DNA Tracking Technology Allows You To Check Whether People Suffered Making Your T-Shirt

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 weeks ago | Features

Image: Pimacott cotton farms. Image source.

BBC recently tracked just how many countries particular garments had travelled to before making their way into consumer’s hands. But now Pimacott, the American division of the Indian cotton supplier Himatsingka, has been working on a technology that could make the tracing process a whole lot simpler for consumers. According to Fast Company, Pimacott has been developing DNA tagging that will allow us pinpoint exactly where our cotton comes from.

In the face of fashion’s ever-complex supply chain, this sort of traceability is completely revolutionary. And it’s particularly important in the case of cotton, which is considered one of the dirtiest crops on the planet. Not only do conventional cotton crops occupy just 2.4% of the world’s land and yet account for 11% of total pesticides and 24% of total insecticides, but these crops are also tainted with human suffering. In India, for example —one of the world’s largest producers of cotton — cotton is generally harvested on small farms, where families go into debt in order to buy seeds from Monsanto, a supplier that dominates 90% of the Indian market. This set up can cause families to lose everything and it has been tied up with a local suicide epidemic that’s claimed the lives of around 300,000 farmers. 

The problem of course is that this journey can be very difficult for us consumers to see when we’re purchasing products. Or, as Fast Company puts it, “by the time the cotton fabric gets to clothing and home goods manufacturers, it is sometimes close to impossible to ascertain the source of the textiles.” This is what Pimacott is determined to change. As its name suggests, Pimacott develops the pima cotton variety, which is grown largely in the San Joaquin Valley in California and in particular regions of Peru. The company's focus on high-end cotton therefore plays a large part in their desire to assure customers that they are getting authentic and unadulterated pima.

“In the industry, there was an increasing discrepancy between what was written on the package of a cotton product and what the material was actually made of,” explains Pimacott CEO David Greenstein. “There was no really good way to test, so there was less of an emphasis on ensuring the purity of the product. We decided that we were going to use technology to change the way that we source cotton and take control of our supply chain.”

As a result, Pimacott has teamed up with Applied DNA Sciences, a U.S. tech firm, to develop a DNA tagging mechanism for its cotton. It takes place at the gin and basically sees little molecules released into the cotton and permanently bound to it. Which acts like a sort of barcode on each grain of cotton. “We apply it during a step that the gin has to do anyway,” says Jim Hayward, CEO, Applied DNA Sciences. “Our goal is always to have no impact on the process.” 

Greenstein adds that “this concept of using DNA tagging and following it throughout the supply chain is encapsulated in what our brand is trying to do. It’s a trust mark that is meant to educate the American consumer about the source of the material.” But in order for it to really work, Pimacott has had to go to the very roots of the cotton industry — the farms themselves.

Pimacott has been working closely with its farming partners to incorporate this DNA tagging process into their system. Cannon Michael is a farmer that runs Bowles Farming Company in the Central Valley of California, for example. And he points out that his farm’s sustainable practices are an effort to compete on quality and consistency. Especially given that “California is a higher cost environment than any other cotton-producing region,” Michael says.

Overall, Pimacott’s technological innovation represents a positive sign for the future. If this technology becomes widely available, then it could help vastly in educating consumers about the health hazards major cotton labourers suffer as a result of pesticide exposure, as well as the slave-like conditions experienced by cotton workers in some parts of the world. Ultimately the better informed we are about where our T-shirt comes from, the better decisions we can make as consumers on the whole.

Via Fast Company 

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