What If We Could Trace Fibers From Roots To Retail?

In recent years, it has become more apparent how damaging the fashion industry is to the environment. Therefore discussions about textile standards, in terms of sustainable fashion, and the exploration of new technologies like the blockchain all sound very promising, but what if we could simplify the process of finding out the footprint of our garments.

Sustainable Fashion and Accountability

Some consumers may be satisfied with reading the label on their clothes. Others may look to standards organizations like GOTS or ISO, to learn more about the supply chains of their favorite brands. But we still don’t have scientific evidence to show exactly where a garment has come from. We can track its footprint from a seed to the shelf with various stages of reporting, but we do not have hard science to show for our tracking. If a technology was developed to do this, it would quickly impact the level of sustainability within the fashion industry. It could probably spread to other industries as well.

Imagine a Fiber Testing Kit, that any consumer could purchase, bring home to their closet, and run a quick analysis on their favourite t-shirt. Anyone with the ability to test the fiber, theoretically, could hold companies accountable for their sourcing practices. An invention like this could be highly disruptive to the fashion industry, especially pertaining to the ongoing battle between ethical apparel and fast-fashion. Having the ability to know where a piece of clothing has been throughout its lifetime could be fascinating. Where were the fibers grown? Where was the product manufactured? Whose hands created the stitches? What if we could track the DNA of fabric?

ALSO READ: 5 Sustainable Fabric Innovators to Watch Out For 

Over 40 years ago, DNA profiling was developed by British-born Sir Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist and professor at the University of Leicester. Across the pond in California, biochemist Dr Kary Mullis, learned how to link and repeat DNA (polymerase chain reaction or PCR), while trying to find the point of genetic mutations for hereditary diseases. Both extraordinary minds made incredible breakthroughs for our knowledge and understanding of the human genome. DNA testing was implemented into law enforcement’s forensic teams within two years of the discoveries and has since been used worldwide to prove criminal acts, as well as exonerate innocent suspects.Molecular Tagging

Since 1983, millions of people have benefitted from the ability to profile our DNA. Our knowledge of genetic linkages has led to countless family members being reunited, even posthumously. Millions more have been able to learn about their ethnicities, histories, and heritages through ancestry tracking. Yet often, we still think of DNA profiling most closely linked to evidence in criminal proceedings.
In fact, many fibers are traceable through the forensic analysis as well. Analysts determine if the thread is natural, manufactured, or mixed. They can usually identify the product it came from–A rug? A sweater? This is again often used by law enforcement and prosecutors to seek justice for crimes. Fiber forensic analysis is usually debated in court due to the mass of products created. 
The amount of production of a particular manufactured fiber and its end use, influence the degree of rarity of a given fiber. Unlike a fingerprint, there is no way to tell two fibers of the same origin apart. Fiber forensics can only be used as evidentiary support to corroborate other facts. Yet, why has this technology not expanded to track fibers for sustainability and ethics?
Molecular tagging of genes can identify and verify products creating a forensic proof of origin for more sustainable fashion.
What if we could trace fibers back to their origins? What if we could geographically pinpoint precisely where a thread was grown, what animals were involved, or what fertilisers were used? We could deduct which workers had a hand in the production or manufacturing process based on what specific area in the world our fibers were from. In a world of ever-growing technological advancements, this could be a logical next step in ensuring more sustainable supply chains.

Molecular Tagging to Reveal the Footprint 

Sustainable Fashion
Image Credits: Adrien Ledoux
Applied DNA Sciences has come the closest to creating this process for identifying fibers called “molecular 
tagging”. They tag fibers by matching batches to origins already known. Once a supplier is tested and proven to be sustainable, SigNature(™)T technology can then continue to tag future batches.

Although this gene tagging method may not be able to track individual fibers from anywhere in the world yet, many sustainable fashion organizations have mapped out the production process for consumers. MADE-BY, a non-profit organization dedicated to the fashion industry’s environmental and social conditions, has laid out a seed-to-shelf roadmap. MADE-BY works with sustainable brands to standardize the production process, highlight industry leaders, and mainstream sustainability advancements. Over 50 industry experts consulted on the typical methods, and six large fashion brands have now joined, including G-Star and Ted Baker.

Another of their worthy goals is to entice consumers to learn more about the manufacturing side of where their garments come from. This is an incredible endeavor on behalf of all the hard-working individuals who have created and advanced MADE-BY. However, the system still hinges on individuals throughout the production and manufacturing process to record a variety of their activities. It would be an incredible advancement if we could back up these activities with concrete evidence. The fiber testing system could back up these organization’s endeavors by proving their process is safe, environmental, and sustainable. The movement to create transparent supply chains would suddenly be so much easier to for companies to subscribe to.

Insights into Your Closet

Imagine walking into your closet, picking a tiny thread from your favorite shirt, and learning exactly where in the world it came from. Maybe the test shows what dye was used and geographically defines where the color came from too. Perhaps it shows specifics of which animals contributed to the process, like silkworms, sheep, goats, etc. Maybe it shows you what types of fertilizers were used in the growth process of cotton fibers. Maybe it shows that the water used in the dying process is from an entirely different part of the world than what’s found on the label.

