Is Your T-shirt Clean of Slavery?
December 7, 2016 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Business of Fashion: "Is Your T-shirt Clean of Slavery? Science May Soon Be Able to Tell. Shoppers lured by a bargain-priced t-shirt but concerned about whether the item is free of slave labor could soon have the answer — from DNA forensic technology."

"James Hayward, chief executive of US-based Applied DNA Sciences Inc. that develops DNA-based technology to prevent counterfeiting and ensure authenticity, said his researchers have been working in the cotton industry for up to nine years.

"He said this was prompted by rising concerns about the global cotton industry, that provides income for more than 250 million people, using child and slave labor in harvesting the crop and the during the production process to make clothes.

"Hayward said cotton was one of the most complex supply chains he had come across because it was grown in more than 100 countries and goes through a multi-stage transformation process before emerging in 'fast fashion' that is cheap and disposable."


"An estimated 46 million people are living as slaves, according [to] the 2016 Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation..."

(Via Well Spent.)
posted by Celsius1414 (6 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any practical way to live a fully ethical life these days? American working standards are surely much better overall, but workers are certainly not immune to exploitation.
posted by AFABulous at 12:47 PM on December 7, 2016

The headline is fairly misleading. The tech is nascent, it isn't something a consumer would have access to, and by the time cotton has been woven into fabric, potential fiber substitutions have already occurred.

So, this is interesting in an "Huh, that could be a cool use of dna type tech", but not so much in an "Customers can know the entire providence of the fibers in their clothes" kind of way.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 12:58 PM on December 7, 2016

He said Applied DNA Sciences was primarily working with two different types of DNA — an engineered DNA made from a botanical source that allowed it to track that fibre back to its origin.

It was also trying to identify the natural DNA found in cotton fibre that allowed researchers to know which species the cotton fibre is and where it comes from.
So many alarms going off.

"engineered DNA made from a botanical source" is... not even wrong? In the context of molecular biology, this is pretty much like Elizabeth Holmes (of Theranos infamy) saying, "... and a chemistry happens."

As for cotton fiber, it's almost pure cellulose, I'm not sure how much DNA can be extracted from it after the seed is removed. Also, cotton cellulose is heavily processed before even being spun; I'd imagine that any residual DNA would be degraded in the process.

I've investigated doing this kind of DNA forensic testing verifying the source of lavender and other herbs and botanicals. This involved having access to the material in question and having access to the source material - either a verified 'type specimen' with authenticated chain-of-custody documentation or actually going out in the field the material was purported to have been grown (providing that some of the plants of that batch still exists there).

This test could only identify whether the sample material and type material are the same strain/clone. Commercial plants are typically clonally propagated and widely sold; the same clones can be grown, harvested, and processed in two different areas (ie., one by slave labour, one by ethically remunerated labour) and they would be indistinguishable from one another, on the basis of DNA.

In order to determine where it was grown, you'd have to go into analytical chemistry/analytical physics to look at trace mineral profiles but this relies on that some of that plant batch that yielded the sample still being there. The same clones grown in successive years (with differential environmental and nutrient conditions) may yield a big enough difference such that last year's batch won't match this year's even if they from the same clonal source.

With something like cotton that is so highly processed, this isn't an option (you could do it but it wouldn't tell you anything).
posted by porpoise at 2:44 PM on December 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

The "fully ethical life" question is a really interesting one. By some metrics, no, I'd say it's not. It's basically impossible to exist in the first world without relying on products or services that rely, somewhere in the chain, of exploitation of someone, or animals, or the environment. Given that that's an impossibly high standard, though, I think an-ethical-as-you-can life isn't something anyone should feel bad about. I personally am not even close to the as-ethical-as-I-know-I-could-be. It's a very difficult problem.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:17 PM on December 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

While I share most of your skepticism, synthetic DNA for tracking and tracing porpoises (not sorry) has been commercially available for quite a while.
posted by delegeferenda at 12:08 PM on December 8, 2016

delegeferenda - I'm not concerned about "synthetic DNA" (and SelectaDNA isn't doing the same thing as this BS company is claiming - SelectaDNA is kind of interesing, it's like those microdots that BMW sprays their engines/car parts with so if police suspect that a car has been put together from a chop shop, they can trace the parts to a particular vehicle/VIN - but SelectaDNA is really really overstating their case, but hey, good on them).

I've worked with synthetic DNA, I've engineered synthetic DNA, it's the claim of "engineered DNA from a botanical source" is so full of BS. Technically you can derive 'engineered DNA" from a "botanical source" in a huge number of different ways, but that has very little to do with what they're purporting to be able to do (in the future).

The vagueness implies that they are still in the proof of concept stage; you can order large chunks of synthetic DNA for pretty cheap. What they're probably doing is getting a gene fragment to use as a template to test their (undisclosed) DNA analysis techniques.

This is stuff that I've demo-ed to highschool students, and have guided them through conducting the "chemistries" to amplify and visual their own DNA.

The "from a botanical source" is pretty nonsense, especially when combined with "engineered DNA."
posted by porpoise at 4:32 PM on December 8, 2016

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