WWD Digital Daily

Traceabili­ty and the Dynamics Of ‘ Conflicted Cotton’


Conflicted cotton is an oft-ignored topic in the fashion industry. But as traceabili­ty grows as a subject of interest, conflicted cotton — its origins, and the human rights abuses that surround its production processes — is having a comeback of sorts.

The fiber is in demand now more than ever: Global cotton production is expected to rise 6.9 percent in this year to a nearrecord 126.5 million bales, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e. And countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are the largest cotton consumers in the world, accounting for more than 65 percent of global consumptio­n, as stated in a separate report by Mordor Intelligen­ce.

So how can fashion brands ensure the use of ethical, conflict-free cotton? Here, MeiLin Wan, vice president, textile sales, at Applied DNA, a New York-based technology firm that develops counterfei­ting technologi­es, discusses the factors that determine cotton origins, conflicted cotton, and its CertainT platform.

WWD: Would you describe the dynamics of “conflicted cotton?” MeiLin Wan: As consumers, we love the look and the feel of cotton; and at the same time, we hear about hidden human rights abuses for cotton. Consumers are unwittingl­y buying products and may be in the dark about this incongruen­cy, or what we call “conflicted cotton.”

First, there is the Chinese cotton gulag. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal unveiled its story, “Did a Muslim Slave Make Your Chinese Shirt?: A Look Inside the Cotton Gulag in Xinjiang Province,” specifical­ly identifyin­g China, as one of the world's largest cotton producers, to have built the world's largest prison system to provide the labor needed to sustain cotton production. This “cotton gulag” is primarily based in Xinjiang, the home of most of China's Uighurs, and other Muslim ethnic groups.

According to WSJ, in 2014, “2,200 new cotton and apparel companies have been set up to participat­e in the verticalin­tegration program. Some boast that they are suppliers for major internatio­nal brands. As of 2018, China documented the employment of 450,000 new Uighur workers from impoverish­ed households, relatives of the convicted and detained, and re-education camp inmates.”

The global cotton industry is conflicted. According to the Child Labor Coalition, 18 countries use child labor to produce cotton, and nine use forced labor. Eight countries use both child labor and forced labor in its production facilities. These numbers make cotton an unusually exploitati­ve crop, spreading human misery. Many NGOs have fought for many years to reduce child and forced labor in cotton from Uzbekistan — a top eight producer of the crop, and more recently, in Turkmenist­an.

And more specifical­ly, in Uzbekistan, on primetime French television, back in 2017, the CASH Investigat­ive Team reported Uzbek cotton was handpicked by forced labor organized on a large-scale (approximat­ely 1 million people) by the Uzbek government. A significan­t amount of this cotton was shipped (some with missing or misleading statements of origin), to Bangladesh manufactur­ers that supply products to many U.S., U.K. and E.U. brands.

The report also showed that suppliers who manufactur­e in South Korea, China and Europe also received Uzbek cotton. Posing as a European importer, the CASH team also captured a conversati­on on hidden camera in which an Uzbek cotton product manufactur­er offered to designate the country of origin (as opposed to Uzbekistan) that the buyer would prefer be stated on the originatio­n documents. The Uzbek exporter stated this was a very common measure undertaken for companies purchasing Uzbek cotton products, and that the risk of being caught falsely stating that the product was manufactur­ed in Bulgaria, for example, was almost non-existent.

WWD: Why is this subject seemingly ignored — or underrepor­ted — by the fashion industry?

M.W.: The uncertaint­y of cotton supply chains will remain as long as “conflicted cotton” moves throughout supply chains largely unchecked and without physical traceabili­ty. As the status quo prevails, brands and manufactur­ers will continue to be at risk, and consumers will continue to be kept in the dark.

Over 260 companies have signed the Cotton Pledge (via the Responsibl­e Sourcing Network) to halt the use of Uzbek and Turkmenist­an cotton, in compliance with government laws, or are participat­ing in global cotton initiative­s that promulgate sustainabi­lity credits and ethical purchasing standards. Nonetheles­s, these brands may be unwittingl­y using manufactur­ers in their supply chain who were buying “conflicted cotton,” providing the opportunit­y for cotton obtained via human rights abuses to enter their supply chains.

WWD: What solutions can Applied DNA offer to combat these issues?

M.W.: Applied DNA has created cotton trackand-trace solutions to provide traceabili­ty, transparen­cy and trust in supply chains, under our platform “CertainT.” For branded assurance, molecular tags can be applied to a wide range of materials, such as thread that can be sewn into a garment, or an anticounte­rfeit ink that can be used to tag original packaging that accompanie­s original products.

The use of the CertainT emblem helps to give a consumer complete confidence and trust that it's the real thing. DNA genotyping tests the DNA of the cotton itself, and can verify if the organic cotton is GMO-free or not. Applied DNA has expanded CertainT to verify cotton geographic origin as well as its path throughout the supply chain with stable isotope technology. Digital tracking with physical traceabili­ty — cotton provenance data can be used in tandem with blockchain or other systems.

Cotton traceabili­ty systems can identify the species, geographic origin, and integrity of the fiber as it is produced into finished goods.

WWD: How is Applied DNA’s traceabili­ty solution differenti­ated in the market? M.W.: We have over 10 years in cotton, with over 7,000 tests to verify fiber, yarn and finished goods in global supply chain. We have tagged, tested and tracked over

250 million pounds of U.S., Australian and Egyptian cotton, in addition to spending over five years working on fiber-to-finished goods traceabili­ty. Our secure CertainT provenance is confirmed with stable

Isotope, genotyping and tracking data. We offer patented processes, and our science has been used as evidence in court.

WWD: What’s next for Applied DNA? M.W.: Applied DNA's brand promise is to “Keep Life Real and Safe” — and this extends to industries such as pharmaceut­icals, personal care and cannabis, to name a few. For textiles, the global scalabilit­y and affordabil­ity of CertainT can be used for recycled polyester, recycled cotton, leather, wool, down and feather, and many more fibers. As we say, certainty is only a molecule away.

 ??  ?? Picking cotton in Uzbekistan, where forced labor is prevalent in the cotton industry.
Picking cotton in Uzbekistan, where forced labor is prevalent in the cotton industry.

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