Burberry partners with IBM on traceability project

UK luxury clothing brand Burberry has teamed up with IBM to develop a blockchain-based prototype system to provide product traceability.

The system – called Voyage - involves identifying a product through scanning a near-field communication (NFC) tag or entering a product identifier code, which is used as an anchor to link the item to the blockchain and allow it to be traced through the supply chain.

The project was carried out as part of IBM’s Extreme Blue internship programme under the topic of ‘sustainability in fashion.” The aim was to allow the purchaser of a garment to trace its “production journey and lifecycle, while learning more about the processes involved in its creation.” The system was trialled for integration with Burberry’s mobile app.

The project comes at a time when consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental and social impacts of retailers and their products. Financial institutions are also demanding more accountability from companies, and sustainability is also increasingly important to policymakers.

Burberry itself came in for criticism a couple of years ago when it emerged that the company had been incinerating millions of pounds worth of stock to guard against counterfeits – although it says it has since abandoned a practice that was reportedly widespread in the fashion industry.

After changing its policy, Burberry said that it would step up efforts to “reuse, repair, donate or recycle unsaleable products.”

One of the interns working on the project – University of Oxford engineering student Tara Mulcahy-Murray – said the aim was “to give consumers more information about each product before it reaches the store, so they can make more informed purchasing decisions.”

Voyage was designed for users to configure their own sustainability preferences and receive tailored product recommendations, according to the partners.

Users might also add information about a product’s journey to include additional stages in its lifecycle such as recycling and upcycling. In this way, the system could show users the role their potential purchase would play in giving a product new life and helping to minimise waste.

The aim of the project wasn’t to provide protection against counterfeiting, although the platform likely could be adapted to include that functionality.

Some brand owners – including replica sports apparel companies – have used this sort of customer engagement to monitor for counterfeiting activity, either with or without the purchaser’s knowledge.

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