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Transparency In the Denim Industry Begins with Traceable Fibers

The denim industry is in the midst of an information revolution. For years, the supply chain, brands, retailers and consumers relied on blanket terms like “organic,” “recycled” and “eco” to decipher whether a garment is sustainable, resulting in the prevalence of greenwashing. Third-party auditors and certification programs—like the Global Organic Textile Standard, Bluesign and Cradle to Cradle—have been called upon to help validate sustainable claims within the supply chain, but the requirements, in large part, remain veiled by industry speak, forcing consumers to accept information at face value.

But times are changing. This year alone has brought a series of unfortunate events that are, in turn, forcing the fashion industry to own up to the injustices, falsehoods and bad practices it has turned a blind eye to for decades. Thanks to social media, consumers, more than ever, are plugged into the validity of the stories and values brands are marketing to them, and traceability is one way they can fact-check these claims.

In the denim industry, conversations about transparency begin with traceable fibers. “Traceability provides the accountability and transparency of origin and quality, as well as environmental and social impact of fibers,” said Tricia Carey, Lenzing’s director of global business development for denim.

The viability, quality and growing practices of cotton crops around the world vary greatly. “As a consequence, buyers of cotton deserve to know where their cotton comes from and how it was grown, both in terms of environmental practices as well as labor standards,” said Jennifer Crumpler, e3 Cotton manager and fiber development manager at BASF.

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In this sense, traceability provides transparency for mills, brands, retailers and consumers. “For many years, the different stakeholders throughout the entire fiber value chain have not fully understood each partner, and we work every day to provide that education, awareness and understanding to everyone,” she said.

Each season, however, there is greater access to information and the technology to share, and brands are willing to pull back the curtain and provide that information. As Carey pointed out, “What is there to hide?”

How traceable fibers work

Lenzing made inroads in circularity with the 2017 launch of Refibra, the first cellulose fiber featuring recycled material on a commercial scale. The fiber also introduced a new identification system that makes it possible to identify the Refibra fiber in the finished textile. To make Refibra, Lenzing blends wood pulp and upcycled cotton pulp, which is then dissolved with a solvent. A fiber identification is added to the fiber during this solvent stage.

This identification information can be verified at four global testing labs Lenzing utilizes for fabric certification. All certified fabrics are registered in Lenzing’s “e-branding database,” through which retailers apply for a license to use the Refibra Technology brand name. The certification is valid for two years.

While the circularity of upcycled cotton is the most important factor for Refibra, fiber identification assures brands of the recycled content, Carey explained. Many brands have made public commitments to recycling or reducing their impacts, and the fiber identification in Refibra substantiates these claims.

Demand for traceable fibers is primarily driven by 100 percent sustainable fibers pledges made by the world’s top 100 fashion brands, said Amit Gautam, CEO of TextileGenesis, the maker of Fibercoins traceable technology. “It’s not possible to tell a credible sustainability story without underpinning it with transparency and traceability,” he said.

TextileGenesis digitizes fiber volume at the point of origin, thereby controlling the amount of authentic sustainable fibers entering the supply chain network. It creates a complete digital chain of custody across all supply chain tiers from fiber through to retail, saving the entire network time and the cost incurred from using paper or PDF transaction certificates, Gautam explained.

Since 2019, Lenzing has collaborated with TextileGenesis to use its blockchain technology to support its Tencel branded fiber business, ensuring the complete transparency and traceability of its fibers in the finished garment for brands and consumers. “The technology of TextileGenesis is more than just traceability, as it can also review the impact and efficiency of the supply chain,” Carey said. “Matching physical fiber identification with digital blockchain provides the ultimate checks and balances.”

Traceable technology company FibreTrace has been developed to ensure every member in the supply network has the ability and opportunity to partake in the technology from raw fiber to spinner, weaver, dyer, manufacturer, brand and customer through to reuse and recycling.

The company’s data provides real-time verifiable insight, which FibreTrace director Danielle Statham said allows for a single, reliable view of the truth. “We can display scientific data surrounding raw fibers and create a unique passport of the item to be read and tracked at every stage of the supply chain from farm to shelf and beyond,” she said.

The FibreTrace system uses patented nanotechnology particles embedded in cellulose fiber. These fibers can be mixed into any natural or man-made fiber at the very start of the production process with no impact on texture or performance. The fabric can be dyed, washed, bleached and lasered with no damage to the tracing particles. They will still be instantly readable using handheld scanners at any stage in the supply chain, so users can verify the entire supply chain in real time.

Each audit is recorded on the blockchain, ensuring the information is secure, accessible and irrefutable. The data, Statham described, creates an actionable AI-powered supply chain offering valuable business insights. “We hope to create access to one of the world’s largest databases of sustainable product manufacturing,” she added.

