Cot­ton char­la­tans

Com­pa­nies like Wel­spun In­dia may be pass­ing off or­di­nary cot­ton fab­rics as Egyp­tian cot­ton ones and there is no fool­proof method yet of de­tect­ing the fakes


Some tex­tile ma­jors are

ON AU­GUST 22, tex­tile ma­jor Wel­spun In­dia wit­nessed a big crash on Dalal Street. Its US-based client, Tar­get Cor­po­ra­tion, an­nounced it was ter­mi­nat­ing busi­ness with In­dia’s largest home tex­tile ex­porter, al­leg­ing that it had used an­other va­ri­ety of cot­ton in­stead of Egyp­tian cot­ton in the pro­duc­tion of sheets. Tar­get sells lux­ury bath and bed­ding prod­ucts un­der the Field­crest brand in the US.

Re­act­ing to the news, shares of Wel­spun In­dia tanked and the com­pany’s mar­ket cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion de­clined by more than

5,000 crore that week. Share trad­ing was sus­pended for two con­sec­u­tive ses­sions and Wel­spun had to ar­range a con­fer­ence call with in­vestors and an­a­lysts to clar­ify its po- sition. “In the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, we source a lot of raw ma­te­ri­als, such as cot­ton, cot­ton yarn or greige fab­ric, from var­i­ous ven­dors. We, thus, want to reval­i­date all our sup­ply pro­cesses and sys­tems,” Ra­jesh Man­dawe­wala, group man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, Wel­spun, said dur­ing the call. Wel­spun has now ap­pointed Ernst & Young to au­dit its sup­ply sys­tems and pro­cesses. The con­tro­versy has spurred other US-based re­tail­ers, such as Wal­mart and Bed Bath & Beyond, to in­ves­ti­gate cot­ton prod­ucts sourced from the com­pany.

Prov­ing au­then­tic­ity

Though Wel­spun has not ad­mit­ted to sub­sti­tut­ing Egyp­tian cot­ton with other va­ri­eties, the in­ci­dent hints at ram­pant misla-

belling and coun­ter­feit­ing in the in­dus­try. In March, the Cot­ton Egypt As­so­ci­a­tion, the world’s only trade­mark and li­cens­ing author­ity for the com­mod­ity, tested home tex­tile prod­ucts la­belled as Egyp­tian cot­ton and found that around 90 per cent of the prod­ucts did not con­tain the pre­mium cot­ton va­ri­ety at all. Wel­spun was li­censed to use the Egyp­tian cot­ton logo too and the As­so­ci­a­tion has now launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion fol­low­ing the Tar­get case.

Coun­ter­feit­ing re­sults from the lack of tools to ver­ify the au­then­tic­ity of Egyp­tian cot­ton. Cot­ton In­cor­po­rated, a US-based in­dus­try-funded body, says there is no phys­i­cal test to de­ter­mine the au­then­tic­ity of cot­ton prod­ucts once the fi­bre is con­verted into yarn. But agen­cies like the Cot­ton Egypt As­so­ci­a­tion have turned to dna test­ing of cot­ton prod­ucts. Af­ter years of ex­per­i­ments, Mo­hamed A M Negm of the In­ter­re­gional Co­op­er­a­tive Re­search Net­work on Cot­ton for the Mediter­ranean & Mid­dle East Re­gions and Suzan H Sanad of the Cot­ton Re­search In­sti­tute, Egypt, have de­vel­oped the ctab ( cetyl trimethyl-am­mo­nium bro­mide) method to ex­tract dna from Egyp­tian cot­ton fi­bres through­out the sup­ply chain, from farm­ing till the fin­ished prod­uct. The iso­lated dna is then used to iden­tify va­ri­eties of cot­ton, thus es­tab­lish­ing the au­then­tic­ity of the prod­uct.

In April, US-based com­pany Ap­plied dna Sci­ences in­tro­duced a dna au­then­ti­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy which can iden­tify pre­mium ex­tra-long sta­ple cot­tons that have been “blended” with shorter sta­ple cot­ton, ac­cord­ing to com­pany claims. But it is still early days for the tech­nol­ogy. “There are only about half a dozen lab­o­ra­to­ries across the world which can con­duct such dna tests with pre­ci­sion,” says K R Kran­thi, di­rec­tor, Cen­tral In­sti­tute for Cot­ton Re­search, Nag­pur. “The nu­clear dna in the fi­bre gets de­graded with var­i­ous stages of pro­cess­ing of the fab­ric. It is chal­leng­ing to find out the level of con­tam­i­na­tion.” With gaps in test- ing, Egyp­tian cot­ton fakes con­tinue to flood the mar­ket.

