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Securing Supply Chains Starts with Material-Level Testing, Traceability

Given the growing consumer demands for sustainability, retailers must be able to stand behind their products and prove their claims. But to do that, they need better visibility into their supply chains.

For companies that are working toward environmental and social responsibility goals, traceability offers a way to more accurately and specifically communicate progress to a consumer. This means knowing not only what was produced, but how and where it was produced and by which supplier. Without these assurances, brands leave themselves open to suspicion and their reputation could be at stake.

“Everyone [in the supply chain is] responsible, but the brand ultimately will be responsible if they’re making a certain claim on a certain product to the consumer,” said MeiLin Wan, vice president of textile sales at Applied DNA Sciences, a creator of supply chain authentication and security solutions.

During a recent Sourcing Journal webinar, sponsored by Applied DNA Sciences and Oeko-Tex, Wan said that companies should take a “fiber-forward” approach to testing and traceability. Rodger Glaspey, managing director of agricultural commodities merchant Louis Dreyfus Company, agreed, noting that many retailers today are leaning on insufficient verification such as paper trails and mass balancing. While Louis Dreyfus sells to spinners and hadn’t typically worked directly with retailers in the past, this is changing as brands recognize the need for raw material-level oversight.

“They’ve recognized now that if they’re testing when they’re about to put their shirt on the shelf, it’s too late if anything has gone wrong; they have no solution,” said Glaspey.

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Fiber provenance is top of mind in apparel right now due to the forced labor concern surrounding cotton coming from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Instituting fiber-level traceability serves the dual purpose of verifying where cotton didn’t come from while also proving its exact origin.

Applied DNA Sciences’ CertainT solution tags raw materials with molecular identifiers. For example, cotton is marked with the date, time and place that the fiber was grown, as well as the bale ID. Starting from the source gives retailers building blocks toward a fully traceable finished product. After materials are tagged, subsequent tests on the yarn, fabric and finished good can verify the origin. This physical data can also be plugged into systems such as blockchain traceability platforms.

Aside from proving social or environmental compliance, this physical material traceability can also prove the premium credentials of a material. For instance, Glaspey has worked with a retailer to verify using Applied DNA’s testing that its cotton was truly pima.

Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 provides testing and certification surrounding restricted substances, but the company’s Made in Green label extends assurance beyond chemical compliance to social and environmentally responsible production practices. This takes environmental calculations beyond generalizations, such as the impact of a particular type of material, and into exact data. “We’re seeing a little bit more emphasis on our side in terms of how do we measure what’s happening in our own specific supply chain,” said Ben Mead, managing director at testing and certification firm Hohenstein Institute America, a founding member of Oeko-Tex.

Oeko-Tex’s consumer-facing labels allow shoppers to scan or input an ID to learn about the specific facilities that made the product. “If the consumer can’t access it, and the consumer can’t use it, then all of that work is really difficult to communicate,” said Mead. “Part of that is how do you trace the product to the material level, how do you make it easy and accessible for a consumer who is trying to make a decision as they’re shopping.”

As with sustainability, traceability requires an investment. Glaspey noted that retailers’ prime consideration used to be cost, but that has become less of a concern.

Wan estimated that the price premium for traceable fibers is only “pennies” to a finished garment. “The cost of a recall or the cost to their reputation because you didn’t do anything is much greater,” said Wan. “And I think that any CEO or supply chain officer of a company has to be thinking not just how to meet the sustainability goals, but also how to prove that the sustainability goals match up with the raw materials that are used. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

Watch the webinar to discover:

  • The role of certifications in both normal times and crises
  • What it would take to create a standardized consumer-facing symbol for sustainability
  • How supply chain partners can collaborate for more traceability
  • Whether consumers are willing to pay extra for verified goods
  • How transparent brands have to be in disclosing their suppliers
  • The lessons learned from Covid-19

Click here to watch the webinar now.