Traceability and transparency in supply chains is more important than ever
Using biotechnology as a forensic foundation, Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS) keeps life real and safe by providing DNA-based solutions to protect assets, products, brands, supply chains and intellectual property of companies, governments and consumers from theft, counterfeiting, fraud and diversion. Dr. Mike Hogan, VP Life Sciences at Applied DNA Sciences, and Rajeev Kewlani, Business Consultant with Applied DNA Sciences talk to Hiral Oza about prospects and possibilities of molecular tagging in textiles.
Which are the different cotton varieties apart from Pimacott that use molecular DNA tagging?
Mike Hogan (MH): There are two principal varieties that use the molecular DNA technology, one of course, Pimacott , that is for Pima cotton and the other is Homegrown for upland cotton. So at this point, we will be doing both, all currently from the US: Pima and then the upland. Each gets tagged with its own unique identifier, so they can be distinguished from one another.
Beside cotton, wool, and synthetics fibres, which other fibres can be tagged at the molecular level?
MH: We have begun a programme in different sorts of synthetics like conventional and recycled PET, and viscose. That is just the beginning. We think that this is going to be very important. Within the synthetic fibres, our primary focus is polyester and PET, particularly in the areas of recycled PET; because there is a need to prove sustainability claims. We need to distinguish recycled products from those that are not; so, that is the big focus for us. And also, apart from the development in the fabric area, tangentially we are in the midst of a big programme in leather which started earlier this year with the British Leather Centre supported by a number of major brands. We have moved into full commercialisation with polyester. Despite being in an early stage, we are currently selling commercial scale kits to routinely tag million-pound lots of polyester. So we are growing our textile business.
Can molecular tagging be used for purposes beyond just protecting counterfeit, fraud, and intellectual property? What are the future applications?
MH: Textile fibres, before they are processed, all look very similar. It is very easy for fibres to lose their identity, whether intentional or not, and without a means to tag and test the fibre itself, traceability and all claims related to sustainability can be lost. So, we offer a true traceability solution called CertainT. It's about how to prove product claims in a manner that is more effective than current uses of paper certificates and the like. You can claim sustainability, or authenticity, as well as traceability and transparency by putting identity directly into the products you sell. Often in supply chains, one worries about counterfeiting, fraud, diversion and so forth. It takes years to build a reputation and just minutes to destroy it. CertainT can help you build that reputation and keep it real and safe.
Rajeev Kewlani (RK): The other big aspect is sustainability. Across the globe, this idea of the closed-loop supply chain, where you produce and recycle, is being embraced. In order to prove that a product is sustainable, brands and manufacturers typically spend considerable time and resources to secure their supply chains, and assure true sustainability, and to confirm that their source materials avoid unfair or forced labour practices, and so forth. When it comes to supply chain best practices, it is important to ask: how do you know that it is from sustainable source? How do you know that it's organic? So I think this idea of using molecular tags is to control and ensure true traceability, sustainability and transparency, which is becoming more important in the minds of sourcing and supply chain managers.
Is it possible to know the location of the garment through molecular tagging?
MH: For cotton, as an example, we work with partners who operate in a closed loop system. Where every step of the textile production, from source to shelf, is known in advance, and we have protocols to tag, test and track the products that are part of that system. In effect, this means we do know where the product is made and where it comes from.
What amount do you apply for the molecular tag? Is there an amount of fibre that you take for molecular tagging or the whole lot?
MH: The whole lot; it is continuous. The gin has actually become sophisticated, especially since the 2016 ginning season. We have a completely automated delivery system that we install, the DNA Transfer System (DTS) at the gin. The DTS is set up by Applied DNA personnel, and once it is switched on and DNA tagging begins, it is monitored in real time from our facilities in New York. We know exactly when, where, which gin is tagging cotton at all times. As part of our regular protocol, we have trained personnel on the ground to also ensure that things are working smoothly.
RK: So, before we tag the cotton, we also confirm that the fibre contains pure Pima, or pure upland, this helps us ensure what we are tagging is pure. MH: The fibre typing test is crucial to us and needs to be done in the beginning of the whole process because we need to ensure that what we are tagging is authentic.
A leading Indian home textile manufacturer lost clients over claiming to sell Egyptian cotton to major brands. What are your thoughts on it?
RK: August 2016 was the first time a US retailer took action related to selling products labeled 100 per cent Egyptian cotton with a public statement that the product that they were supplied was not compliant with the label claim. Before that time, for many years, we had forewarned the industry about noncompliance and label discrepancies. The key takeaway from what happened is that traceability and transparency and trust in supply chains is more important than ever. If you think about it, without tagging the product itself, how else do you really know what you have is authentic?
