Cotton has been a part of our lives since ancient times. Historians estimate that India was producing and exporting cotton textile as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization, that is nearly 2500 BCE. In fact, India happens to be the largest producer of cotton in the world.
But that is just a positive story. The current world that we live in, the textile industry, is renowned as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation put global textile industry emissions at 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, close to the level of emissions from the automobile industry. That is a huge footprint. Little wonder, consumers across the spectrum are asking for sustainable practices and products. Buyers and manufacturers need more clarity and confirmation on the origin of the raw material. The movement for sustainable textile practices is growing with every passing day.
One of the biggest challenges in sustainable cotton is its traceability. How can a user assuredly trace the fabric of his shirt back to a farmer, possibly thousands of km away? How can one be sure that the so-called sustainable cotton has not been mixed and diluted with synthetic or ‘dirty’ cotton?
This is where IntegriTEXcomes into place. Alex Deitermann, Founding Director, Tailorlux GmbH, has created a digital solution that can provide traceability and thereby promote sustainability. In an exclusive interaction with Shashwat DC, Alex highlights the different aspects of IntegriTex and how the system works. He also talks about how he is working with Indian farmers in adopting Fair Cotton practices. Excerpts.
Why do we need traceability for textiles?
There are several challenges in the textile industry, such as authenticity and sustainability for raw materials. Especially mixing/blending or substitution of original materials (e. g. organic cotton by conventional cotton) is a big problem in textile production. How can it be possible to detect mixing or blending and to protect against it?
Also, transparency of the production processes is a big issue, including water consumption, energy consumption/savings, soil-water, and air preservation, working and labor conditions, human rights, etc. Last but not least, after the use of textile products, there are new potentials in re-using, sorting, recycling, circularity, and more.
How significant or critical is the environmental impact?
It is indeed a critical issue to be addressed, as the textile industry is estimated to be responsible for the consumption of about 20% of the global resources. For nearly ten years, there has been a high awareness regarding the relevance to increase the efficiency of energy and water as well as sustainability for fiber production and processing, to textile and garment.
The key to sustainability is traceability. As long as it is practically impossible to detect mixing, blending, or exchange of material, there is no way to guarantee the integrity of textile products. The way around – traceability leads to transparency of entire supply chains. Responsible at sources/manufacturers/brands/retailers can control the conditions for people, production, and products. There will be tools for end-users available soon to enable a decision at the point of sale, which product to buy or not to buy – based on documented facts regarding the used materials and production conditions. Very soon, we will see transparent textile products – with a significant impact on the global environment!
While there has been a lot of talk about sustainable cotton, what is the real-world scenario? Why hasn’t sustainable cotton spread the way it could have?
All programs to make cotton more sustainable are good programs in principle. The problem is that claims can not be documented sufficiently throughout the supply chain. The raw material – any kind of cotton or other fiber – is an analog material. For feasible traceability, it is necessary to digitize raw materials – not only delivery notes or hand-over-certificates. Paper is patient, says a saying. This is a general weakness, even if papers like transaction certificates are stored with blockchain technology. The data storage may be safe – if the material is something else, it doesn’t matter in the end.
A problem seems to be that a lot of declared organic cotton is not meeting the strict requirements in reality. This leads to a higher supply in comparison to the increasing demand – and lower prices as a logical consequence. The vital step is to digitize the raw material and document it online through the entire production, including process parameters to ensure the quantities are correct.
As long as only certificates and delivery notes are scanned and traced, it will be easy to declare conventional cotton to be sustainable or organic cotton. You can call it mixing, blending, and cheating. IntegriTEX is the solution against this: only with reliable traceability and quantification a standard like GOTS can be controlled, reliable, and undeclared mixing and blending avoided.
If the amount of organic cotton is limited by integrated traceability (along with increasing demand as a result of the commitment of many global brands to increase the use of organic cotton) – the result can only lead to higher prices (in comparison to conventional cotton) for the farmers.
How does Tailorlux’s IntegriTEX solution aim to resolve the issue of eliminating fraud in cotton farming?
