it. So, if any­one was to the change the in­for­ma­tion in­side a block, it would au­to­mat­i­cally change the per­sonal ID or hash of that block, and would then not match the in­for­ma­tion in the next block. The re­sult of one block is a part of in­for­ma­tion in the block af­ter it which would re­quire ev­ery block af­ter the changed block to also be ‘ hacked’ and changed.

And do­ing this to just one copy of the ledger wouldn’t be enough, since there would be nu­mer­ous copies of the ledger dis­trib­uted across the net­work. Any change made would have to be done across all the de­vices that ex­ist on the net­work si­mul­ta­ne­ously, which is prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble in the case of dis­trib­uted sys­tems. This makes blockchain records tam­per­proof and prac­ti­cally hack-proof. To fur­ther en­sure se­cu­rity - no sin­gle en­tity is in con­trol of the blockchain and it is com­pletely de­cen­tralised. This means the need to trust any­one else is no longer a part of de­ci­sion mak­ing - trust is dig­i­tal, prov­able and math­e­mat­i­cally guar­an­teed. This is why the use of blockchain in a vir­tual cur­rency like Bit­coin has been so suc­cess­ful, and de­spite its volatil­ity, the se­cu­rity of the Bit­coin cur­rency re­mains far more rig­or­ous without any agency, gov­ern­ment or com­pany hav­ing to be re­spon­si­ble for it.

BLOCKCHAIN IN AP­PAREL AND RE­TAIL

So how does a data record­ing sys­tem which is su­per-se­cure help the fash­ion and ap­parel in­dus­try? Well, when we think of the ap­parel sup­ply chain, the an­swer comes eas­ily within our grasp. Blockchain ledger tech­nol­ogy can con­sol­i­date all the links in the com­plex sup­ply chain that runs ap­parel and fash­ion. By en­com­pass­ing records from the very

FOR CON­SUMERS, THIS FEA­TURE EN­SURES THAT THEY CAN MAKE IN­FORMED DE­CI­SIONS ABOUT THEIR PUR­CHASES.

first stage of farm­ing, to fi­bre pro­duc­tion, to pro­cess­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing, ship­ping and re­tail, the in­dus­try can stream­line in­for­ma­tion shar­ing be­tween all the par­tic­i­pants in the sup­ply chain in a se­cure and highly trusted man­ner.

This would al­low any­one in the sys­tem to ac­cess any in­for­ma­tion, such as the ori­gin of a gar­ment, in sec­onds rather than weeks. If there are con­cerns re­gard­ing the chem­i­cals used in the treat­ment or pro­duc­tion of the ma­te­rial, it can be eas­ily checked without de­lay. Any in­for­ma­tion that the in­dus­try deems nec­es­sary to pub­li­cise its goods can now be ver­i­fied by the con­sumer and com­pli­ance agen­cies without any un­cer­tainty or de­lay. Not only does this in­crease ef­fi­ciency, but it also al­lows for the smoother mov­ing of goods un­der na­tional poli­cies of sus­tain­abil­ity, ma­te­ri­als sourc­ing, and other com­pli­ance re­lated rules. More­over, the cus­tomi­sa­tion of the blockchain sys­tem can be de­signed to pro­tect the busi­ness sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion of each com­mer­cial par­tic­i­pant, while shar­ing the rel­e­vant com­pli­ance and pub­lic in­for­ma­tion.

For con­sumers, this fea­ture en­sures that they can make in­formed de­ci­sions about their pur­chases, be guar­an­teed that the qual­ity and ori­gin of the prod­ucts is as ad­ver­tised, and not just blindly ac­cept the claims of the ‘Made in’ la­bel alone. The im­pact of blockchain can also dras­ti­cally re­duce and po­ten­tially elim­i­nate the ex­is­tence of the USD 450 bil­lion coun­ter­feit cloth­ing mar­ket which ails the ap­parel and fash­ion world. In terms of global trade, it can lead to tril­lions of dol­lars worth of trusted trade be­tween na­tions, as ef­forts and de­bates over the sourc­ing of raw ma­te­ri­als can be made pub­lic, eas­ing up ef­forts to com­bat dump­ing prac­tices. Not only will this re­form the in­dus­try in a fun­da­men­tal way, im­prov­ing trade re­la­tions be­tween in­ter­na­tional part­ners, but this tech­nol­ogy can also make busi­nesses more stream­lined, ef­fi­cient and prof­itable in their op­er­a­tions.

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