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The Three Levels of Traceability: What You Need to Know

July 28, 2023

What is Traceability? 

Traceability is the ability to trace a product’s origin, movement, and history. It’s an essential tool for businesses to track the origin of raw materials, manufacturing processes, and distribution paths. 

Traceability has three levels: supplier mapping, product traceability, and material traceability. Each level plays a key role in making sure that your business operates in a way that meets your sustainability goals.

Let’s delve into each of these levels. 

Supplier Mapping: The First Step Towards Transparency 

Imagine your business as a pyramid. At the top, you have your products, and at the base, you have your suppliers. All of these elements need to be connected to form a strong foundation for your traceability practices. 

Start with supplier mapping, which involves collecting and organizing data on your suppliers, their material sources, and their production processes. This will help you identify your suppliers and understand how their materials and products travel from point A to point B. 

Here are some key aspects of supplier mapping:

  • You can gather data on your suppliers, their facilities, and production processes – such as quality control, labor rights, and environmental impact. 
  • Understand the product lifecycle for each supplier. 
  • Identify risk factors associated with suppliers and material sources. 
  • Track the materials used in production, such as fabrics and dyes.
  • Monitor and collect audit reports and certifications from your suppliers to ensure they meet your standards.
  • Create scorecards to evaluate supplier performance and report on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. 

How to achieve supplier mapping?

  • Request information from Tier 1 suppliers: Start by asking your direct suppliers to provide details about their own suppliers. Request information about their names, locations, facilities, and any certifications or audit reports they may have.
  • Cascade the inquiry: Encourage your direct suppliers to continue the process by reaching out to their suppliers and requesting the same information. This inquiry should keep cascading down the tiers of your supply chain, all the way to the source.
  • Choose the depth of mapping: Decide how far you want to map your supply chain. Depending on the scope of your project, this can range from Tier 4 or 5 suppliers to the entire value chain.
  • Consider key factors: During the mapping process, consider any key factors that impact your suppliers’ operations – such as health and labor standards or environmental regulations.
  • Collect and store information: Gather all available data about each supplier, including their locations, production processes, certifications, audit reports, etc. Analyze this information to assess potential compliance risks and identify any areas of improvement.
  • Focus on trust and cooperation: Supplier mapping relies heavily on trust and cooperation from your suppliers. In some cases, this may require building relationships with them and working together to create a mutually beneficial system.

Product Traceability: Understanding the Journey 

Product traceability means tracking the journey of your individual products and their components from production to point-of-sale and beyond – allowing companies to monitor, manage, and respond to any potential problems with accuracy. It is especially important for fashion brands and retailers due to the complexity of their supply chain systems and the need for quick response times. 

Key aspects of product traceability:

  • Give every product a unique identifier (i.e., barcode, serial number) that can be used to track its journey through the supply chain.
  • Collect and store data about each product’s production, movement, and sale – such as quality control results or customer feedback.
  • Analyze the collected data to identify potential trends or issues.
  • Monitor response times and take immediate action when needed. 

How to achieve product traceability?

  • Build on supplier mapping: Product traceability relies on the foundation of supplier mapping. First, make sure you have a comprehensive supplier map to trace your products effectively. 
  • Collect granular data: Gather detailed data about each product, down to the style and material level. This includes information on the bill of materials, supply chain tiers, and specific declarations from suppliers. 
  • Automate the process: Consider using digital tools and automated evidence requests to streamline the product traceability process, as manual tracing can be challenging and time-consuming. 
  • Analyze and respond: Use analytics to identify patterns or problems in the product traceability process once you have collected data. Then, take steps to rectify any issues identified quickly. 

Material Traceability: Diving Deeper 

Product traceability is essential, but it’s not enough in the fast-paced fashion industry. Material traceability takes things a bit further by providing deeper visibility into the sourcing and production of raw materials used to produce a garment or accessory. This includes tracking data on sustainable sourcing, animal welfare, labor conditions, etc. It also ensures compliance with local and global standards for safety, sustainability, and ethical sourcing. 

Key aspects of material traceability:

  • Validate and substantiate claims back to the origin by collecting evidence for the source of materials. 
  • Accurately verify the weight-based material composition of your products to ensure compliance with sustainability goals and regulatory requirements.
  • Gain insights into the waste generated during the production process and use the data to inform decisions regarding sustainable sourcing.
  • Make sure that the received items align with the specified Bill of Material (BoM) from the product’s Purchase Order (PO) by tracing materials from raw inputs to finished goods. 

How to achieve material traceability?

  • Collaborate with suppliers: Work closely with your suppliers to document and track all materials used in the manufacturing process by obtaining detailed information and records at each production stage.
  • Obtain reports and declarations: Request reports and declarations from your suppliers to verify the origin and composition of materials. This may include certifications, test results, and facility reports.
  • Implement fiber forward traceability: Utilize the Fiber Forward Traceability model, which follows a Chain of Custody (CoC) approach, documenting the origin, components, processes, and handlers of materials throughout the supply chain.
  • Leverage technology: Implement advanced systems like Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to streamline data management, as material traceability requires a sophisticated tech infrastructure capable of managing and processing vast amounts of data.
  • Monitor and audit: Continuously monitor and audit the material traceability process to ensure accuracy, reliability, and compliance. Regular checks help identify and address any gaps or inconsistencies in the traceability data.
  • Emphasize trust and cooperation: Building strong relationships with your suppliers based on trust and cooperation is essential to gather accurate and comprehensive material traceability data. Encourage transparency and open communication with all supply chain partners. 
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