Credits: Whitney Bauck
Your cheatsheet for understanding the revolutionary technology's potential impact on fashion.
Blockchain technology was first released to the public almost a decade ago, but it's only entered the public consciousness in earnest within the last year or so. With that heightened awareness has come an increased dialogue about blockchain's applications in the fashion industry, and the ethical fashion community in particular has taken notice. Everyone from sustainability podcaster Kestrel Jenkins to the Business of Fashion have delved into what the emerging technology could offer fair fashion advocates.
And yet, if you ask the average fashion person — even a smart, well-read, ethics-concerned one! — about blockchain, you're likely to encounter a good amount of confusion.
With that in mind, we decided to dive in, talk to some experts and see if we could reduce blockchain, and the opportunity it offers in the realm of ethical fashion, to the most understandable terms possible. Behold, your blockchain vis-à-vis ethical fashion cheatsheet.
FIRST OF ALL, WHAT IS BLOCKCHAIN?
While some would argue that "blockchain" has become too broad a term to easily define, it's generally understood to be a decentralized, tamper-proof ledger. The ledger part denotes that it's like a digital document that keeps track of transactions; the decentralized part essentially means that multiple parties control the ledger. As a result, each transaction that's added to the ledger becomes locked in, so no other party can edit or alter someone else's entry without everyone knowing it. It's also transparent, so everyone can see who entered what.
To use a familiar example, blockchain functions in many ways like a Google Document: Every time someone edits the document, those edits are automatically reflected for everyone else on the doc to see. But blockchain differs in a few key ways.
"Rather than having one central record of information or one central ledger like Google Docs has, you would have many of those," explains Laura Burnett via phone. Burnett is the community manager at Provenance, a software company in London that relies heavily on blockchain. "Google docs are owned by Google, obviously, so Google could in theory go in and change everything…and no one would be any the wiser."
Blockchain, on the other hand, is operated by many people but isn't owned by anyone — and that decentralized ownership is what makes it tamper-proof in the sense that no one can alter it and then cover their tracks.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Blockchains log transactions like the transfer of money, goods or services. Records of each blockchain transaction is then stored in the over 200,000 computers around the world that make up the blockchain network.
HOW IS IT RELATED TO CRYPTOCURRENCY?
A big part of the reason that blockchain's made headlines lately comes from its connection to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which have been exploding in value. Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that can be used to buy real things, and they're favored for the way they can speed up money transfer by cutting out middlemen (like big banks). Blockchain and bitcoin are so often mentioned in the same breath because bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are powered by blockchain.
Like blockchain, bitcoin is special because it's not controlled by a single entity. Unlike normal currencies, which are controlled by one nation's government, bitcoin is supervised by a global network of people who maintain computers that run the bitcoin software. (As an aside, if you're wondering why people would volunteer to do this, it's because they have the opportunity to get paid for their efforts — in bitcoin, of course.)
WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH FASHION?
Two significant applications for blockchain technology have emerged when it comes to ethical fashion. The first has to do with supply chain transparency, and the second has to do with creating economic systems that keep money concentrated in ethical fashion ecosystems.
Provenance and SourceMap are two software companies that are using blockchain to do the former. They envision a world in which every fashion or beauty product has traceable, transparent origins — and they're using blockchain's tamper-resistant record-keeping to push that agenda forward.
"Fashion supply chains are way too complicated to be traced using any person-to-person traditional communication," says SourceMap founder Leonardo Bonanni over the phone. "You need some really advanced technology to actually track fashion, especially in a world of fast fashion and global brands."
SourceMap has developed a sort of social network that allows everyone from the farmer to the textile mill to the cut-and-sew factory to communicate directly with the brand that buys from them, and it's using Provenance's blockchain technology to verify those communications. The benefit arises from the fact that organic or Fair Tradecertifications can't be faked, brands can't deny having worked with factories after news of human rights abuses at those factories surface and auditors can essentially trace any claim about a product back to the entity who first made that claim. And it can do all of this while keeping certain sensitive details — like someone's salary — private, which is a major concern for those looking to create radically transparent supply chains without violating individuals' privacy.