How do markets get disrupted? When new technology is harnessed to solve deeply ingrained systemic problems. That’s the theory that TrusTrace has been putting into practice since the company was conceived by four friends and ex-colleagues, Madhava Venkatesh, Shameek Ghosh, Saravanan Parisutham, and Hrishikesh Rajan in 2016.
Fashion seems an unlikely sector for four IT professionals to end up working in, but at the heart of TrusTrace is a deeply personal mission to tackle the inequality, waste, and environmental degradation caused by the lack of transparency in the trillion dollar fashion industry. For COO Saravanan, fashion’s environmental impact was obvious – it was on the doorstep of his family home in Coimbatore, India. “My family comes from an agricultural background, and we were having some challenges with the local pollution contaminating the groundwater that we’re using, so I had to come back to India (from the UK, where he was living) to look into that,” he explains. “At the same time, we were discussing how we could do something that was at the intersection of technology and for the greater good, and that’s how TrusTrace started.”
“We were discussing how we could do something that was at the intersection of technology and for the greater good, and that’s how TrusTrace started.”
Coimbatore is known as the textile capital of the south of India, a city where unregulated dying factories and textile manufacturers were contaminating local rivers and air, impacting the health of citizens and degrading the water and soil quality. “Most of the pollution in this area was from the dying factories,” says Saravanan. “Have you heard the stories about how you can monitor a few rivers in India to find out what is the most prominent colour in fashion next season? It was a similar situation – we had a lot of effluents coming into the waterways.”
The original idea for TrusTrace was simple: using on-the-ground expertise, the team would create a list of “good” and “bad” suppliers in India to help Swedish brands choose more sustainable factories. “We were total outsiders to the fashion industry before starting TrusTrace,” says Shameek, who is the company CEO. “We didn't have a clue about what fashion supply chains looked like.” After approaching influential industry leaders with their proposition, the group realised that the problem (and potential solution) was much bigger than they first assumed. “There were a couple of things that really shocked me,” says Hrishikesh, TrusTrace CSO. “One was the quantity of products being produced – I didn’t realize that there were so many clothes being produced that were discarded at the end. I knew workers were being exploited, if you come from this part of the world you’ve seen it, but I didn't realise how little most of the brands knew or cared.”
“The problem is globally connected because the supply chains are globally connected. It means we need a solution that works across borders, which can work at scale, and at a price point which is highly affordable.”
Compelled to find a solution that could have a greater impact on the industry, the founders decided that at the heart of the issue was a lack of traceability in the supply chain. “We thought: maybe we can create a platform that by sitting in Sweden and not travelling for every purchase order, you can do the complete traceability journey from the source to the final product,” says Shameek.
Stockholm, Sweden is the primary hub for TrusTrace – Shameek and Hrishikesh are both based there – but the country plays a larger, more symbolic role for the founders of the business. “Sweden is looked up to as a pioneer in sustainability,” says Hrishikesh. “It was a very natural thing for us to have our first customers from Sweden, it established us as a serious business.”
For Shameek, the stark contrast between life in Sweden and life in India was a driving motivation – he points to the Swedish concept of 'Allemansrätten', the right to roam the countryside and belief that nature belongs to everyone – as a prime example. “Because I was living in Sweden, I could see that here’s a society that deals with people in a very different way,” he says. “In Sweden, you have universal education and healthcare. In a developing country, things we don’t need so much, like electronics or cars, are getting cheaper. But things we really need, like education, healthcare, and infrastructure are very costly.”
With a secondary hub in Coimbatore, TrusTrace has established itself as a truly global business working to solve a global problem. “Sweden can’t have a secure climate if India isn’t lowering it’s emissions,” says Madhava, the company’s CTO. “The problem is globally connected because the supply chains are globally connected. It means we need a solution that works across borders, which can work at scale, and at a price point which is highly affordable.”
It was crucial, then, that TrusTrace would be able to implement traceability in garment manufacturing hubs like India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam without pushing the cost of this onto suppliers in these countries. “I am personally proud that we’re able to deliver this without any additional cost to the supplier,” says Madhava.
“We want to show to the industry that it’s possible to do traceability at scale and adapt sustainable practices at scale.”
Since launching TrustTrace, the founders have seen a promising increase of momentum around supply chain investment. “When we started to talk to brands, we realised they didn’t have any data beyond tier 1: their direct suppliers,” says Hrishikesh. “But I would say in the last 3 years, there has been a surge in people being a lot more aware, of brands wanting to make a change and realising it has to be done much faster than what they were doing.”
They all agree, there’s a long road ahead before the majority of the industry is on board with their mission. “It’s improving, but it needs to improve at a faster pace,” says Saravanan. “We’re at a place where the industry still doesn’t know exactly how traceability can be incorporated into larger business plans.” The ultimate challenge is for TrusTrace to prove to the industry that investing in solutions to improve supply chain transparency can actually be good for business. “It’s a tough concept for some businesses to understand, because it means decreasing sales to make the industry more sustainable,” says Saravanan. “We want to show to the industry that it’s possible to do traceability at scale and adapt sustainable practices at scale.”
There are countless milestone moments that stand out to the four founders, from hiring the core team members to securing the first clients, then eventually working with some of the biggest fashion groups in the world. “The problems we’re solving haven't been solved before, with the approach we’re taking,” says Madhava. “So these were big hypothesis validating points that gave us the confidence to know we can scale the business.” As for the future, the founders have ambitions to lead the fashion industry to a better future by harnessing their tech solutions. “If we’re able to create a responsibility production movement across the globe, it will rejuvenate the planet and make the lives of a lot of people very rich – not in money, but by having a better life,” says Shameek.
From industry outsiders to sustainability solution leaders, it’s been quite the journey for the four founders of TrusTrace, and it’s only the start. “In the beginning, I was hoping that we could make a small dent in this entire thing,” says Hrishikesh. “And that still is the motivation for TrusTrace: we want to see how many people we can influence.”
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