Oritain takes a different approach to traceable technology. Founded in 2008, the company has transitioned from being a traceable technology for meat and agriculture products, to working with some of the largest cotton producers in the world, including Cotton USA.

Instead of relying on a traceable additive to existing fiber, Oritain technology determines a fiber’s “fingerprint” by analyzing its trace elements and isotopes, which are elements that exist naturally in all living things and are impacted by their direct environment, like climate conditions and rainfall, according to Ben Tomkins, Oritain business development manager U.K.

The fingerprint, which can be audited to check authenticity, can provide information about the fiber’s country of origin, farm of origin and region of origin. This, Tomkins noted, means Oritain is scalable, flexible and can be implemented immediately into existing supply chains.

BASF’s e3 Cotton program is designed to trace cotton from the field in which it is grown through to finished garments or home goods. “We utilize a database collection service called MyFarms that provides not only traceability from the individual field through to the cotton gin, but allows us to collect key cotton growing metrics for each farmer in our program so that growing practices are made transparent to cotton buyers,” Crumpler said.

Data collected includes the origin of the cotton grown (at the field level), as well as sustainability measures in seven key areas: water efficiency, pesticide management and usage, soil and fertility management, greenhouse gas reduction, energy conservation, worker health and safety, and identity preservation. The data can be accessed by textile mills, brands and retailers at no cost with the permission of e3 sustainable cotton.

“Today, more than ever before, brands, retailers and consumers want to know they are receiving legitimate products that have been made responsibly and live up to their claims,” said Jean Hegedus, The Lycra Company sustainability director. “Having a system in place that can track and trace products is critical to that effort.”

The Lycra Company has several initiatives related to traceability. Lycra fibers have a unique tracer embedded in them so they can be identified throughout the distribution chain all the way to the consumer, she explained. This includes the firm’s recycled fiber offerings. The entire EcoMade family of products—Lycra, Lycra T400, Coolmax and Thermolite EcoMade fibers—has attained GRS certification.

“This standard allows users to track and verify the content of recycled materials throughout the supply chain and also includes stringent environmental, social and chemical requirements,” Hegedus said.

In the traceability sphere, Cotton Incorporated’s role is largely to advise the industry on the development of tools. The not-for-profit research organization serves as “an agnostic analyst of the efficacy and viability of technologies related to traceability and as a convener of supply chain decision makers,” said Jesse Daystar, Ph.D., Cotton Incorporated vice president and chief sustainability officer.

Every bale of U.S. cotton is connected to High Volume Instrument (HVI) data that includes the physical characteristics of the bale’s cotton fiber, including length, uniformity, micronaire (an indicator of maturity and fineness), strength and color.

All that data is then associated with a Permanent Bale Identification (PBI) tag unique to that specific bale of cotton. “The PBI is important as it provides access to the fiber data for matching fiber qualities at the mill level, as well as providing the ginning location,” said Vikki Martin, Cotton Incorporated vice president of fiber competition. A bale management system is linked to the PBI data, giving spinning mills the ability to control raw fiber material.

Currently, the entire U.S. cotton industry is working with the supply chain to develop the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol. This voluntary program will help document and encourage farming sustainability practices to meet the nation’s 10-year sustainability goals while creating systems that enable brands to meet their sustainable fiber sourcing goals by using U.S.-grown cotton, Daystar explained.

“This system will work with the PBI and blockchain technology to create and track U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol bales as they become incorporated into the supply chain,” Daystar said.

Cost of traceability

The key to increasing cotton traceability at scale, Daystar said, is to create systems that introduce minimal or no additional cost into the supply chain. Some brands have overcome many technical and financial hurdles already, investing the time and resources to create traceability in their supply chain. And programs like the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol are exploring their role in improving supply chain traceability, he noted.

However, geographically diverse supply chains, combined with the fact that cotton is purchased on a quality basis, don’t make this an easy task.

“As we look towards the future, I suspect the industry will be agile, increasing their focus on shorter and more transparent supply chains to mitigate risks from future supply disruptions,” Daystar said.

Certainly, tracer technologies will continue to evolve while new technologies are being developed, Hegedus said, but implementation cost and complexity are likely to play a role. The cost of sustainability remains a hurdle for many companies throughout the supply chain, but for many, innovations like traceable fibers represent the only way forward.

“It is very hard to put a value on anything you cannot measure,” Statham said, adding that FibreTrace’s cost is minimal at 5 cents to 10 cents per pound of cotton or raw fiber. “Depending on volume when this is spread across a brand’s product category, we have worked hard to make the cost of FibreTrace almost negligible, particularly when we understand what true transparency really equates to,” she said.

And the implications of not having a robust, scientific traceability solution in place, Tomkins noted, can have substantial financial, reputational and operational effects on a business.

