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Innovation showcase

Blockchain, autonomous tech help keep ‘fair fashion’ in style

Jyoti - Fair Works uses retraced’s blockchain application, powered by Oracle Cloud, to give customers a view into its humanitarian supply chain.


By Sasha Banks-Louie | August 2020

At a sewing workshop in the South Indian town of Chittapur, a seamstress named Halima has spent much of her day cutting a new blouse pattern out of dyed cotton fabrics, embroidering the sleeves by hand, and then stitching the seams together before shipping the entire summer collection to retailers in Berlin.

Jyoti - Fair Works

Halima, who has been with Jyoti – Fair Works from the beginning, says she likes the garments she makes because they appeal to the German customers who guarantee her work.

Halima is one of 20 seamstresses employed at Jyoti - Fair Works, a small German “fair fashion” label that works with South Indian nongovernment organizations Jyothi Seva Kendra Trust and Nava Chetana Kendra to offer disadvantaged women in the region full-time employment.

Shifts at the workshop begin at 10 a.m., so that women with children can get their kids to school. The shop closes at 5 p.m., when those women need to pick their kids back up. An hourlong midday lunch break gives the women a chance to walk back to their homes if they live nearby, or sit together in the front yard of the workshop and share homemade brinjal curry, potato bhindi, and pickled mango.

While workshop shifts are on hold during India’s nationwide lockdown, Jyoti - Fair Works continues to pay its seamstresses their full wages and guarantee their continued employment. 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,” says 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 upcycle pieces of leftover fabric to make bags, bow ties, jewelry, and other accessories.

Visibility needed

Such working conditions are the exception in a region where millions of garment workers put in long hours with no healthcare benefits and few education opportunities, and where professional training consists mostly of single-stage garment production, such as cutting sleeves or stitching buttons. Wages are often as low as 15 cents an hour.

 

“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.”

retraced Cofounder and CTO Peter Merkert

Despite some apparel brands’ efforts to mandate better working conditions from first-tier factories in India, there isn’t much visibility into the increasing volume of subcontracted work.

Jyoti - Fair Works

Carolin enjoys discussing new design concepts and getting feedback from seamstresses.

While supply chain transparency “has always been a part of our brand,” Hofer says, as demand for Jyoti - Fair Works’ fair fashions has grown in recent years, its downstream supplier network was difficult to track. “I’m in constant contact with our local weavers, but I’m not able to manage all of the people from whom they purchase cotton fiber,” Hofer says.

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

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,” says 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.

Why retraced chose Oracle

Retraced turned to Oracle for the cloud infrastructure, blockchain, and other database technologies it needed to build its ethical supply-chain platform. Oracle Autonomous Database and Oracle Blockchain Platform help ensure that the data collected at every step of the supply chain is reliable and that it can’t be altered or erased without all of the suppliers notified. Retraced developers turned to Oracle technologists as they built out the company’s eponymous platform. “Whenever we had questions, we could go to the guys at Oracle, and the next day we had a call for an hour with an expert,” says retraced Cofounder Lukas Pünder.

“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 the company’s sewing workshops to stitch the finished garments,” Ford explains.

Transparency at scale

Retraced’s application helps Jyoti - Fair Works store, map, and verify the authenticity of its suppliers’ activities in an Oracle Autonomous Database, which runs on Oracle 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,” says retraced Cofounder and CTO Peter Merkert.

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

With Oracle Autonomous 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 says. While much has been written about the scalability of microservices architectures, they “can actually become a bottleneck,” he says. “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 says. “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.”

Photography: Janosch Kunze for Jyoti - Fair Works; Illustrations: Oracle

Sasha Banks-Louie

Sasha Banks-Louie

An organic hay farmer and writer, Sasha Banks-Louie is a brand journalist at Oracle, covering cloud infrastructure, as well as startups and research institutions.