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Cotton Traceability Throughout the Supply Chain

On a recent trip to India the small group that I was traveling with was making our way through the Cotton Bazaar section of Delhi. We were mesmerized looking out the window of the vehicle by the abundance and variety of products that were being merchandised along the roadside. One of the areas that caught our collective interest was an area that had a concentration of sellers offering a diverse range of dates that looked to come from a variety of different origins. As we strained to see out the window and make out what was written on the boxes to see if we could figure out what the dates were, an intrepid cohort in the back seat piped-up and simply said: “It is just a box.”

And there you have it in a nutshell, the whole question of traceability, transparency and authenticity wrapped up into five little words. “It is just a box.” Let me explain further, it wasn’t 30 seconds later down the road that we saw sellers simply selling the boxes that had previously featured the dates that we had strained so hard to make out. So, what was really in the boxes?

What do you know, what do you believe, what can you be sure about, can you be certain, who do you trust, what is the product? These are all good questions that are very difficult to answer in the textile supply chain. Inherently consumers have looked to labeling of agricultural products, including cotton to identify product and make an assessment of what that product is. That labeling has traditionally always been dependent on marketing (at all stages of the supply chain) and what the final seller of the product was told and believes that their product is. While fresh food products typically have a much shorter supply chain, cotton and natural fiber products are fundamentally different. From the time of harvest to a final product landing on a retail shelf, cotton fiber can travel extensive distances, through multiple hands and numerous different converters/manufacturers. More often than not, the destination of the fiber is never known once the fiber is first shipped to the spinning mill. There are certainly exceptions to this case, and many can be made relative to specific programs, quality requirements and product needs. That said, this belies the fact that having clarity into the supply chain of what cotton fiber is used in a specific product has often come through various assumptions. Case in point, and without naming names because that is irrelevant to the subject of this article, a recent case in the U.S. arose when a major retailer was importing products from a foreign manufacturer that were labeled with a common and recognized ingredient label. As it turned out through a robust audit, the product was not compliant with the identity that it was being sold under. This became a significant issue for the retailer, the manufacturer and the origin, and the issue still resonates within the textile industry today.

Moreover, the questions about traceability and transparency are slowly beginning to bubble to the top within the discourse of the textile community. Recent evidence of that can been seen through multiple publications and articles. Two good examples can be found in Issue 7 from May 2019 of the Apparel Insider titled ‘Sustainable Cotton – Time for a rethink’ and the June/July issue of Ecotextile news titled ‘Transparency … Please Reboot, Why it’s game over for business as usual’. One shortcoming of this conversation is that there seems to be a lack of a larger encompassing conversation about authenticity which incorporates traceability and transparency. Maybe that is the case because it is something really hard to do. Remember, a supply chain has traditionally relied on a basic audit system in order to have some traceability and transparency insight into the supply chain. This brings us back full circle to the beginning of this conversation and the five simple little words “It is just a box.” How do we know what the origin of the product is and what can be said about its authenticity?

There are a number of proposed solutions already in the market, and certainly many more to yet to come, that attempt to address this issue or provide additional clarity for the textile supply chain. The list encompasses a broad cadre of systems/technology from markers, tracers, additives, RFID, digital transaction certification, third-party organizations and big data with the likes of Blockchain and Holochain.

Supima as an organization has been actively engaged for over a decade in working to find a solution to authenticate Supima cotton. Regardless of the platform or technology, being able to be definitive about authenticity of product typically is dependent on trust. While the majority of the supply chain is committed to being authentic about the products they supply, it is far from a perfect system and is vulnerable to the demands placed upon it. Without accountability there is always an open door for substitution to happen.

We are all too well aware of how the textile supply chain works and the challenges that arise when price pressure become too severe on the various participants. When companies look to survive during economic duress, creativity in production and manufacturing increase. Without the ability to authenticate the origin of the constituent ingredients of the product, this increases the potential for substitution and cheating. Efforts to manage the authenticity of the product are increasing, however the tools that are available are not adept at being able to provide an answer to the question of origin.

Through the use of forensic science there is a way to answer the question about origin and to see transparently through the supply chain and into any point in the supply chain to ensure that the product is compliant. While new to the cotton and textile industry, forensic science has already been actively used in origin authentication for many other products. Supima has been working with Oritain, a forensic sciences company from New Zealand that has brought this enforceable scientific approach to cotton. Having mapped out the entire Supima cotton growing region, Supima has supported the development of the foundational database for all Supima cotton that will allow partners of Supima to leverage that platform to be able to check and provide true origin authentication to the product that they make with Supima cotton.

In simple terms, Oritain’s forensic science approach to Supima utilizes the naturally occurring trace elements that persist in the environment that the cotton grows in. This includes all the trace elements that the cotton is influenced by during the growing process from the soil, water and environment that the cotton grows in. With the ability to analyze the trace elements at parts per billion levels, there are deep capabilities for resolving not only differences between large geographical areas of cotton production between nations, but also detailed resolution capabilities down to sub-regional levels. This can be demonstrated though a program with the Kering Group that is using organic Supima cotton from one specific farm in the U.S.A. and the ability to differentiate not only that farm from other cotton but also from other cotton that also comes from the surrounding region. Using this approach, Supima and Oritain have been able to effectively use what is already naturally occurring in cotton to provide a solution to answer the question of origin for the first time.

Written by: Marc Lewkowitz

Marc Lewkowitz is the President and CEO of Supima, a non-profit promotional organization representing the American Pima cotton growers and the industry that utilizes this unique and rare fiber.

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