Building a critical mass of sustainable fiber producers and brands will be key for scalability, Gautam said. And if done well, he said supply-chain traceability can actually lower costs and improve efficiency across the supplier network. “Suppliers and brands can focus on more value-added activities instead of manually reviewing each product for valid traceability certificates and the constant back-and-forth communication across the entire chain,” he added.

Denim demands

As the denim industry works to clean up its image, traceable fibers will become an integral part of brand storytelling. “It goes without saying that the denim market is particularly keen on understanding where their cotton comes from and how it was grown,” Crumpler said.

Denim brands, she said, are prepared to use traceability in their communication to consumers, and those that already do so have garnered positive reactions. Crumpler said promoting the traceability angle increased jeans sales and, as a consequence, helped to sell more cotton, thanks to transparency. “I think that this is a very crucial turning point for many brands, and the decisions they make over the next few years will have lasting consequences,” she said.

Traceability is increasingly becoming an essential line item. A number of brands and retailers are requiring partners to hold certain certifications as a threshold for doing business, Hegedus said. “Similarly, research indicates a growing number of consumers want to know what’s in their clothes, who made them…so we see brands responding to this,” she added.

According to Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Fashion Transparency Index, brands are moving in the right direction. Of the 250 brands and retailers reviewed, the non-profit found that 40 percent are now publishing a list of their first-tier manufacturers. However, few are sharing details. Half of the reviewed brands are mapping at least one full raw-material supply chain, usually cotton, viscose, wool, recycled polyester, leather or rubber. Certification systems, blockchain and DNA technology are the common tools they use to achieve traceability, Fashion Revolution said.

Transparency forces accountability, which results in change, according to Fashion Revolution. Next year, the organization hopes to see 50 percent or more of brands publishing a supplier list and still more disclosing their processing facilities, mills and raw-material providers further down the tiers of the supply chain. “We know that exploitation tends to thrive in hidden places, which is why focusing on transparency beyond the first tier will become increasingly important,” the organization stated.

Companies are successfully using traceable technologies today to tell a real story about their garments—how they were made and who made them. Everlane, Mud Jeans, G-Star Raw, Wrangler and The R Collective are among the labels working to pull back the curtain and share details about the suppliers and factories that bring their businesses to life.

Though the technology facilitates the storytelling, Hegedus said consumers care less about the tech itself. Brands, she suggested, should focus on product assurance and the “human element” that traceability provides. It should answer such questions as, ‘is this product from a brand that is aligned with my values? And ‘was it made in a responsible way?’, she said.

FibreTrace technology allows consumers to interact with brands through augmented reality that leverages product labels and in-store FibreTrace scanners. “When every fiber tells a story, brands can enforce a sustainable change through the power of accountability,” Statham said. By engaging with the technology, consumers will “feel part of the positive change.”

The company is currently working closely within the supply chain, including numerous “mainstream” denim brands across the globe that Statham said lead the industry in sustainability.

“The denim industry has generated enormous positive impacts of transparency of its supply chain,” she said. “We are very proud to be working with some of the most brilliant minds of the denim industry and learn collectively to bring to the market a product that restores trust, shares insights and integrity.”

Future fibers

Many believe the COVID-19 pandemic will only further accelerate existing efforts to create a more sustainable and transparent supply chain.

Sustainability, Tomkins said, will be used to regain consumer trust post-pandemic and offer a means for brands to differentiate their value proposition following an initial slump in sales. “The recent outbreak has only heightened our minds to the impacts and fragility of a globalized world,” he said.

The financial strains caused by the global pandemic will force consumers to re-evaluate their purchases and give their money to companies they feel they can trust. In turn, Crumpler said the coronavirus will likely create consumers who are even more demanding when it comes to understanding the origin of their clothes.

“And this will likely happen, not just as an emotional response to the coronavirus, but as a proactive way of better understanding the environment in which we live on the planet,” she said. “I think the coronavirus has allowed, or in many cases, required end consumers to understand the consequences of every decision they make, and their fiber choices should be just as important as their food choices.”

Carey said traceability across all fibers will continue to take root. “One of the key learnings from the coronavirus is that we are globally interconnected,” she said. Knowing a product’s origins and keeping supply chains accountable are of paramount importance. “Consumers want to know more about their purchases and traceability is part of the storytelling,” she added.

And as clothing companies begin to rebuild their businesses, the savviest will take an honest look at the policies they have in place and how they can better themselves for the sake of their employees, consumers and environment.

“We have all rewired our businesses and interactions within daily life and there has most definitely been a spotlight on integrity and truth,” Statham said. “Transparency of best practice will be a critical advantage in any part of the supply chain and our view is that adaptation of data-driven transparency will be more critical than ever moving forward.”

Read more from New Wave, Rivet’s latest sustainability report.