‘Big Cotton’ Conspiracy? Untangling Industry Mislabeling

According to LaRhea Pepper, managing director of the Textile Exchange, a global non-profit that promotes sustainability throughout the supply chain, she is not aware of any unauthorized blending in the cotton industry, though she notes “improvements in length and quality” of lower grade upland cotton have made it a viable substitute for high-quality Egyptian and pima cotton in a blend.

But, she pointed out, “blending of cotton could represent an issue of mislabeling and/or misinformation if not disclosed to consumers.”

Shoafstall of Soul Flower agrees. “It takes a long time to nurture relationships, and I feel we would know if something wasn’t right. The people we work with are as committed to the sustainable movement as we are — to contaminate the product by not using organic would be the ultimate sin within our community.”

Cannon Michael is one of the premiere cotton farmers working with Himatsingka
Cannon Michael is one of the premiere cotton farmers working with Himatsingka

That sin could be lurking in any of numerous steps along the supply path where higher-value cotton is swapped out or blended with lower quality cotton — be it at the gin, the baling facility that readies product for export, the overseas spinner, weaver, or sewer that make it into yarn, fabric, and finished products.

Anywhere someone is blending in that process, they’re pocketing the difference between the premium and inferior materials.

Himatsingka’s new branded, DNA-tracked PimaCott cotton is sprayed with the molecular marker after leaving the gin — which separates seeds and impurities — and is validated at three points along its processing: After being baled for overseas shipment, after it’s spun into yarn, and right before it’s shipped back to the U.S. in its finished form.

New Science, New Possibilities

The reason this is now such a big deal — Himatsingka recently inked a multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment with ADNAS to enforce heretofore ethereal quality standards — is in part because of the nature of cotton.

By the time cotton is mature and ready for picking and processing, its DNA has largely begun to die. Up to now, that meant it could not be replicated or tested to verify on a molecular level it was a specific type of cotton.

ADNAS has touted its patented forensic authentication procedures as a means of verifying sustainable practices in company newsletters and press releases.

SingNature T is the proprietary DNA marker developed by Applied DNA Sciences
SingNature T is the proprietary DNA marker developed by Applied DNA Sciences

When the company found a way to dig deeper and developed a test to identify longer-lasting chloroplast DNA; it quickly pointed to the rampancy of blending.

After publishing the problem, ADNAS then created demand for a solution, which it handily filled by developing a DNA marker that can imprint on the material. This allowed companies like Himatsingka to begin tracking its cotton from farm all the way to finished product.

A New Standard For All?

In 2014, Himatsingka became the first fully linked supply chain to tag and track with the ADNAS technology, sending five million pounds of cotton through the stringent testing protocols.

That trend is bound to get attention from other players in the apparel and textiles industry — especially those that make claims of sustainably sourced and/or premium-grade materials and fabrics.

But will they adopt DNA traceability? Do they already suspect illicit blending that could derail claims of sustainability or premium-quality?

According to Ferrigno, not any time soon. “DNA testing is an emerging area but still in its infancy. [It] is still too new a technology to be really useful.” As he sees it, such testing would prove too costly for most producers, suppliers, and customers, and the volumes of information necessary to catalog and trace the textile would be enormous.

Perhaps with time, the technology will prove easier to implement. “In the next five to 10 years, you will see the far-sighted brands in the outdoor industry really start to embrace this,” Greenstein said.

The farm-to-table movement has inspired consumers to learn more about where their products come from and demand both higher quality and more ecologically sound processes from manufacturers. Now, more than ever, people are reading labels and scrutinizing the goods they buy.

Samples of merino wool are picked from a bale

“We’re learning that more and more layers of the supply chain onion need to be peeled back,” Greenstein said. “This will be a big concern for the outdoor industry, some of whom are already asking about this technology. Some will be motivated by the carrot — being proactive to prove customers are buying what they’re advertising.”

“Others,” he said, “will be motivated by the stick. They will be forced to react to learning they are not selling what they are advertising.”

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Adam Ruggiero is an all-sport activity junkie - from biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming. If it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.