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Sourcing Summit: Why Authenticity and Fiber Traceability Go Hand in Hand

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Many brands hang their hat on being authentic, but to really buff that brand image, they should be able to trace their product origins back through the supply chain–even to the fields where the cotton fiber that’s spun into garments is grown.

Experts offered up insights on how to achieve this level of transparency at a Sourcing Journal Summit panel discussion Wednesday called “Forensic Files: Accounting for Authenticity in Premium Fibers.”

Moderated by Sourcing Journal president and founder Edward Hertzman, the discussion centered on tracing and authenticating high-grade, U.S.-grown Supima cotton.

Marc Lewkowitz, president and CEO of Supima, said authenticity is “fundamental and core” to the organization and its heritage of protecting the identity and quality of American pima cotton.

“We’ve gone through a lot of phases in that effort, ending up in a licensing program that elevated the Supima trademark in the late 1980s,” Lewkowtiz said. “Over the last 12 or so years, we’ve been working on ways to authenticate Supima cotton throughout the supply chain all the way from the fiber to the finished product.”

He said the reason for that was “if you don’t understand what is going into the product and you don’t have clarity of what that is, you really can’t say much about sustainability, you can’t say much about authenticity, and you can’t say much about the origins and where the product is coming from.”

For Supima–a branded fiber grown in a controlled, highly regulated environment–it’s important to be able to make sure it can be authenticated and verified through the supply chain and to provide that assurance to consumers, Lewkowitz said.

Daniele Arioldi, president and CEO of Albini, an Italian fabric mill, said its key for his company to provide materials such as Supima to its customers that have an assurance of quality and are able to be traced to the source. Lewkowitz said that’s why Supima teamed with Oritain to create “a landscape of knowledge” so that Supima cotton can be identified at the point of origin.

“It’s different because it uses something that’s provided by Mother Nature–it naturally picks up the trace elements in the cotton of the environment that’s it’s growing in,” he said. “So Oritain has the ability to take those trace elements and measure them in parts per million or billion to identify that cotton back to the point of origin where it was grown.”

This “fingerprint” differs from certain “marker” technologies that have traceability characteristics, but don’t have the ability to identify cotton origin all the way through the supply chain, Lewkowtiz noted.

Ben Tomkins, senior business development manager for Oritain, explained that the process “combines forensic science and statistical analysis” to provide data-driven insights to customers.

“Everything that is grown or made is a product of its environment,” Tomkins said. “Cotton, as an example, absorbs elements from the soil, it’s impacted by the local climatic and other atmospheric conditions, and it’s these trace elements and isotopes that we are testing for, and they are unique to the production location in which that particular cotton is grown. So, cotton from the U.S. looks very different from cotton from let’s say India, Pakistan or Brazil.”

This is also true of regional or even farm of origin level, he noted. Once this fingerprint is created by Oritain, it can be tested and underpin traceability claims.

Arioldi said the Supima-Oritain partnership allows Albini to simplify its supply-chain traceability, and while it’s more costly than other cottons, it fits into his company’s premium product range.

Responding to Hertzman’s question about child and forced labor in the cotton supply chain from China that has recently been in the news and what he termed the “opaque”nature of the apparel and textile industry, Lewkowitz said it comes down to “accountability, a decision that brands and retailers make in their supply chain.”

“The opacity is one that exists because it’s built around trust,” he said. “But we know trust has failed us in the supply chain,” citing examples such as the Rana Plaza catastrophe in Bangladesh and Uzbekistan forced labor in cotton cultivation. “The impact is really broad,” he added, so the question is how to mitigate the potential risk of being caught up in such events and circumstances.

“It comes back to authenticity,” Lewkowtiz said. “If you know all the details of your supply chain and you’ve taken the time and effort to vet that supply chain, you have clarity and can verify what is being used, and you have an open-end system, then you’ll have successes.”

All the session’s from this year’s Sourcing Journal Summit, R/Evolution, are available on-demand for the first time. Follow this link for more information.

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