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How Big Brands Are Using Supply Chain Storytelling

By Jessica Marati

NEW YORK (MainStreet)--Mapping out environmental supply chains may not be the sexiest way to promote a new product. But some big brands are finding that sharing these stories offers a unique way to engage their customers in the making, use, and afterlife of their products.

"Brands are opening up about their supply chains in order to gain trust from customers who are concerned about their own health, the conditions of workers, and the environmental practices of their suppliers," said Frank Millero, an industrial designer and visiting Sustainability and Production professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. "These concerned customers are motivated by different reasons, but the commonality is that they desire more information about the origins and manufacturing processes of the products they buy and use. I think that as the food industry has become more transparent, people are applying that scrutiny to other products as well."

Also see: 5 Sustainable Brands You Never Knew Were Owned By Big Corporations

Patagonia was one of the first companies to incorporate life-cycle storytelling into its brand narrative. In 2008, the California-based outerwear company launched the Footprint Chronicles, an interactive microsite that tracked five of its most popular products across a world map, from raw material to retail.

According to Fast Company, the Footprint Chronicles was the end result of a year-long project that had Patagonia employees traveling the globe to document each step of the five products' supply chains - from yarn spinners in Thailand, to footwear factories in China, to fiber manufacturing in North Carolina. What was remarkable about the project was that Patagonia shared both its good and bad findings - like the fact that some of its manufacturing generated environmentally toxic by-products like perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA). The finding sparked consumer outrage, and Patagonia vowed to ban PFOA in its products.

Levi Strauss has also attempted to share the stories behind its products. In 2006, the company commissioned a scientific life-cycle assessment of its famous Levi's 501 jean and Docker's Original Khaki. Highlights from the study were illustrated into a comic, which was then posted to the company's website.

One of the assessment's findings was that a large portion of Levi's environmental impact came from water use - approximately 42 liters in the finishing process alone. So in 2010, the company released a new WaterLess collection, which used the same materials and techniques as traditional jeans but utilized up to 96% less water in the finishing process.