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 near-record 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 vertical-integration 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: Are there steps brands can take to ensure that consumers are buying ethical cotton products?
M.W.: The key is to have certainty through the use of a traceability system that can verify the starting raw material in a supply chain from fiber to yarn to fabric to finished goods. For cotton, this means knowing the species, geographic origin and integrity of the fiber as it is made into finished goods.
While conventional systems like RFID and blockchain are great for tracking the movement of goods, they cannot verify the exact location, origin and authenticity of cotton fiber itself, and therefore these “tracking systems” cannot physically follow the original starting material throughout the supply chain. The only way to know is to ensure there is physical traceability on the cotton fiber itself.
WWD: What solutions can Applied DNA offer to combat these issues?
M.W.: Applied DNA has created cotton track-and-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 anti-counterfeit 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.
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.
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