The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot combines on-product markers and blockchain technology to track organic cotton from farm to consumer. Photo credit: Tailorlux

The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot combines on-product markers and blockchain technology to track organic cotton from farm to consumer. Photo credit: Tailorlux

A pilot project that combines on-product markers and blockchain technology to trace organic cotton from farm to consumer – a first in the apparel industry – has been deemed so successful that it could be implemented on a wider scale in the organic cotton sector and shows "enormous potential" as an end-to-end traceability solution for other preferred fibres in the fashion supply chain.

Emerging technologies are beginning to offer brands the tools they need to efficiently and reliably verify materials, but until now have not been successfully applied in the garment industry.

The Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot was initiated in 2018 by the partner organisations to test and validate on-product markers in combination with blockchain technology as a traceability solution in real-world practice. The multi-stakeholder initiative is led by Fashion for Good, C&A Foundation, and the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), with support from Kering, Zalando, PVH Corp, and C&A.

Details of the pilot project were first announced earlier this year prior to in-field testing, which concluded this past summer. C&A has been "instrumental" by leveraging its supply chain – Pratibha Syntex Limited, a vertically integrated manufacturing facility from farm to fashion in India supporting in-field trials, as well as its retail expertise – to fully explore production from fibre to garment available in stores across Europe.

Transparency in the value chain

Current traceability systems, though reliable, rely largely on paper-based trails of certification as well as various, separate systems to manage the chain of custody. The new process explored in the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot instead creates a digital and physical trail that increases the reliability of traceability by combining the immutability of blockchain with on-product markers that verify the identity of the fibre.

This method comes closest to full traceability of the origin, purity and distribution of the cotton within the current landscape, according to Fashion for Good, a global initiative trying to make fashion more sustainable. At the consumer level, the solution can be used to communicate which suppliers and manufacturers have worked together to create the final product.

During the pilot, lead technical partner Bext360, an agricultural blockchain startup, was backed by Haelixa, Tailorlux, IN-Code Technologies and Corebiome, whose DNA, invisible fluorescent and microbiome technologies respectively were applied in tracking the organic cotton.

After enduring the harsh manufacturing processes of spinning, chemical treatments, high temperatures and dyeing, the DNA and invisible fluorescent tracers emerged intact to positively identify the cotton in consumer-ready garments in retail outlets. E-Code NFC tags provided by IN-Code Technologies enabled additional verification by way of unique digital data points collected through production.

Deploying machine vision and artificial intelligence to automatically catalogue and grade the quality of the cotton, the Bext360 blockchain platform can then track each transaction, through the entire value chain.

"The success of the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot provides a positive impulse towards traceability and transparency in the value chain" – Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good

"The success of the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot provides a positive impulse towards traceability and transparency in the value chain," says Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good. "We've gathered sufficient insights and evidence to support the case, in terms of technical as well as operational viability, for the wider implementation of the process in the organic cotton industry. In addition, the process shows enormous potential for further expansion to include other fibres in the fashion supply chain," 

In recent years, there has been increasing pressure for transparency along the fashion value chain from both consumers and governments. Simultaneously, greater awareness of the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry has catalysed interest and positive action towards more sustainable practices.

Fashion for Good says organic cotton promotes healthy soils, healthy ecosystems, healthy people and thriving farming communities and is consequently a key fibre in the sustainability strategies of fashion brands worldwide. It also offers a lower ecological impact – reducing exposure to insecticides, pesticides and other chemicals, than conventional cotton production, which involves some of the highest use of pesticides and incurs a heavy water footprint.

"By having fully traceable organic cotton, the hope is to grow the use of cotton in the industry while increasing awareness of sustainable products."

From December 2019 onwards, the Fashion for Good Experience in Amsterdam – a consumer-facing museum focused on sustainable fashion and innovation – will feature an organic cotton T-shirt from the supply chain used in the pilot project. Using a Tailorlux handheld spectrometer, consumers can verify the presence of the tracer for themselves in the interactive display.

Besides the presentation, the Experience will host events around transparency and traceability to educate consumers about their importance. Insights from the pilot will be shared to raise awareness of the significance of organic cotton as well as the benefits of a transparent supply chain.