Why fabric fraud is so easy to hide

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In 2016, US retailer Target severed ties with textile manufacturer Welspun India after discovering that 750,000 sheets and pillowcases labelled Egyptian cotton were not 100% Egyptian after all.

Egypt has long been known for producing long- and extra-long-staple cotton, a variety of the crop with especially long threads that results in softer and more durable fabric – so products labelled Egyptian typically command a higher price. But the year after the Welspun incident, the Cotton Egypt Association estimated that 90% of global supplies of Egyptian cotton in 2016 were fake.

Egyptian cotton is not the only fabric that has fallen foul of mislabelling in recent years. In 2020, the Global Organic Textile Standard (Gots) said that 20,000 tonnes of Indian cotton had been incorrectly certified as organic – around a sixth of the country’s total production. In 2017, a Vietnamese silk brand admitted that half of its silk actually came from China. And in 2018, several British retailers had to withdraw “faux” fur products that turned out to be the real thing.

From choosing an organic cotton T-shirt to buying trainers made out of recycled plastic bottles, many of us opt to pay more in the hope that our purchase will be better quality, or help people or the planet. However, as the Welspun incident and others have shown, when it comes to textiles, we’re not always getting what we think we’ve paid for.

With complex, fragmented supply chains that sometimes rely on a literal paper trail, where each step in the chain might happen in a different country, it’s easy to see how mislabelling can happen. And while these chains are extremely difficult to trace, it is possible for brands to redress problems of provenance – Welspun India, for instance, has now gained a place on the Cotton Egypt Association’s list of accredited manufacturers.

To allow companies to verify the authenticity of their own products, firms are turning to technology that can track fibres from the farm field to the shop floor.

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Data on the true extent of textile fraud worldwide is hard to come by, but there are indications that the problem extends further than a few isolated incidents.

When it comes to organic cotton, for instance, there appears to be a gap between how much is actually produced worldwide, and how much brands and retailers claim to use in their finished products. “There are indicators, from self-reporting of various fabric mills, spinners, farmers, brands, that I would argue that the vast majority of cotton that is presented to consumers as organic is not, in fact, organic cotton,” says Crispin Argento, managing director at the Sourcery, an Amsterdam-based company that helps brands source organic cotton direct from growers.

Synthetic materials are not immune. Waste2Wear, a company that tests fabric claiming to be made from recycled plastic bottles, told BBC Future that 60% of the tests it conducted in 2022 failed, indicating that the products were actually made from virgin plastic. The company, which also manufactures its own recycled plastic textiles, has had its testing verified by independent consultancy Wessling.

But putting an exact number on how far these issues extend is not yet possible. “It’s very difficult to estimate the scale of the problem,” says Ashley Gill, chief strategy officer at Textile Exchange, a non-profit that owns standards relating to various sustainability claims. “These types of claims, that you can’t just look at a product and tell those things, are going to happen. Without having a system of trying to capture the information, you won’t really have a sense of what’s happening.”

Many steps in the garment supply chain are poorly documented, sometimes relying on a physical paper trail (Credit: Getty Images)

To better understand the issue, Textile Exchange publishes yearly reports on production volumes of fibres across the industry as well as gathering data elsewhere in the supply chain to see where claims don’t match up with reality. “Reconciling the volume is a big piece of being able to understand what’s really happening in the supply chain,” says Gill.

A typical supply chain in the textile industry can be incredibly complex, with separate facilities, often in different countries, completing each step in the process. Cotton grown in Egypt might be shipped to India to be spun into yarn in one facility, woven into a fabric in another, then sent to Portugal to be cut and sewn, before being sold in a department store in London.

“The fashion supply chain is super fragmented and very dense,” says Kathleen Rademan, director of the innovation platform at Fashion for Good, a non-profit working to make fashion more sustainable. “It’s hundreds of hands that an item passes through before it comes into the consumer’s hands.”

