The thought of being able to track the cotton in a garment back to its origins with a simple test is appealing, and it is theoretically achievable. However, making it a reality will necessitate overcoming some significant obstacles.

Companies like Applied DNA Sciences and Oritain can analyze a cotton sample’s genetic or chemical fingerprint to determine its origin.

The technology is in high demand as brands and retailers are under increasing pressure to back up their sustainability claims or prove to regulators that they aren’t sourcing cotton from countries where forced labor is a concern.

However, in order to make this type of testing quick, inexpensive, and widely available, some significant challenges must be overcome.

In theory, it’s a simple enough concept: fashion businesses concerned about the origins of their cotton could put a sample of the fiber in a machine, perform a short test, and find out exactly where it originated from.

The technology already exists and is in high demand, as firms are under pressure to stop using cotton that has been farmed using forced labor or that has been falsely labeled as GMO-free. The same approach used to detect Covid is utilized to evaluate cotton’s DNA in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. The results may then be compared to a database of known samples to distinguish between organic cotton cultivated in Gujarat and cotton from Xinjiang, which the US outlawed last year.

However, bringing the concept to life isn’t easy.

While testing a single variety of cotton is simple enough, when a fabric is created using cotton from numerous sources or blended with synthetics, the process becomes more difficult. Building a comprehensive database of every known type of cotton necessitates groundwork that no single testing organization has been able to accomplish thus far.

“If you can make a PCR test for Covid, why can’t you make PCR tests for cotton?” Applied DNA Sciences, which handles cotton DNA testing and also makes PCR tests for Covid-19, said MeiLin Wan, vice president of textiles. “It’s all a matter of will, intention, and resources,” says the author.

If you could do a PCR test for Covid, then why couldn’t you do PCR tests for cotton?

Isotopic analysis, another potential method, examines a fibre’s chemical fingerprint, which varies depending on the environment the cotton grew in, based on characteristics such as height, rainfall, and soil composition. It’s also a formidable tool — law enforcement might use it to figure out where drugs or a body originated from — but it’s not without its own set of problems.

Proponents of both technologies claim that this form of testing will take years to become fast, cheap, and widespread. Still, the prospect of jumping to the start of a convoluted international supply chain to sift out problematic supplies is alluring.

“It may be a good supplement,” said Nate Herman, the American Apparel and Footwear Association’s senior vice president of policy.

The Prospect and the Obstacle

Cotton grown in different places has different genetic markers, which can be used to determine where a sample came from, according to Applied DNA. The technology, according to Wan, has been around for more than a decade and is exceedingly reliable, if not nearly as rapid or economical as a Covid PCR test.

However, deciphering a cotton sample’s genome isn’t very useful on its own. To determine whether it came from Texas or Xinjiang, you’ll need cotton from both locations to compare it to.

“The problem with finished items is that we don’t have an entire collection of every single cotton kind,” Wan explained. “In that sample, they could’ve utilized five different cottons as well, which is highly possible.”

Applied DNA focuses on confirming what brands should already know about their cotton, such as that Egyptian and GMO-free cotton is, in fact, Egyptian and GMO-free cotton. Following a 2016 controversy involving mislabeled Egyptian cotton, several major US retailers were compelled to remove bedding from their shelves. To flesh out its database, the company has acquired samples from major cotton-producing countries such as India and China, but it is far from full.

Another tracing approach is isotopic analysis, which Applied DNA and others can use on cotton.

“That’s something where you have to be able to keep the samples fresh,” Herman explained. “If that area has been in a drought for two years as a result of climate change, that will modify the chemical makeup of a raw material.”

Oritain, which blends isotopic analysis with data analytics, collaborates on tracing programs with companies like Kering and Primark. Grant Cochrane, the company’s CEO, said the company created its algorithms to overcome the problem of analyzing blended cotton, and that it has systems in place to monitor and predict changes caused by weather variations. Its data archive spans more than a decade.

It claims to have mapped 90% of the world’s cotton-growing regions, which is valuable for more than just matching samples to known locations. If you get a fiber and can’t figure out where it came from, at least you know where it isn’t coming from.

Cochrane declined to say whether Oritain has samples from Xinjiang, citing “commercially confidential” information. Last year, however, Cone Denim, a US denim mill, announced that it had used Oritain’s technology for an audit that showed “with scientific certainty” that “all samples analyzed across Cone Denim operations in China and Mexico were compliant and zero samples were identified as coming from a restricted risk origin as stated in Cone Denim’s cotton sourcing policy, which includes the Xinjiang region of China, Syria, and Pakistan.”

Cone Denim declined to be interviewed for this story.

While Cochrane believes Oritain’s technology is scalable and has the potential for wider adoption, he also recognizes that forensic science is not an easy procedure. An audit of a supply chain involves more than one-time testing.

“We see ourselves as one instrument in the toolbox for maintaining integrity,” he explained.

Algorithmic models, on the other hand, always have a margin of error.

“If we’ve seen that identical thing previously, we can say it’s really accurate,” said Tim Wilson, whose firm, 3P Strategy, advises companies on supply-chain transparency. “However, as soon as it’s not something we’ve seen before, the accuracy deteriorates.”

The absence of shortcuts does not imply a lack of worth.

Other issues, according to Wilson, have arisen. Cotton may be cultivated in one country and then exported to China, where it is spun into yarn or milled into fabric in Xinjiang, thus a DNA test may not be enough to satisfy officials wanting to prove the whole history of a garment.

However, testing is still useful. Methods that enable anyone to quickly and reliably detect the origin of ingredients in a final product “assist a lot with traceability and verifying the additional due diligence work that we’re doing to get back to the raw material in our supply chains,” according to AAFA’s Herman.

And efforts to improve the effectiveness of these technologies are ongoing. Wan believes that if the cotton industry put in the effort, it could create an open-source database of cotton samples from throughout the world in less than two years.

Given the cooperation required when enterprises and organizations in the industry may have competing interests, that’s probably a long shot. However, the pressure on companies and merchants to be able to track raw materials all the way down to their source isn’t going away anytime soon. It will almost certainly keep demand and investment pushing in the direction of solutions that can solve even a portion of the problem.

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