The technology that’s sewing transparency into the fashion supply chain

Combining the power of bioluminescent pigment and blockchain, FibreTrace tracks garments from first seed to store shelves.

By Chris Erik Thomas

Whether you’re walking around a shopping district or browsing online stores, you may think the fashion industry is more sustainable than ever. Words like “ethical,” “natural” and “eco-friendly” are affixed to specialty clothing lines at massive retailers, as well as to newer, smaller brands that have championed sustainability from inception. At the surface level, the great, green fashion revolution is happening. But what if you dig a little deeper?

In early 2021, after analyzing data from almost 50 major fashion companies—including in-depth assessments of more than 4,000 products from 12 brands—the nonprofit Changing Markets Foundation found that “as many as 59% of all green claims by European and United Kingdom fashion brands are misleading.” Still, the issue extends beyond just the claim of being green: It has to do with the very fibers being used to make clothing.

Since the early 2000s, when the concept of “fast fashion” was introduced in the retail industry, the use of cotton in clothing has been outpaced by the rise of cheap polyester fiber, a plastic material that sheds microplastics with every wash. As overproduction increased in the fashion industry through the 2000s and 2010s, so, too, did the reliance on these cheap fibers. Changing Markets Foundation’s Campaigns adviser George Harding-Rolls explains, “When we speak to brands, they do come up short when we push them on freezing production or using different fibers.” The responsibility to be eco-conscious then falls on the consumers, an arduous task that can require time-consuming research.

What if there were another way?

Imagine scanning a QR code on the tag of a pair of pants to instantly see its journey from a seed at the world’s first carbon-positive farm in Australia to a zero-waste weaving mill in Adana, Turkey, all the way to brand headquarters in Los Angeles. Every single step of the construction of the garment, including the sustainability credentials, is at your fingertips. This isn’t some far-off future scenario. The technology is already here, and it’s called FibreTrace.

How FibreTrace grew from a dream to reality

FibreTrace began with an unlikely pairing between two Australian cotton farmers—Danielle and David Statham—and British paper security solutions provider Paul Stenning, whose anti-counterfeiting technology for paper money was in the process of being applied to fiber for the International Cotton Association.

The lab where FibreTrace pigments are made. Photo by Thomas Müller/FibreTrace.

The Stathams, owners of the Sundown Pastoral Company—Australia’s largest independent agricultural and pastoral business—aspired to create the most environmentally friendly cotton possible. As soon as the cotton they had farmed was sent off to spinning mills, however, there was no way to know if the fiber quality would be weakened by harmful chemicals and other factors as it moved through the supply chain. In 2018, after many conversations with Stenning, a deal was struck: Sundown Pastoral Company would buy the International Cotton Associaton’s proprietary tracing technology and found FibreTrace with a clear mission objective: Spread traceability throughout the clothing industry.

This ambition relies on a bioluminescent pigment that’s as fine as dust. Made with a blend of ceramic, rare earth material and soft metals, the tracer pigment is attached to FibreTrace’s specially crafted viscous fiber. These specialized fibers and their corresponding pigment create unique “signatures” as they’re woven into cotton, wool and other materials. Imagine a barcode that’s been shrunk down to microscopic proportions. “If you look at your sweatshirt,” Stenning explains, “we would have probably around 25 parts [of tracer pigment] per million in the finished product. It is absolutely minuscule.”

A pigment, a tracer and blockchain

“FibreTrace is blended at between 25-50 [parts per million], or less than 0.2% of total fiber composition in all fibers. This is far less than the 2% labeling requirement for blended fibers that are collected through inadvertent production impurities during [the] fiber processing and spinning process,” says Crispin Argento, chief operating officer of the company. The pigment is small, safe and “classified as an edible product,” according to Danielle Statham in a 2021 interview. The product has also received approval from the Global Organic Textile Standard.

FibreTrace bioluminescent pigments. Courtesy of FibreTrace.

Despite the barely-there sprinkling in each fiber, the tracing pigment is powerful and resilient; it can withstand temperatures up to 1,700 degrees Celsius, ensuring safe procession through intensive production cycles, and can emit specific wavebands through excitation. Stenning likens this to an FM radio: Turn the dial, and each clothing producer has their own specific station. However, creating stations only works if there’s a radio to receive it, which is why the second half of the FibreTrace technology relies on a secure blockchain they built from the ground up specifically for the fashion industry. “Because we’re owned by cotton farmers, we know what the supply chain is, and we know what a lot of the issues are that the brands need to overcome,” says Stenning.

With the FibreTrace blockchain, two portals are created for each product: one for consumers and one for brands. While the information available to consumers is decided by the brand, companies like Reformation have made the visibility of their denim’s supply chain easy, and fun, to track. As the dedicated page on their site explains, “FibreTrace goes deeper into your denim’s past than you with your ex’s Instagram.”

On the brand’s portal, a wealth of information is available in seconds, including a mill or farm’s sustainability certificates. By creating a near-instant source for data on the product, the technology also helps eliminate the need for pricey fabric audits. “A lot of companies and brands will use external auditors to do spot checks, but FibreTrace will eliminate probably 50% of that requirement,” says Stenning. “If you look at a proper profit and loss of traceability, FibreTrace will save the brand money and speed the whole process up because [auditing] happens literally with a click of a button. That’s where FibeTrace really starts to differentiate itself from any of the competitors out there. Everything is available in real time.”

Open source honesty

Courtesy of FibreTrace

FibreTrace’s technology runs on an open-source platform, which allows any component to be removed and mixed with an existing brand’s platform or blockchain. Alternatively, a brand can integrate its own tech into FibreTrace’s blockchain. Consumers, on the other hand, can peek into the production cycle by scanning the QR code attached to the garment’s label or, more often, located on a special section of the brand’s website. “It just depends on how [each brand] wants to share that story,” says Stenning.

When FibreTrace kicked off trial partnerships with Nobody Denim in 2020 and Reformation in 2021, both brands had higher sell-through rates for their collections versus other SKUs. “That was a proof of concept for us that transparency is something that is really needed and that consumers are very interested in learning more about their clothes,” says Stenning.

After the success of these early collaborations, including a 7 For All Mankind denim collection, Lucy Woodward, FibreTrace content and communications coordinator, confirms that a number of brands are exploring how to implement FibreTrace technology into their production process. In the next year, FibreTrace looks forward to entering into the leather and down supply chains.

A piece of the sustainability puzzle

Though FibreTrace’s technology is challenging to scale—requiring three- to five-year contracts—and is still being adapted for different types of fibers, there’s reason for optimism as it spreads through supply chains. But in a massive industry like fashion, it’s just one piece of a very complex jigsaw.

“Innovation is definitely part of the mix when it comes to solving [sustainability] challenges,” says Harding-Rolls, “but we also need proper traceability legislation.” He believes strong legislation and government funding could help technologies like FibreTrace grow, though such efforts won’t come easy. More programs like the EU Textiles Strategy will be required, and brands will need to commit to cutting their use of synthetic fibers; meanwhile, organizations like Changing Markets Foundation must continue to push for change through published research and market-focused campaigns.

As the fashion industry moves towards a more sustainable future, technology like FibreTrace will be essential for tracking change at every step of the supply chain. “Without traceability and transparency, we are commercially at a great disadvantage when navigating global trade,” says Argento. “Claims around sustainable fibers without hard data to back it up will always be just that—claims.”

Lead photo courtesy of FibreTrace