A huge pile of cotton at the cotton ginners in Madhya Pradesh, India.

BERLIN — A European project that can trace the provenance of organic cotton in detail using a combination of technologies — including blockchain and spray-on DNA markers — has successfully completed its first phase. The project’s eventual aim is to make the supply chain for organic cotton completely transparent, from farm to cotton gin to end consumer.

Since mid-2018, the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot has brought together technology companies, retail giants and eco-fashion advocates from as far afield as Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, the U.S. and India. Kering, Zalando, PVH Corp. and C&A are involved, as is the C&A Foundation and Fashion for Good.

“It is unique in the world because of the way that the various technologies are being combined and how the different fashion companies have come together,” said Stephanie Klotz, a spokesperson for the C&A Foundation, an organization associated with international retail chain C&A that financially supports and manages initiatives that could change the apparel industry for the better.

The project’s first phase has been tested in collaboration with around 100 cotton farms in India, working with local textile manufacturer Pratibha Syntex.

Pim Kneepkens, the project’s representative at Fashion for Good, an Amsterdam-based innovation platform, explained how it works: Cotton in the field is marked using DNA markers and a type of fluorescent tag — all of these are sprayed onto the crops in liquid form. Information from the markers, and from microbiomes in the cotton, can then be scanned as the crop travels through various production nodes — so, for example, at the cotton gin, during manufacture and at retail. The results of the scans are then fed into a special ledger, created using blockchain technology. This type of technology allows for completely transparent entries about the cotton’s provenance that can be made at any relevant step of the supply chain.

This is important because, as Klotz pointed out, there is more demand for organic cotton than can be supplied and “it’s no secret that there are integrity issues with organic cotton.” Additionally, certifying cotton can be time consuming and require a lot of manual paperwork, she said. “The cleaner and more streamlined the process, the better.”

“We chose the markers because they are very robust and are most likely to survive the manufacturing processes,” Kneepkens continued. “In this test phase, the detection was done manually. Samples were sent to a laboratory to see if the markers could still be detected.” They could — and in the future, the plan is to use machine scanning, which should only take seconds.

The next step is to take the yarn through to manufacturing and on to retail. “Can the markers survive all the different chemical processes? That’s what will be tested next,” Kneepkens noted.

Organic cotton is one of the C&A Foundation’s primary focuses, Klotz added, because changing to a more environmentally friendly model of cotton production has such huge potential: Around 60 percent of all textiles are made using cotton.

The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot officially launched in the middle of last year, but it was the work being done by Fashion for Good with Colorado-based technology start-up Bext360 last May that really got the project going. Bext360 has made headlines in the recent past for successful blockchain-related work on supply chains for fair trade coffee beans, chocolate and palm oil. The organization Organic Cotton Accelerator, or OCA, which is located in the same Amsterdam building as Fashion for Good, saw Bext360’s potential and the two organizations brought some of their other partners — including some of the biggest fashion companies in Europe, on board.

The research was funded by the different partners involved, Klotz said, driven by the groups advancing organic cotton at first, together with Bext360, and then “this first phase was made possible with the additional support of Kering, Zalando, PVH Corp. and C&A,” she added, although the project declined to reveal the exact costs.

During the next stage, the team will be “crunching the numbers”, Klotz added, working out if the tracing system is able to be scaled up — the system could eventually work for as many as 40,000 farmers — and whether it will be financially viable.

There are several things that could cause the project to fail, Kneepkens cautioned. “The markers don’t survive, or we can’t make a good case for business. There may be operational limitations. Supply chains evolve and typically they’re rigid, they don’t like to change. If we have to start introducing a larger level of change, that has implications. So we’re trying to keep supply chain changes as close to zero as possible.”

All going well, though, how long until the system makes it to market? “It’s still fairly early and I’d say a year is optimistic,” Klotz said. “We are still at the very beginning but we wanted to announce what we were doing.”