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The Scramble Is on to Prove Raw Material Provenance

More than ever, apparel brands are tasked with adapting to a global environment that they have no control over. With higher sustainability standards among consumers and growing ethical concerns about textile origins, brands can no longer remain ignorant to the nature of the raw materials they are sourcing.

Raw material provenance, in particular, became a flashpoint when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on all cotton merchandise and tomatoes originating in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where it is widely believed that the goods are being produced with forced labor.

As a result, importers are being held responsible for ensuring the products they plan to import do not exploit any forced labor, or face financial consequences. This puts them at major risk, but brings to light the need to invest in supply chain authentication capabilities, says Wayne Buchen, vice president of strategic sales at molecular-based supply chain security company Applied DNA Sciences.

“Most supply chains today don’t purchase raw cotton. They work with nominated suppliers. They use nominated fabrics or possibly yarns but they’ll don’t go back to buying the cotton. So that’s why right now, it’s a scramble,” he said.

In a recent fireside chat with Sourcing Journal president and founder Edward Hertzman, Buchen pointed out that CBP officials detained 43 shipments of cotton-based products at U.S. ports between December 2 and January 13 alone.

“What if you’re a brand, and your shipments were held? How do you go back now and try to figure out where all the cotton came from? Where did every component in that supply chain come from, and how do you match it back up to your POs?” Buchen said. “It’s time consuming, it’s difficult and most supply chains don’t keep that level of detail.”

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Working with agricultural commodities merchants to tag cotton in the U.S., Applied DNA aims to help more brands build a more secure supply chain while they wean off Xinjiang-based cotton. The company’s CertainT® platform is built to tag, test and track both raw materials and end products with a unique molecular identifier, which can be tested for its presence by anyone who has an in-field mobile authentication device.

“Get tagged cotton that you know has already come from a farm in the U.S. that we tagged during the ginning process. That’s our solution,” Buchen said.

CertainT tags materials sourced in the U.S., Australia and Egypt, and Applied DNA is investigating launching the service in India.

Regardless of material origin, the need for more clarity in the supply chain can’t be emphasized enough. Buchen argued that the disruption caused by the cotton clampdown in today’s supply chains hasn’t been this widespread since the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that ravaged neighboring countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.

“Everybody had to scramble and move all of their production out of Sri Lanka and find new ways to make it utilizing new fabrics, new yarns and new materials to still meet their deliveries,” Buchen said.

Click the image above to watch the video, where Buchen further explains why the apparel supply chain’s material authentication process has become so difficult, and where third-party standards now fit in.