MH: I think it was a wake-up call to the industry, especially to brands and retailers. If you say one thing and the proof is something else, then it will cost you millions in a product recall, but even more damage to your reputation as a trusted brand to the end consumer. The Egyptian cotton incident proved the point - if it can happen in home textiles, it can happen in apparel, footwear or any textile for that matter.
How can consumers of the final textile product check or test this technology? What benefit would synthetic fibres accrue with DNA tagging?
Well, I think that the Wamsutta Pimacott programme for Bed Bath & Beyond is a good example for that. When the customer goes to one of the Bed Bath & Beyond stores in the US, they see packages identified as Pimacott, which is pure Pima cotton grown in California. Then they can go to the Pimacott or Bed Bath & Beyond website, which has information about the whole process. Right now, consumers can go to the Pimacott or Bed Bath & Beyond websites, and learn about why it is special.
Does molecular tagging affect the compliances to be met in US and Europe and all the regions that a manufacturer is exporting or importing?
MH: The short answer is that we are applying it en masse at less than 1 part per billion. There are ways to amplify the DNA to a billion-fold before you analyse. Only DNA can be used, no other chemical or no other substance on the earth can be essentially or truthfully multiplied so much. So, that is how we get away with such tiny amount, no matter what kind of product. Whether it's cotton or polyester, we are applying such a small amount so that it does not change the chemical properties of the material. However, we amplify the DNA when we authenticate it.
How far can DNA tagging strengthen the Geographical Indication (GI) quotient of a product?
MH: I think that is potentially the very useful part, as we mentioned that Pimacott de facto means it comes from the San Joaquin Valley of California, the Homegrown brand comes from Texas and Arkansas. Different locations do have different tags; so, we can tell you if the cotton is from California, Texas or Arkansas.
Every country is promoting homegrown products, and DNA tagging can bring about authenticity. What are your thoughts on this?
MH: That is the nature of any good technology; it gives you options. It allows companies or even governments to begin to think how molecular tagging can help them. Perhaps it can help to enforce trade agreements so that you can be sure that you are properly applying the correct amount of duties to products, or it can help companies address the millennial need which is to know where products come from and for brands to be more transparent with the way products are made-are they eco-friendly, are they safe, are they sustainable, are they organic?
RK: Every molecular tag Applied DNA makes is unique to the brand or manufacturer. The tag has no impact on quality or performance of the product. If you want a tag to designate a particular region where you are manufacturing, we can create a unique tag just for that. MH: Our DNA-based molecular tags are made of four standard building blocks of DNA (A-CG-T) that can be assembled into many different configurations. We need to think about this as a 'molecular barcode'. It's very easy for us to create on-demand. We are one of the world's largest manufacturers of DNA using the polymerase chain reaction method.
What is the cost of acquiring this technology? Can small and medium scale companies that form the core of textiles industry in India afford this technology?
MH: For textiles, we have tagged as little as 2 million kg to 50 million kg of fibre, and we have been able to work with the supply chain to incorporate the cost of tagging. The more you tag, the more cost-effective it is. The value that we bring is traceability, transparency and trust in supply chains. When you think of how much money is spent on advertising budgets, and then you think about how much is done to protect the brand's products and the reputation, the cost of our technology is minuscule. If more brands and retailers ask the question-where do my products come from and where they are going-they will come to the quick realisation that they can do a lot when they have a more transparent supply chain and perhaps become more efficient and effective through the process. We learned through our partners that it takes a different mindset when you start to think about your supply chain and make it a fair return-a true win-win for all. This is what sustainability is about. Making the supply chain more resilient and more transparent. That is why this concept of the CertainT platform is so crucial.
RK: This is about involving all the parties of the supply chain from start to finish. Even smaller suppliers and manufacturers are a part of the supply chain in India. They directly or indirectly are a part of bigger brands. So they can, and should be involved as part of a CertainT platform. There is little to no change to current production processes. What is needed is a change in the mindset- that you are now looking from the fibre forward rather than from the fabric backward. By the time you check a finished good, it might be too late because the starting material may be in question. Our message is, if you have any uncertainty in your supply chain, we can help bring CertainT back in.
MH: It is mostly to do with discipline. I think our chief information officer pointed out the analogy of tagging to barcodes. Just printing barcodes on a piece of paper has no value. They need to be deployed properly, and only then do they add value. The discipline came into play with ink bar coding. This forced supply chains to bring about a discipline by using the printed barcodes that were incorporated into production and systems globally. Our molecular barcodes can work just like that, but are embedded in the product itself so that you can authenticate it anywhere in the world, either inside or outside of its packaging. That's the revolution in textiles that we kickstarted by giving textile products an identity.
RK: Just to cite an example of barcodes; everyone was considering an effort and cost to barcode a product until they realised their entire system and process works much faster and efficiently by scanning those codes at so many places. Then barcodes were accepted and the discipline came into place, making barcode a new normal. This is the phase where self-discipline of supply chain or a commitment to keep the supply chain clean came about.
