A Single Swab of Your Shoe Could Tell You Exactly Where It Was Made

There has been a wave of brands committing publicly to sustainable practices, but this often means an overhaul of their current production system. New technology has been emerging to help brands discover, improve upon and communicate around their supply chain management, but the latest innovation in the space utilizes a new data point: the microbe.

Phylagen is a data analytics company that is working to build the world’s largest environmental microbiome database. But what does that have to do with footwear brands? In short, microbes occur on every inch of the earth’s surface — including inside factories — and these microbes are highly location-specific. Therefore, they can be leveraged to function as a barcode or ‘taggant’ for a particular location, such as a manufacturing facility.

Using Phylagen technology, a retailer or brand could register a facility’s unique microbial data and then test products at the distribution center to see if they include this taggant. There would be no need to attach an RFID tag or similar, as these microbes would be naturally present on any products made in that environment; a swab of the shoe would suffice.

“By using naturally occurring genetic material, we can use that genetic information to help brands understand whether or not products are made in the places where they want them to be made,” said Dr. Jessica Green, co-founder and CEO of Phylagen.

Vans Checkerboard Slip-On
One of Vans’ most recognizable products, the checkerboard slip-on shoe touches 78 unique suppliers on its production journey.
CREDIT: Vans

As the world gets smaller and companies extend their reach into all corners of the globe, tracking a supply chain is increasingly complex. A single product could be touched by a hundred suppliers on its manufacturing journey; the Vans checkerboard slip-on trainer uses 78 unique suppliers, according to their public supply chain map. Simultaneously, consumers are demanding more transparency around the practices of the brands they’re buying into.

“There’s a general expectation, especially with young consumers, that if you can be in real time communications with friends and strangers all around the world through platforms like Facebook, then why can’t we also know who makes the stuff we buy?” said Dr. Leonardo Bonanni, CEO and founder of supply chain tracking software Sourcemap.

Yet most companies don’t have the software needed to compile, track and manage this kind of data; if you include the farmers growing the materials at the source, a brand could easily count 10,000s of suppliers in its chain. Even at the cut-and-sew level, many companies partner with factories that then contract out some of the work to third-party suppliers, leading to decreased visibility of their manufacturing process.

Implementing change at this scale can be an overwhelming and time-intensive process, which is why Phylagen is launching with one microbial forensics product that is designed to verify a single manufacturing environment, rather than each step of a supply chain. After speaking with several brands, they found that their most pressing concern was ensuring that the products were coming from authorized facilities.

Natural indigo dye in Sakon Nakhon,Thailand.
Tracking the supply chain of a product includes looking at the farmers who grow the materials, the mills and the production facilities.
CREDIT: Chalit Saphaphak / Stocksy United

“If a brand has its goods being made in an unauthorized manufacturing environment, there’s a higher probability of having forced labor or environmental conditions that do not support the brands’ missions,” said Green.

Phylagen joins the ranks of Sourcemap and Provenance, another supply chain tracking company that employs blockchain technology to verify each production stage. These verifications can then be easily translated into authorized claims that brands can share on their channels, such as “Carbon reduced” or “sulfate-free”. Similarly, the data compiled by Sourcemap creates a visual representation of a company’s supply chain, in the form of an interactive map that customers can explore.

While Phylagen’s offering currently lacks this consumer-friendly packaging, Green believes that over time their technology and its applications will expand to become accessible by consumers, as well as governments and NGOs. For now, though, their priority is on arming sustainability-minded brands with their supply chain data to use as they see fit, as part of their individual transparency goals.

“Consumers will never want to know less about where their stuff comes from,” said Green. “Some brands are very forward-leaning and care about metrics like their ESG (Environmental Social Governance) rating and so those are the brands we’ve launched our product with.”

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