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How to Protect Your Brand with a Cotton Traceability Ecosystem

The days of getting by on paper trails and certificates are over. Until recently, cotton traceability solutions have been adopted by a narrow subset of brands, but many more firms are feeling pressure to get on board.

One reason is the looming June 21 implementation date of the “rebuttable presumption” standard of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that applies to all articles produced in whole or in part in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Companies are anxious for off-the-shelf solutions to comply.

To get detained merchandise released by Customs and Border Protection under the new law, importers will need to prove they followed due diligence expectations and also provided clear and convincing evidence that a product is free from forced labor. And importers must do all that within 30 days, according to the latest briefings by CBP. It goes without saying—and CBP has actually already said it—the barrier to pass these tests will be very high.

Knowing the geographic origin of all cotton fiber (a priority for enforcement under the act) and every facility involved in the production of that cotton is challenging. Given complex and often cross-country supply chains, even the most engaged importers today typically only know their Tier 1 or 2 suppliers.

“Many brands have not even started mapping their supply chains,” said MeiLin Wan, Vice President for Textile Sales at Applied DNA Sciences, a provider of molecular supply chain authentication solutions. “Fortunately, there are technologies available today that offer a direct compliance solution—and brands must simply make the decision whether to invest to put in place the scientific proof that their imports comply with the law or take the risk of cargo detentions.”

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Applied DNA Sciences, the leading supplier of patented DNA tagging and PCR technology for cotton and other textile, footwear and apparel inputs, is seeing a rapid uptick in inquiries from brands and manufacturers anxious to understand how their technology provides a pathway to comply with the CBP requirements. “We have developed detailed risk analysis metrics based on years of experience,” said John Shearman, Vice President of Marketing at Applied DNA Sciences, “and we are ramping up our engagement with companies to put in place scientifically and forensically valid solutions on an accelerated timeline to address growing concerns about the impact of the new law.”

In addition to its DNA technologies, Applied DNA Sciences has developed a unique partnership with Isotech (a division of Stratum Reservoir), the leading U.S. isotopic analysis company, and together they offer an integrated approach to scientifically prove the geographic origin of the cotton fibers in an import. While DNA tagging, genotyping and isotopic analysis each can provide valuable forensic data, it is the combination of all these technologies together that best support an importer to meet the two-pronged test of due diligence and clear and convincing evidence to avoid cargoes being targeted by CBP under the new law, and to get them released if they are detained.

“We have a lot of field experience in combining isotopic analysis with DNA technologies,” said Wan. “In our experience, it is best not to rely on a single technology, since there are manufacturing variables involving the combinations of different fibers, the same fibers from different geographic regions, and the impacts of various manufacturing processes involving chemicals and finishes—along with incentives to cheat.”

Relying on a single point of reference to back up claims involving goods subject to detention can be risky and potentially unsound. Adidas, Hugo Boss and Puma products imported into Europe were recently found by researchers to have Xinjiang cotton via an isotope analysis, despite the brands asserting they do not source from the region.

Wan noted that because it is not known how the finished products were processed, and in some cases, by whom, these tests could show a form of fiber contamination or have even been false positives. The experience of these three brands serves as a warning to others about potential exposure, even if contrary to contractual agreement, accidental or scientifically questionable. This is especially the case involving Xinjiang cotton, since China supplies about one-fifth of the world’s cotton, and buyers still have little or no control over how yarn and fabric mills operate—even if non-Xinjiang cotton is required from the manufacturer.

“Implementing a technology solution takes work and commitment,” said Wan, “but the technology ecosystem and processes are readily available for manufacturers and brands to ensure their supply chains meet the demands of the new legal and market environment—whether the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, other types of due diligence legislation, or to authenticate claims of sustainable inputs or brand protection.”

Even with scientific tracking and testing, it’s still best to have supply chain transparency and auditing capabilities, Wan said. “It’s an ecosystem, and all the stakeholders have a role to play.”

Click here to learn more about Applied DNA Sciences.