6 Minute ReadWhat If… We Could Trace Fibers From Roots to Retail?

In recent years, it has become more apparent how damaging the fashion industry is to the environment. Therefore discussions about textile standards, in terms of sustainable fashion, and the exploration of new technologies like the blockchain all sound very promising, but what if we could simplify the process of finding out the footprint of our garments.
Sustainable Fashion
Image Credits: BASF

Sustainable Fashion and Accountability

Some consumers may be satisfied with reading the label on their clothes. Others may look to standards organisations like GOTS or ISO, to learn more about the supply chains of their favourite brands. But we still don’t have scientific evidence to show exactly where a garment has come from. We can track its footprint from a seed to the shelf with various stages of reporting, but we do not have hard science to show for our tracking. If a technology was developed to do this, it would quickly impact the level of sustainability within the fashion industry, and would probably spread to other industries as well.

Imagine a Fiber Testing Kit, that any consumer could purchase, bring home to their closet, and run a quick analysis on their favourite t-shirt. Anyone with the ability to test the fiber, theoretically, could hold companies accountable for their sourcing practices. An invention like this could be highly disruptive to the fashion industry, especially pertaining to the ongoing battle between ethical apparel and fast-fashion. Having the ability to know where a piece of clothing has been throughout its lifetime could be fascinating. Where were the fibers grown? Where was the product manufactured? Whose hands created the stitches? What if we could track the DNA of fabric?

ALSO READ: 5 Sustainable Fabric Innovators to Watch Out For 

Over 40 years ago, DNA profiling was developed by British-born Sir Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist and professor at the University of Leicester. Across the pond in California, biochemist Dr Kary Mullis, learned how to link and repeat DNA (polymerase chain reaction or PCR), while trying to find the point of genetic mutations for hereditary diseases. Both extraordinary minds made incredible breakthroughs for our knowledge and understanding of the human genome. DNA testing was implemented into law enforcement’s forensic teams within two years of the discoveries and has since been used worldwide to prove criminal acts, as well as exonerate innocent suspects.

Since 1983, millions of people have benefitted from the ability to profile our DNA. Our knowledge of genetic linkages has led to countless family members being reunited, even posthumously. Millions more have been able to learn about their ethnicities, histories, and heritages through ancestry tracking. Yet often, we still think of DNA profiling most closely linked to evidence in criminal proceedings.
In fact, many fibers are traceable through the forensic analysis as well. Once analysts determine if the thread is natural, manufactured, or mixed, they can usually identify the product it came from–A rug? A sweater? This is again often used by law enforcement and prosecutors to seek justice for crimes. Fiber forensic analysis is usually debated in court due to the mass of products created. 
The amount of production of a particular manufactured fiber and its end use, influence the degree of rarity of a given fiber. Unlike a fingerprint, there is no way to tell two fibers of the same origin apart. Fiber forensics can only be used as evidentiary support to corroborate other facts. Yet, why has this technology not expanded to track fibers for sustainability and ethics?
Molecular Tagging
Molecular tagging of genes can identify and verify products creating a forensic proof of origin for more sustainable fashion.
What if we could trace fibers back to their origins? What if we could geographically pinpoint precisely where a thread was grown, what animals were involved, or what fertilisers were used? We could deduct which workers had a hand in the production or manufacturing process based on what specific area in the world our fibers were from. In a world of ever-growing technological advancements, this could be a logical next step in ensuring more sustainable supply chains.

Molecular Tagging to Reveal the Footprint

Applied DNA Sciences has come the closest to creating this process for identifying fibers called “molecular tagging”. They tag fibers by matching batches to origins already known. Once a supplier is tested and proven to be sustainable, SigNature(™)T technology can then continue to tag future batches.

Although this gene tagging method may not be able to track individual fibers from anywhere in the world yet, many sustainable fashion organisations have mapped out the production process for consumers. MADE-BY, a non-profit organization dedicated to the fashion industry’s environmental and social conditions, has laid out a seed-to-shelf roadmap. MADE-BY works with sustainable brands to standardise the production process, highlight industry leaders, and mainstream sustainability advancements. Over 50 industry experts consulted on the typical methods, and six large fashion brands have now joined, including G-Star and Ted Baker.

Another of their worthy goals is to entice consumers to learn more about the manufacturing side of where their garments come from. This is an incredible endeavour on behalf of all the hard-working individuals who have created and advanced MADE-BY. However, the system still hinges on individuals throughout the production and manufacturing process to record a variety of their activities. It would be an incredible advancement if we could back up these activities with concrete evidence. The fiber testing system could back up these organisation’s endeavours by proving their process is safe, environmental, and sustainable. The movement to create transparent supply chains would suddenly be so much easier to for companies to subscribe to.
Sustainable Fashion
Image Credits: Adrien Ledoux

Imagine walking into your closet, picking a tiny thread from your favourite shirt, and learning exactly where in the world it came from. Maybe the test shows what dye was used and geographically defines where the colour came from too. Perhaps it shows specifics of which animals contributed to the process, like silkworms, sheep, goats, etc. Maybe it shows you what types of fertilisers were used in the growth process of cotton fibers. Maybe it shows that the water used in the dying process is from an entirely different part of the world than what’s found on the label.

This process could show us much more of our supply chains than we see today. If we could know where all our products were originally grown or developed, maybe the real question is, would we want to know? What if your favourite sustainable fashion brands are advertising their garments that were made in the last country the manufacturing took place in.  All without accounting for the multiple countries that garment went through before reaching the final stage of the manufacturing process. If you could test the fibers at home, would you buy from this brand again? Suddenly, the power would be pushed back into the consumers’ hands, to make accurate decisions based on evidence and not just on marketing or advertising.

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Allison Leah 

Ethical Lifestyle Leader Allison Leah is the founder of @Aureum_LLC, a wearable technology start-up for health management. Aureum focuses on the relationship between urban populations and the environment. Allison's vision is to enhance the consumer experience with the planet.