The marking of cotton with IntegriTEX ideally takes place at the cotton gin. To avoid fraud in cotton farming needs a robust management system and discipline on the farm level. There are organizations like Chetna Organic, which have fully digital field mapping and documentation in place so that those organizations can guarantee that their e. g. organic cotton is 100% GMO-free, and no artificial fertilizer or agrochemicals are used in those fields. Since this can be tested in laboratories at any time, our customers start with the traceability of cotton fibers at the gin where the seeds are extracted, and the lint cotton is marked with IntegrTEX. From there, the original cotton can be identified, including the detection of mixing/blending (quantification) and documented throughout the entire production chain.
What is the cost entailed for this solution?
The necessary investment in a functional and reliable traceability solution depends on several factors like the quantity to be marked and traced per annum; the number of feeding machines for the marking fiber and the number of gins; the number of inline- and handheld-sensors needed, the number of different taggants for different customers required, the data access and reporting services included and more. As a general figure, experience shows that the investment necessary lies between 1 percent and 1 per mille of the retail price of the end product.
There has been a Fairtrade cotton project launched in India and Nepal, can you throw some light on it?
One of our customers is DIBELLA, a bed linen supplier for professional use in hotels and hospitals in Germany. DIBELLA uses fair trade organic cotton from Chetna Organic for about 15 percent of its products. The challenges are the same as in other applications: without a digital fingerprint in the fiber/textile material itself, it isn’t very easy to trace fiber products and to ensure their authenticity and integrity to the customer.
How can cotton producers and textile manufacturers benefit from adopting the IntegriTEX solution?
The first benefit is transparency. Every product can be traced back through all production steps and the source of the raw material. This leads to integrity; nobody can cheat anymore and sell organic cotton products anymore, which contain conventional cotton. This results in limited supply and, therefore, higher prices for these premium qualities of raw materials.
Additional results are fair conditions for workers, the meeting of environmental standards, etc. People get fair salaries; water, air, and soils are kept clean, energy is used efficiently because all of this becomes transparent. We believe that it may take some time, but there’s sill be more customers attracted to e.g., the better CO2 balance in comparison to the worse.
All this data will be available to the customer by smartphone, and beneficial for cotton producers and textile manufacturers when their products are better than alternatives.
How does IntegriTex solution help against counterfeiting and substitution like mixing and blending?
IntegriTEX is (by our knowledge) the only traceability solution for textile applications, which allows the quantification of different components in a ready product. Additionally, IntegriTEX offers this performance at two different levels: one in production and one at the product itself. The principle is quite straightforward: the data model knows, how the reading of the taggant has to appear at different levels, e. g — 100, 70, 50 percent or less original material. The IntegriTEX sensor compares the target with the real results and shows the percentage of mixing or blending vs. the tagged original ratio.
How many companies are you currently working with? What has been the response?
IntegriTEX is based on a technology called Tailor-Safe, which has been developed from 2010 and experienced first textile applications from 2012. Meanwhile, more than 1.200 different materials have been marked, and sensoriality traced at more than 70 customers worldwide. In textiles, the first applications are scaling now to 10.000 metric tons p.a. and above so that product categories (e.g., R-PET) will be marked and traced as a standard soon.
How can IntegriTEX benefit cotton producers in India and other such countries?
Cotton is a very demanding plant and needs much more water, nutrition, and agrochemicals in comparison to other plants in agriculture. Since yields will tentatively decrease with more extensive cotton farming, it will be necessary to proof at a 100%-level how the cotton fiber is produced and that it is a kind of better cotton to apply for a premium price upcharge.
The same is true for organic cotton, extra-long-staple cotton, etc. With a digital fingerprint integrated into the fiber, the farmers are sure that their cotton can not be mixed, blended, or exchanged by another cotton. Since the supply of such qualities stays limited, the logical result leads to higher prices for premium cotton and a higher income for the farmers. This can also be a goal/result for local products (for example, cotton made in Africa, Israel, Turkey).
If you look at it from a distance – cotton producers are interested in securing their soil, water, flora, and fauna to achieve true sustainability over decades and generations. This means that they may want to change from conventional to more ecological ways of farming, even with lower yields. This has to result in a higher price for fiber like this can be observed in other areas like organic food for many years.
Below the line, I believe, it will only be possible to realize a separate and fair pricing system for organic cotton with full traceability of all organic cotton, to build up solid security against mixing, blending and cheating.