Often, retailers and brands themselves don’t know exactly where the fabric in their products comes from. A 2019 Unece study found that only a third of the top 100 apparel companies track their own supply chains – and half of those only gather information as far as their immediate suppliers.

On top of that, systems for tracking fabric as it moves through the chain can be decidedly old school. “You’ve got some supply chains literally having a physical piece of paper that’s moved along the supply chain to check where it comes from, or some kind of data entry,” says Rademan. “But you’re not having any digital check to make sure that there’s no fraud in that certification as it gets passed along the supply chain. You’ve also not got an underlying physical check to make sure all the fibre originated from where it says it came from.”

Fabric mislabelling doesn’t just mean that consumers are being short-changed.

Polyester made from recycled plastic bottles has a lower carbon footprint than polyester made from petroleum. According to Textile Exchange, only 14% of polyester fibres used in the apparel industry in 2019 came from recycled bottles – but that figure needs to increase to 45% by 2025 if the industry is to reach its climate targets.

Organic cotton has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional cotton, and is grown without synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that can leach into nearby rivers and pollute the local environment. As well as avoiding the harmful effects of those pesticides on their health, organic cotton farmers can earn more for their product. Farmers working with the Organic Cotton Accelerator’s farm programme in the 2021-22 season, for instance, earned on average 7% more in net profit from their cotton per hectare than conventional cotton farmers in their local area.

Brands and retailers are also coming under increasing pressure to shine a light on their complex supply chains.

To be imported to the US, cotton from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region must now come with proof that it was not produced using forced labour (Credit: Getty Images)

A new law in France means that companies selling textile products must disclose a long list of traceability information to customers, including the country where the material was woven or knitted, where dyeing or printing took place, how much of the fabric is made up of recycled material, and if the fabric contains more than 50% synthetic fibres by weight.

“This is really detailed for textile products,” says Pantxika Ospital, a PhD student at the University of Bordeaux, France, working on traceability and transparency in the fashion industry. “It’s really difficult for brands. At the moment, some of them, they don’t have any information, they only know the country of origin of the product.

“Some companies, they are really lost,” she says.

When it comes to elucidating supply chains, some sections of the industry certainly still have far to go. In a 2021 report by Laura Murphy at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, and colleagues found that international brands may unwittingly purchase goods made of cotton that originates in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where widespread human rights abuses have been reported, including forced labour. The region produces 85% of China’s cotton, and 20% of the world’s. “The mechanisms that obfuscate Xinjiang cotton sourcing are able to operate precisely because they make it plausible for the end buyers not to know,” the authors write.

In the US, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which came into effect in June 2022, requires companies to be able to prove that imported goods originating from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China were not made using forced labour. If they can’t provide this proof, they risk having their shipment impounded. The European Commission has proposed a similar ban on products made with forced labour.

For retailers wanting to verify the authenticity of their products – or simply stay on the right side of new legislation – forensic and additive-tracing technologies provide a way to track fibres through a supply chain.

Isotope analysis, for instance, involves finding a fibre’s unique environmental fingerprint to verify its geographical origin. It works by taking advantage of slight variations of common elements known as stable isotopes. The amounts of those stable isotopes present in the environment vary depending on factors including climate and soil conditions. Some naturally occurring oxygen atoms happen to contain an extra two neutrons, for example, and the ratio of oxygen-16 (the typical, most abundant type of oxygen) with oxygen-18 (the one with an extra two neutrons) changes depending on temperature, altitude, and rainfall.

When plants and animals grow, they absorb stable isotopes into their bodies in the same ratios that those isotopes are present in the environment. They also absorb trace elements, such as potassium and zinc, from their soil, water, and feed. By measuring the levels of these stable isotopes and trace elements in the raw material from a specific farm, forensic tracing companies create an individual fingerprint for that fibre. Later, fabric samples taken from the supply chain can be analysed and compared to those stored fingerprints.

To ensure each product’s individual fingerprint is truly unique, companies must build large provenance databases. “They have to actually go out and get soil samples from all the different major cotton farms, for example, in the world,” says Rademan. “It’s quite something to build up these tracing systems.”

