Tell us a little about your background. My background is in strategic business and international management. I graduated from the University of Western Australia, and then worked as an associate lecturer for a few years before moving to the University of Toronto and the University of Utah to do research work on industry clusters, specifically focusing in the biotechnology, medical device and life sciences sectors.
What brought you to Stony Brook, New York? My research work 20 years ago focused on understanding what made certain industry biotechnology and bioscience clusters work better than others, and how they are sustainable in certain geo-locations in the country and the world. Stony Brook is a special place because it represents a “genetic corridor.” East of us is Cold Spring Harbor labs known for the Human Genome Project, and west of us is Brookhaven National Labs for its advances in physics, climate, environmental and biosciences, and right next to us is Stony Brook University known for cultivating the brightest minds in the life sciences. I am drawn to Stony Brook because it is a place that represents the possibility to take the knowledge we have today, and share them in a new way with people all around the world.
What does sustainability mean to you? It means different things depending on which perspective you look at it from. At Applied DNA Sciences, we think of sustainability as being synonymous with versatility. Taking existing technologies and transforming them into ways that address a real need in the world. This can take the form of providing forensic scientific solutions to develop new applications to support sustainable claims, or to assure purity in the supply chain, or to ensure that conflict materials are not used in the manufacturing of a finished product. The versatility of our technology is one of the true gifts we offer to our partners and customers.
Describe the work being done at Applied DNA Sciences. It’s taking the best know-how we have in DNA sciences and “doing well by doing good” to help keep life real and safe. For textiles, we can help provide certainty to supply chains to assure that the raw materials are pure all the way from fiber to finished goods. In other words, we have the ability to provide an empirical basis with a secure chain of custody for any product sold in the market. Proof of origin, proof of authenticity, product quality and performance are all needs that we can help fulfill.
How can a molecule be applicable to world trade? At its core, our molecules help to restore “trust” in a world that is filled with untrustworthy products, label claims and fraud. By having a unique molecular tag to identify and verify products and packaging, there is forensic proof of origin, providing a means for traceability and transparency in global supply chains that can often be quite complex.
According to a 2016 report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) imports of counterfeit and pirated goods are worth nearly half a trillion dollars a year, or around 2.5% of global imports, with U.S., Italian and French brands the hardest hit, and many of the proceeds going to organized crime. “Trade in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods: Mapping the Economic Impact” puts the value of imported fake goods worldwide at USD 461 billion in 2013, compared with total imports in world trade of USD 17.9 trillion. Up to 5% of goods imported into the European Union are fake. Most originate in middle income or emerging countries, with China the top producer.
ADNAS has done a great deal of research into cotton fiber substitution. Can you tell us about the findings and problems the industry is facing with fiber substitution. From time to time we monitor what is happening in the field to see if the product claims match the content that we test for in the product. In a 2009 internal ADNAS report, we saw over 80% of products labeled as Pima or Egyptian cotton did not contain 100% of the content claim. Moreover, the concerns in cotton, we believe may be occurring in other textiles such as wool, cashmere, synthetics, rayon and other fibers.
How does ADNAS’s platform stop fiber substitution? For cotton, we have multiple ways to stop fiber substitution. It starts with tagging the product itself with SigNature T DNA molecules. Prior to tagging, we also conduct fiberTyping to verify the genetic content of the fiber. Both tests are done in parallel as the product moves through the supply chain to the retail shelf. We also have the ability to quantify the blend ratio of Pima-Upland in greige goods for cotton. Finally, we have a digitalDNA system that allows for track-and-trace. It is a holistic solution that can help answer the question of where your cotton truly comes from, and where it is going.
Describe how tracking a fiber from farm to finished product can impact not only the quality of the textile but also help to ensure that it has been produced in a safe, ethical and sustainable way? We believe, that it starts with having a renewed mindset about what it takes to produce a quality product, and caring to know about every step of how a product is made. If you can tag the fiber at source, you can tell a story about traceability and that is ostensibly what consumers are waiting for. The story of traceability has significantly helped to transform the food industry, and it is happening now in cotton textiles with PimaCott, which is exciting.
When we spoke you talked about the importance of stories between Brands and the consumer. How does ADNAS help create these connections and tell stories? The stories provide consumers with an affirmation of the truth in materials, how they are grown, who is making the products, are there quality, ethical and responsible practices behind the claims, and what makes the products perform better. At the end of the day, as a consumer yourself, you want to feel good about what you purchased, and that it was good value long after you bought it.
Target just issued a huge recall of some of their Egyptian cotton sheets after finding that one of their suppliers had been substituting the Egyptian cotton with another variety of cotton since 2014. In your opinion what does this signal in terms of the cultural practice of blending fibers Blending of fibers, per se, is not a bad thing. For example, you might have a cotton, wool and poly blended sweater. That’s fine, if that is what is stated on the label. The concern about blending occurs when the labels make claims like 100% Egyptian cotton and there is no proof that the product is in fact 100% Egyptian cotton. The key point is that there are DNA-based tools that can help prove fiber content and origin and we look forward to working with customers to develop best practices.
What is the role of the consumer in the story of fiber substitution? Consumers have to be aware that any kind of substitution, fiber or anything else, only hurts them. Fiber substitution is fraud, and it is not a victimless crime. When substitution happens, it breaks the trust in the brand and the product, and all parties within the supply chain are at risk. Growers of cotton are directly affected because they are no longer supplying as much cotton as they expect to because of fiber substitution. They end up having to pick another crop to grow, which means less cotton, and less jobs for people working on the farms. Cotton is an agricultural product and is grown, not sewn in the first instance. Consumers need to know that.
Consumers often think “it can never happen to me.” But the truth is, it does happen, and in lots of different ways. We have seen this on the news with reports on pet food, air bags for cars, product recalls for medicine (from products that you would never think would be problematic), fish at sushi bars and the list goes on. Consumers may not fully appreciate that substitution for textiles can happen in the use of non-approved dyes, or other materials that are not as safe. This can be for any kind of textile product from apparel, home goods, footwear and even outdoor athleisure wear. No product is immune to the kinds of fraudulent activities that are potentially out there.
What are the biggest barriers to ADNAS’s fiber marking platform being adopted by the industry? Time can be a barrier – because it takes time for the market to understand the benefits of DNA tagging, typing, testing, and it takes courage for everyone in the supply chain to face the new reality of the marketplace and be able to move toward a more transparent one – it is being done and we believe that more will be done in the future.
Can you share with us any of the companies you have worked with and any successful product stories where the fiber was tracked from farm to finished product? We would love to, but because of the nature of the textile supply chains, we must keep this on the QT at the moment. The focus for us is to work with partners who are committed to traceability, transparency and trust in their supply chains.
What is next for ADNAS? We’re excited about the continued expansion of SigNature T for apparel, and we are going where no one has gone before, which is to apply the same philosophy and best practices for other kinds of textiles, e.g. wool, cashmere, down or synthetics.