Is your T-shirt clean of slav­ery?

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Shop­pers lured by a bar­gain-priced T-shirt but con­cerned about whether the item is free of slave la­bor could soon have the an­swer - from DNA foren­sic tech­nol­ogy. James Hayward, chief ex­ec­u­tive of US-based Ap­plied DNA Sciences Inc. that de­vel­ops DNA-based tech­nol­ogy to pre­vent coun­ter­feit­ing and en­sure au­then­tic­ity, said his re­searchers have been work­ing in the cot­ton in­dus­try for up to nine years.

He said this was prompted by ris­ing con­cerns about the global cot­ton in­dus­try, that pro­vides in­come for more than 250 mil­lion peo­ple, us­ing child and slave la­bor in har­vest­ing the crop and the dur­ing the pro­duc­tion process to make clothes. Hayward said cot­ton was one of the most com­plex sup­ply chains he had come across be­cause it was grown in more than 100 coun­tries and goes through a multi-stage trans­for­ma­tion process be­fore emerg­ing in “fast fash­ion” that is cheap and dis­pos­able.

“Often each coun­try (is) per­form­ing a sin­gle func­tion in the trans­for­ma­tion of a ma­ture cot­ton fi­bre, a sin­gle cell into a fin­ished prod­uct like a cot­ton shirt... along the way there are many op­por­tu­ni­ties for cheat­ing,” said Hayward. “Our pri­mary aim is to cleanse the cot­ton sup­ply chain and by that, I mean elim­i­nat­ing any di­ver­sion, any mis­la­belling, any coun­ter­feit­ing that can take place through­out the cot­ton sup­ply chain,” he told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

Hayward said an ideal way to as­cer­tain the true iden­tity of a nat­u­ral com­mod­ity was to use the DNA that na­ture gave that com­mod­ity or to mark it with a man­u­fac­tured DNA. This could al­low the cot­ton can be traced to where it was picked be­fore it went into the gin­ning process that cleans away seed and other de­bris for pack­ag­ing into bails to ship around the world for spin­ning, dye­ing and to make into clothes.

Dur­ing this process mis­la­belling can hap­pen and sub­sti­tute fi­bres added to cot­ton, with re­tail­ers and gov­ern­ments in­creas­ingly aware of this. Hayward said a key is­sue is where the sub­sti­tute fi­bres orig­i­nate from as some coun­tries have used state-spon­sored slav­ery to col­lect that cot­ton. Mod­ern slav­ery has be­come a catch-all term to de­scribe hu­man traf­fick­ing, forced la­bor, debt bondage, sex traf­fick­ing, forced mar­riage and other slave-like ex­ploita­tion.

An es­ti­mated 46 mil­lion peo­ple are liv­ing as slaves, ac­cord­ing the 2016 Global Slav­ery In­dex by the Walk Free Foun­da­tion, which said Uzbek­istan - the world’s fifth­largest cot­ton ex­porter - Turk­menistan and Ta­jik­istan were forc­ing peo­ple to work in the an­nual cot­ton har­vest. Over 264 brands have signed up to a global pledge set up by the Re­spon­si­ble Sourcing Net­work (RSN), run by the Cal­i­for­nia-based char­ity As You Sow, vow­ing not to use Uzbek cot­ton un­til the gov­ern­ment stops us­ing forced child and adult la­bor.

“I think many con­sumers would be ap­palled to con­tem­plate the no­tion that their gar­ment they’re wear­ing could be the prod­uct of hu­man traf­fick­ing,” Hayward said. He said Ap­plied DNA Sciences was pri­mar­ily work­ing with two dif­fer­ent types of DNA - an en­gi­neered DNA made from a botan­i­cal source that al­lowed it to track that fi­bre back to its ori­gin. It was also try­ing to iden­tify the nat­u­ral DNA found in cot­ton fi­bre that al­lowed re­searchers to know which species the cot­ton fi­bre is and where it comes from.

He said this gave hints that could pro­vide a trail from fin­ished goods back to the crop although the level of anal­y­sis had not gone far enough yet to be truly foren­sic. But he said it would let a re­tailer or brand owner pick up their level of at­ten­tion and in­ves­ti­gate a bit fur­ther into their sup­ply chain - par­tic­u­larly as they are fac­ing mount­ing pres­sure from gov­ern­ments to en­sure sup­ply chains are clean. “We do ex­pect that in the next year or two it will be foren­sic and we will be able to dis­tin­guish the global cul­ti­vars of cot­ton based on their point of ori­gin,” he said.

“While our project is not yet com­plete we can cer­tainly dis­cern the dif­fer­ences be­tween some Uzbek strains of cot­ton ver­sus Amer­i­can sources of a sim­i­lar cot­ton ... the DNA tells a story and it’s very com­mer­cially and also rel­e­vant to hu­man­ity.” Hayward said un­rav­el­ling the com­plex cot­ton sup­ply chain could set an example on how to tackle other in­dus­tries. “If we can help fix that we can help fix much eas­ier to sort our sup­ply chains like phar­ma­ceu­tics,” he said. — Reuters

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