The most sought after cotton is set apart by extra-long staple fibers. Warranting a very high price tag on the retail shelf, it is extremely hard to spot with the naked eye.
And as cotton travels thousands of miles around the world the potential for it to be diluted or even exchanged with lower quality materials is high.
This is why manufacturers, retailers and traders have increasingly been looking for new ways to check the quality of their cotton. The more complex the journey, the harder it is.
To address the issue, Louis Dreyfus Company is using a “diagnostic” system that applies DNA to determine the purity and quality of some of its cotton.
And while most people associate DNA with proving paternity or tracing ancestors, the technology is potentially groundbreaking for tracking fabrics along their supply chains too.
Developed by Applied DNA Sciences, “Signature T” technology uses tiny genetic markers that are sprayed on the cotton at the gin just before packaging and being turned into yarn. The DNA markers bind to the plant’s fibers and act as a microscopic bar code that can be tracked all along the supply chain.
A detective’s job
At each stop on that journey, samples are collected and tested to check that the DNA tags are still in place and that the high-quality cotton has not been substituted by another.
“The materials can be tested up to seven times during their journey.” says Rodger Glaspey, a Cotton Platform managing director in the US.
“And we are the only ones with this specific technology.”
The labels PimaCott and Homegrown, which are used to brand the cotton that is traced through DNA, are useful for manufacturers, traders, and retailers. They become increasingly consumer facing too.
“If you see that label on a shelf, you can be absolutely sure that you are paying for the real thing,” says Mr. Glaspey. “It is a guarantee of purity.”
But quality is just one of the challenges. Linked to sustainability issues, the industry and increasingly also the consumers want to know where the cotton is coming from.
Current technology does not yet determine the exact farm the material comes from. But it is already becoming an important tool to guarantee sustainability and quality.
“Do people want to track and understand the sustainability factor? Yes,” says Steve Dyer, Global Head of Cotton Marketing.
“LDC wants to be at the forefront of that, and as the technology matures, it will help us to address more and more sustainability issues linked to the production and trade of cotton.”
Today, only a small fraction of cotton is DNA traced but “the initiative is growing rapidly.”