This process could show us much more of our supply chains than we see today. Maybe we could know where all our products were originally grown or developed. The real question is, would we want to know? What if your favorite sustainable fashion brands are advertising their garments that were made in the last country the manufacturing took place in. All without accounting for the multiple countries that garment went through before reaching the final stage of the manufacturing process. If you could test the fibers at home, would you buy from this brand again? Suddenly, the power would be pushed back into the consumers’ hands, to make accurate decisions based on evidence and not just on marketing or advertising.

Sustainable Fashion: From Fiber To Fashion

For quite some time the sustainable fashion community has understood the importance of reducing cotton products and recreating fabrics in a new way. For hundreds of years, the cotton industry has become a lifeline for most nations worldwide. Like any major industry, it has produced positive and negative growth. Unfortunately, it has degraded our cultures and environments in certain areas of the world. For centuries, the cotton industry has been used as a tool to build countries, as well as destroy them. Current evidence of this destruction can be found in Uzbekistan, near the disappearing Aral Sea. Uzbekistan is one of the largest producers of cotton in the world. It has been speculated, over a million people are forced into the industry. Eventually, the crop will make its way into the manufacturers of the fast fashion industry, ending up on the racks of your local shopping mall. The good news is that there are innovators, collaborators, and sustainable fashion inventors creating new materials that make it possible for creatives to design incredible things.
Fashion Industry
Elpis Design Studio Eco Leather Tote Bag

Elpis Design Studio

A Thailand based sustainable fashion house,Elpis Design Studio, creates their own version of vegan leather, which is actually made from leaves. Their focus is creating products from biodegradable material. Not only are their products good for the environment, but healthy for you as well. Their core values hinge on facilitating “less is more” consumerism, reducing the negative impacts of the fast-paced fashion industry. Elpis Studio’s creations are simple, elegant, and ethical. And I might add, they have some of the cutest new clutch and handbag designs I’ve seen for quite some time.

Bionic Yarn

Bionic Yarn, a sustainable start-up turning ocean plastic into fabric, creates some incredible high profile fashion apparel. In recent years, we’ve learned that the amount of plastic in the ocean is seemingly insurmountable. Yet, it’s start-ups just like Bionic Yarn, that give us hope. Almost all plastic is reusable, but rarely is. In the past few years, Bionic Yarn, led by musician Pharrell Williams, has repurposed over 7 million plastic bottles from the ocean. The raw material company has created fabric for all kinds of products, from sail boat covers to back packs. Next time you’re in the market for a windbreaker, check them out!

Suzanne Lee

Focused on changing how the world works through design, Suzanne Lee is the Chief Creative Officer of Modern Meadow, a biotech start-up based in New York. Modern Meadow is pioneering animal free animal materials by combining design, engineering and biology.
They biofabricate leather materials by synthesizing collagen, the protein found in skin, and tanning the material like traditional leather.
A self-defined “bio-dressmaker”, Lee has not only grown apparel from bacteria, she has also created her own kombucha-based fabric for her unique designs. She coined the term Biocouture, after experimenting with microbial cellulose to invent new materials for fashion designers. While some of the material does look a little too much like human skin to wear comfortably at a dinner party, the idea of growing your own fabric is fascinating.
If you’re curious to see their first leather material, check it out at MoMA’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern”.


Neri Oxman

Neri Oxmansustaina, a designer and professor at MIT’s Media Lab, has suggested a new type of clothing we should all keep in mind. Oxman’s focus is on the future of interplanetary travel, and designing a biomorphic spacesuit. In Neri’s Wanderer’s project, she collaborates with 3D printers, computational designers, and Mediated Matter design students. While spacesuits may seem far off from our everyday loungewear, space tourism is not that far ahead. Which brings me to a very everyday question–what on Earth would we wear? Imagine dealing with no oxygen, light, or gravity. To travel in space, we may need to wear biosynthetic clothing, which intersects biological material and technological innovations.


Hemp, along with lyocell, bamboo, and flax, are all more sustainable alternatives to cotton. The fashion industry has known of these alternative materials for years. Yet we just cannot get enough of our cotton addiction. However, a lesser known plant, Stinging Nettle, is possibly the MOST sustainable around. Stinging Nettle produces a soft fibre, which is naturally fire resistant. Camira Fabrics has produced several interesting textiles featuring the fibre. As more sustainable fashion brands catch on to the idea, I’m curious to see what will grow out of these alternative fibres we already have.

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen an influx of fabric alternatives being researched and explored. Lauren Bowker, the fabric scientists behind The Unseen Emporium, has created color changing garments responsive to wind and heat. Emel + Aris has brought heat to our jackets for the coldest climates. Neemic has given us the ability to download our own outfits. Aside from the rapidly growing 3D printed space, there are many natural materials also being developed. Ecology may truly be at the heart of fashion innovation. The fusion of biology and technology has done incredible things for fashion, yet I’m convinced, the best is yet to come.

Seen first on FashNerd.com!