Out of stock

The stakes are high. Egyp­tian cot­ton ( Gossyp­ium bar­badense), a prod­uct of the coun­try’s mod­er­ate cli­mate and fer­tile soils of the Nile basin, is con­sid­ered as the finest va­ri­ety of cot­ton. Fab­rics made of its ex­tra­long sta­ple ( els) fi­bre are softer, more durable and of­ten fetch the high­est prices. “With in­creased global pres­sure to pro­duce at the low­est cost, much of the els cot­ton man­u­fac­tur­ing and fi­nal as­sem­bly has mi­grated to other coun­tries, mainly China, In­dia, Por­tu­gal, and Pak­istan. The in­cen­tive to sub­sti­tute lesser qual­ity Up­land cot­ton in place of the pre­mium els cot­ton is high and opens the door for mis­la­belling,” says Negm.

De­clin­ing sup­plies of Egyp­tian cot­ton are to blame for the pass­ing off of other cot­ton va­ri­eties as Egyp­tian. In the 1980s, Egypt grew cot­ton on as much as 500,000 ha of land per year. But the area un­der cot­ton pro­duc­tion fell to 223,000 ha by 200001, ac­cord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture ( usda) (see ‘Fall of Egyp­tian Cot­ton’). Negm says that cur­rently, only 55,000 ha of land is un­der Egyp­tian cot­ton cul­ti­va­tion. Cor­re­spond­ingly, the pro­duc­tion of Egyp­tian cot­ton has re­duced from 345,000 tonnes in 1996 to an es­ti­mated 45,000 tonnes in 2016. “There is de­cline in cot­ton pro­duc­tion in Egypt be­cause farm­ers pre­fer to grow other sum­mer crops such as rice and veg­eta­bles which earn higher prof­its,” Negm says.

Egyp­tian cot­ton is a long du­ra­tion crop as com­pared to other va­ri­eties. It is highly sus­cep­ti­ble to pests and de­pends on spe­cific sow­ing, growth and ir­ri­ga­tion con­di­tions which are not avail­able ev­ery­where. The yield is al­most half as that of other va­ri­eties, ex­plains A H Prakash, project co­or­di­na­tor and head at the Coim­bat­ore sta­tion of the Cen­tral In­sti­tute for Cot­ton Re­search.Though Egyp­tian cot­ton com­mands a higher price, the pre­mium is not suf­fi­cient to make up for the lower yield, he adds.

The slump in Egyp­tian cot­ton pro­duc­tion has also oc­curred in other coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia, China, Pak­istan and Brazil. Global pro­duc­tion has de­creased by 18 per cent to 21.3 mil­lion tonnes in 201516, ac­cord­ing to Negm. A usda re­port states that the drop in the pro­duc­tion of Egyp­tian cot­ton is mainly due to changes in con­sumer pref­er­ences and new tech­nolo­gies. It ex­plains that over time, con­sumer pref­er­ence has shifted to gar­ments which re­quire short- or medium-sta­ple cot­ton such as denim and T-shirts. This shift in de­mand has over­taken the de­mand for cloth­ing and bed sheets made of ex­tra-long and long-sta­ple cot­ton va­ri­eties.

Such de­cline in Egyp­tian cot­ton pro­duc­tion and slow tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments in coun­ter­feit­ing de­tec­tion meth­ods con­tinue to threaten one of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar spe­cialty prod­ucts.

The nu­clear DNA in the fi­bre gets de­graded with var­i­ous stages of pro­cess­ing of the fab­ric, mak­ing it chal­leng­ing to find the level of con­tam­i­na­tion


A gar­ment fac­tory in Egypt. Ex­perts say the in­cen­tive to use lower qual­ity cot­ton in place of Egyp­tian cot­ton is high, open­ing the door to mis­la­belling of prod­ucts

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