MH: Now you can ask the question of what is the cost of doing this and rather what is the cost of not doing it?
RK: It is like being true to your commitments and even all your sustainability efforts. If I am saying that my garment contains 20 per cent R-PET or if my garment contains cellulose fibres which are being sourced not from deforestation but sourced from a sustainable source of wood, you need to support that. Mere paper trail documentation or mass balance, which in the past we have seen can be managed, will not suffice. If there is something that is inherent in the product which you can test at a given point of time, then that itself deters from making any kind of change into a supply chain.
Any plans to step into co-branding in hang-tags of products that reach the consumers and thus create awareness too?
MH: I think that is the next big step in some areas of our business. We are already doing this with our CertainT platform in certain verticals.
RK: In a way, CertainT will do that. It's like the 'Intel inside' for textiles. It shows that these goods were tagged, tested and tracked. In a way you are creating your own genealogy for the product. It's very exciting! MH: We have a very savvy technical team. Our chief information officer and the several folks who work for her have been deeply involved for more than a decade in building that kind of customer relationship, in terms of reading bar codes and getting some information, building the DNA story that is something they are already expert at.
Is the molecular tagging for fibres and yarn for the cotton and synthetic hackable?
RK: This is the first question which I get asked in every presentation we make or every meeting we attend. It cannot be copied, and there are some additional layers built into it that are proprietary.
MH: The way we deploy our DNA-based molecular tags, they cannot be hacked. You don't even know what actually exists unless you can amplify it.
Once applied across the textile value chain, what is the expected percentage reduction of carbon footprint?
MH: While we do not see our platform having an effect on carbon footprint, supply chains can use our technology to identify products which have used their processes for improved carbon footprint. Then, it becomes a much more valid argument. Otherwise, right now I could buy from some factory and just decide to say that I have reduced the carbon footprint and my product is better for business. But there could be no truth to it at all. So, our DNA would be a way to tag a product that has been produced by a process verified to reduce carbon footprint. This would be of help to answer the true carbon footprint tag. It's almost exactly logistically like the organic one; how do you know if something was grown in a bona fide organic fashion. Similarly, by the time something gets passed down in the supply chain then how do you know that something and somewhere it will reduce carbon footprint. It has to be verified at a particular time, and our DNA could be a way to tag it. I think it is potentially a very good way to try to compel people to reduce their carbon footprint and tell the truth about it at the same time.
What are the limitations of molecular tagging?
MH: Well, I think there are always limitations to everything. As an innovative company, at times, we push the technical boundaries pretty significantly. Originally, people were saying DNA is too unstable-it is just a biological molecule and it will all go poof one day. This is simply not true- DNA, when formulated correctly, is quite robust actually. One of our core technology partners said that Applied DNA's core competency is learning how to formulate DNA to endure extreme environments. Some of the things that we do everyday, most chemical and molecular experts would think are impossible. For instance, we put DNA into extreme environments every day-for example, we regularly put DNA into cured epoxy ink which has to be heated to 150°C for half hour to cure. In case of the polyester, we know in an almost extreme case, polyester does not even melt until 300°C. We had to make DNA stable at 300°C for 5 minutes in molten polyester, as it is thermoplastic. Everybody in the thermoplastic business knows that most other thermoplastics actually melt at much milder conditions. Polyethylene or polypropylene is 100° C. It was huge challenge for us. It has been a valuable learning experience to keep our tags and DNA intact at such very high temperatures.
From which regions do customers within the textile and apparel domain hail from?
MH: The US, Canada, Mexico, of course, in case of cotton growth. We have many partners in India, the US, China, and throughout Asia, Europe, Middle-East and Africa.
Anything else you would like to add or say?
MH: I came into Applied DNA because I had worked in biotech for a long time. I had always thought what can you do with the DNA? I first started with my pharma company to make DNA therapeutics in order to help companies make DNA diagnostics. When I found that Applied DNA was turning the idea of using DNA as a way to secure and authenticate supply chains, I thought that was a fantastic technical challenge. For me, it may be the best use of DNA by far for supply chain control, and that is the reason we moved from California to Stony Brook. I think DNA has wonderful diversity and flexibility, and may only be scratching the surface in terms of really developing its utility. Everyday we are uncovering more and more applications for our molecular taggants. Our goal is not to be somehow the DNA police for the universe; but we work with individual supply chain partners who have their own quality systems and people who are very good and concerned about sustainability, fair trade; and we also work with people who are experts in establishing the original materials, low carbon footprint, organic produce and so forth. We want to work closely with them, and our job is to use our knowledge of quality from the DNA side and work as a team.