Courtesy of the pandemic, antibacterial and antimicrobial textile treatments are on the rise—so too are the risks associated with offering garments that underperform.
With this uptick in health-related properties, material suppliers and brands need heightened traceability to prove that their products do what they say they can.
“As with any claim made by a company, consumers want the ability to verify those claims,” said Carl Brasek, vice president of silicon product management at Impinj. “Today, consumer choice is heavily influenced by brand awareness, loyalty, and in some cases third-party endorsements or validation of claims. The stakes associated with antibacterial or antimicrobial properties are going to be dependent on the intended use or end user of the product. Traceability can play a role in backing up these material features.”
According to projections from Fortune Business Insights, the antimicrobial textile market will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5.3 percent through 2027, reaching $13.89 billion.
But as more legitimate players enter the space, this has also created an opportunity for fake or ineffective materials. A recent Applied DNA Sciences whitepaper explored the issue of fake PPE, and pointed to the imbalance of raw material volume availability to the masks being sold in the market.
Additionally, compared to other claims, the antibacterial and antimicrobial properties being touted come with heftier consequences if they are found to be false.
“Transparency, integrity and honesty plays a critical role when health becomes part of the discussion,” said Danielle Statham, director and founding owner of FibreTrace.
MeiLin Wan, vice president, textile sales at Applied DNA, noted that the responsibility for checking and doing due diligence rests on manufacturers, rather than the end consumer. According to her, transparency efforts need to go beyond “lip service” or a certificate or logo to offer a sufficient level of proof to the consumer, since shoppers are only a Google search away from uncovering how credible or unreliable a particular certification is.
“The burden is still on the brand and manufacturers to demonstrate and prove what actions they’re taking and what tools in their toolbox they’re using to prove to the consumer that they do have their act together, and that they are genuine,” Wan said.
Experts agree that traceability needs to begin during manufacturing. “Traceability should begin at the source—during manufacturing—and carry through to the final product and purchase,” said Brasek.
One opportunity is to start at the raw material stage.
Applied DNA Sciences has developed a chemical-free method that’s designed to tag materials with DNA. The company is working to streamline the process by allowing it to be done at the same time as the application of an antibacterial or antimicrobial treatment. Unlike barcodes that can be copied or forged, the molecular tag is unique. Manufacturers could tag the antimicrobial or antibacterial treatment itself, they could tag the fiber, or they could choose to identify both. As an example, a company could double up on DNA traceability if it wanted to back up the sustainability credentials of a recycled material along with an antibacterial treatment.
Wan explained that along with the physical tagging, the other half of being able to validate a claim revolves around digital record keeping. Once a DNA tag is created, the data should ideally be stored in an ERP system, a database or a blockchain platform.
Along with being able to prove the legitimacy of antimicrobial or antibacterial properties, there is also the simultaneous need to verify that these treatments are safe and environmentally friendly.
“The textile supply chain is so intricate that a brand will often not know the spinner of their yarn, let alone the source of their fiber,” said Statham. “One of the key elements missing in supply chain management solutions has been the fiber impact data, from the raw source of the farm or synthetic fiber producer. Solving these two key elements and allowing any brand big or small the ability to have true chain of custody is what drove us to deliver FibreTrace.”
FibreTrace embeds nanoparticles into natural or manmade fibers at the start of production. As the fiber goes through all stages, including dyeing and processing, the technology is designed to capture and store data on a blockchain, proving chain of custody.
“FibreTrace’s mission is to ensure every member of the textile supply chain has the ability to take direct accountability of statements and claims being made, whether this is to reduce the environmental impact of the global industry or protection through antimicrobial fabrics,” Statham said. “In doing so, the aim is to ultimately provide the consumer the opportunity to choose a transparent and sustainable supply chain to follow and purchase from.”
Another traceability technology that can follow materials through the supply chain is radio frequency identification (RFID). Impinj’s Rain RFID is attached to items to create a unique identifier, which is stored in a cloud database. The battery-free technology stays on the item through production, allowing it to be traced as production progresses. Manufacturers can choose to encrypt their database for extra security. They can then provide specific access to a third party, such as a brand or retailer.
The RFID tag can also stay on the garment at retail, allowing the product information such as fiber content to remain with the clothing through its whole lifespan. While Rain has often been used by retailers as a brand-protection tool, Brasek sees the potential to use the same process to verify the authenticity of a garment’s health-related material treatment.
The cost of adding extra traceability comes down to cents. Wan estimates that per unit, DNA tagging tacks on a penny or less, holograms and watermarks hover around 3 cents and RFID adds 6 to 10 cents.
Given the premium that comes with verified products, these added cents also make sense from a business perspective.
“End consumers and retailers want both visibility into information and confidence that what the brand claims is accurate,” said Brasek. “Essentially, they want what they pay for, especially when they are willing to pay more for apparel that claims to meet their need or desire.”
The risks of not being able to prove provenance are high, and so are the rewards for adding in traceability.
“If they protect the claim, they protect their reputation and reduce the risk, but ultimately they’re going to sell a better quality product, they’re going to have trust in every part of what they do,” said Wan. “And they’ll have loyalty from an end consumer if they just do the right thing. Everyone is a consumer, even if you’re working in the business.”