Garments take a long and winding route from field or oil rig to their place in our closets (Credit: Getty Images)

While forensic tracing methods like isotope analysis tend to work well with natural materials like cotton, silk and wool, they can’t trace synthetic material. “With synthetic fibres, because they’re mostly oil-based, you’re not going to find the oil rig it came from,” says Rademan.

In contrast to forensic tracers, additive tracers use artificial signatures to track a fabric as it travels through the supply chain, typically relying on adding artificial DNA or pigments to the fibres that act as an “invisible ink”. The tracers are applied to the fabric, usually through a spray or printing process, and then detected later on in the supply chain to verify the authenticity of the products. Unlike forensic methods, additive tracers do work for synthetic materials.

Digital traceability systems – often blockchain-based – can also strengthen supply chains. But they are not immune to fraud, and don’t offer the additional cross-check that a physical tracer does. “For traceability, we are talking about blockchain all the time,” says Ospital. “That’s true that blockchain is connecting many companies […] But if you declare some false information, and nobody is verifying this information, it doesn’t work.”

Alongside individual companies tracking their own products, wider testing is also tackling some instances of fraud.

With Gots and Textile Exchange, the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) developed a method to extract DNA from cotton and screen for genetic modifications known to have been made to the crop in countries like the US, India and China. Because organic certification requires the use of non-GM seed, high levels of GM material in a batch of “organic” cotton suggest something is not right. “We have a reliable form of testing GM presence in organic products,” says Bart Vollaard, executive director at OCA. “That didn’t really exist a few years ago.”

Similarly, the CEA says it uses DNA testing to check that products carrying its logo are made of true Egyptian cotton.

Blockchain-based tracing systems and DNA testing garment fibres are among the technologies that can determine the provenance of clothes (Credit: Getty Images)

For brands and retailers wanting to use tracing technology to verify the authenticity of their products, the first step is to map out the whole supply chain.

In 2018, Stockholm-based clothing company Asket set itself the goal of fully tracing its entire range. At the time, like many brands, the company only really knew about its immediate suppliers. “We started to work upstream, essentially asking all these questions and really annoying our factories,” says Asket co-founder August Bard Bringéus.

Knitting facilities were initially reluctant to share where their raw materials came from. “They really feared that we would try and cut them out,” says Bringéus.

While Asket does not currently use any physical tracers in their supply chain, Bringéus says they could be useful in some instances – especially for cotton.

For the last few garments the company has yet to fully trace, conventional cotton is the sticking point. Cotton harvested from multiple farms is mixed and sold together, making it very difficult to trace back to a specific farm. At the moment, Asket relies on Gots certification to trace its organic cotton – and has plans to switch to organic cotton across its whole range – but doesn’t know exactly which farms it has come from.

“We have the raw cotton that’s been ginned [the cotton fibres separated from the seed] that arrives at our spinning mill,” says Bringéus. “From that point on, we are 100% confident in our traceability.” Adding a physical tracer to the mix that could track that raw cotton back to its origin, on top of the existing Gots certification, would provide extra peace of mind. “That would still give us some confidence that we don’t have today,” he says.

However, while physical tracers can add a useful extra verification step to existing certification systems, they can never paint a full picture of a textile product’s origin. Take isotope testing, which can trace a natural fibre back to where it was grown. “Often production models vary within regions, and the isotope testing is not going to tell you the specifics of that production system,” says Gill. “It won’t tell you how workers were treated, it won’t tell you what the biodiversity measures are.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for brands and retailers will be forging the relationships with their supply chain that are needed to implement tracing technologies in the first place. “You have to know who your supply chain people are, and you have to have a relationship with them and engage with them,” says Rademan.

Ultimately, transparency across the textile industry requires not just technological solutions, but a radical departure from business as usual. “You can’t really get the truth unless you change the way we do business,” says Argento.

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