Retail in Asia


Open data reveals rising sea levels threat to Asia’s apparel sector

In recent years, there has been no shortage of examples of the extreme weather events that scientists have warned would be experienced due to the impacts of climate change.

Looking to the future, using open datasets from the Open Apparel Registry (OAR) and Climate Central, researchers at Cornell University have revealed that thousands of Asian garment factories producing for global brands could be underwater by 2030 due to rising sea-levels. 

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The analysis, which shows that thousands of garment factories must relocate to higher ground or are threatened by complete submersion, is a sobering reminder of how the climate crisis will impact vulnerable developing nations the most; something that has been front and centre during COP26 as small island nations have called for scaled up climate action from the developed world.  

Interestingly, the analysis is one of the few studies that looks at the impact of rising sea levels on the apparel sector. To date, the bulk of climate and sustainability studies in the apparel sector has focused on carbon emissions, which has often been at the expense of giving much needed attention to other important issues such as this. 

Researchers overlaid a map of factory locations in Jakarta (Indonesia), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Tiruppur (India), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Guangzhou (China), Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) from the OAR’s database onto data from US climate change think-tank Climate Central to reach this conclusion. An often overlooked, but crucial, element to this research is that the datasets were openly available for use, which demonstrates the use cases for such data in the apparel sector. Such data has the ability to highlight issues, like the above, and in turn inform crucial investment, ESG and sustainability decisions in the sector. For example, as a result of these findings, Cornell’s ILR School will be delivered to Asian audiences at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in November 2021. 

Alarmingly, the analysis also show that extreme heat is threatening production and workers. Increased temperature has already altered thermal conditions in the workplace and additional global warming will pose a serious threat to workers and employees who work outdoors, or without air-conditioning, with the world’s warmest regions being particularly high-risk, given the high concentrations of exposed sectors. 

These findings have highlighted the need to undertake deeper analysis and so the next round of Cornell’s study will be shared widely among suppliers, workers and governments, as well as investors and will point to possible solutions, like attaching conditionality to investment and credit packages. But, the point in any case is that such solutions cannot happen without the data to begin with.

So what is open data, and why does it matter? 

According to the Open Knowledge Foundation, “open data” is data that can be freely used, shared and built on by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose. 

There are two key elements to openness: legal openness – you must be allowed to get the data legally, to build on it and to share it – and technical openness – there should be no technical barriers to using that data. For example, providing data as tables on websites or locked away in PDF documents makes the information extremely difficult to work with. 

This “open” approach is key to the strategy of the OAR. Our belief is that when everyone working in global supply chains enjoys equal access to quality data, opportunities are quickly presented to shift the industry onto a more sustainable and equitable path. Open access to the OAR dataset is what enabled the team at Cornell to reach the conclusions they did. 

“The OAR provided a unique data-set for this work: an open data platform that anyone can access that is also wide and deep enough to cover all of the locations in their research, and with thousands of data points in those regions. The alternative to using OAR data—building a factory location data set of our own—was unthinkable, due to the time, money, and data access it would require.”

This is just one example of how the OAR’s open data can be used to improve conditions in global supply chains. In a case focused on human rights in supply chains, OAR data enabled the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre to quickly respond to the dismissal of over 1,000 garment workers for striking over the non-payment of benefits in Cambodia. BHRRC was able to swiftly use the OAR to identify brands sourcing from the factory and ask for their response and plan of action. Two brands responded and launched investigations. Through pressure from many quarters, including brand interventions, the majority of workers were reinstated.

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Since we launched the OAR in March 2019, we have been fortunate to hear scores of stories like this from major global brands, civil society organisations, factory groups and others about how they are making use of our open data to create change. These case studies only reinforce the value that open data can bring to the entire sector.


Katie Shaw, Chief Programme Officer, Open Apparel Registry 

Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed in the article belong solely to the original author and do not represent the views, opinions and position of Retail in Asia.