In the lead up to Uzbekistan’s annual cotton fair, a mounting number of international brands and retailers have declared their refusal to source from the country until it ceases the forced labor of children and adults in the cotton fields. Representing an estimated $1.024 trillion USD in revenue, 136 brands and companies have now signed the "Company Pledge Against Forced Child and Adult Labor in Uzbek Cotton," according to the Responsible Sourcing Network.
Since 2011, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing together investors, companies and human rights activists to create sustainable supply chains, has been collecting signatories to the pledge. By signing, companies commit to not knowingly sourcing Uzbek cotton until the practice of forced labor is eliminated. In doing so, they add their economic influence to a growing number of companies using their combined leverage to raise awareness and to pressure the Uzbek government to stop the egregious practice.
"We welcome IKEA, lululemon athletica, and Marks & Spencer to the growing coalition of apparel companies taking a stand against oppression and forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry," said RSN director Patricia Jurewicz. "Signing this common pledge demonstrates solidarity by the industry to block cotton using any form of slave labor from entering the global market."
Although the Government of Uzbekistan for the first time is allowing the International Labor Organization (ILO) to conduct an inspection mission during the 2013 cotton harvest, ILO representatives are being accompanied by Uzbek officials, making it difficult for citizens to speak openly with ILO monitors. Regardless of the inspectors, continued forced mobilization of children and adults has been well-documented this year; the death of six-year-old Amirbek Rachmatow on September 15th was the fourth fatality in the first month of the harvest.
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The pledge has united an unprecedented number of American and European apparel brands and consumer favorites. Powerhouses such as adidas, Eileen Fisher, Nike, INDITEX, Target and Walmart have already signed the pledge. The message being sent by industry is that the Uzbek government must meet its commitments to international labor standards in order to participate in global markets. See the full pledge text and list of signatories here.
In May, RSN released To the Spinner, a report designed to help brands and businesses insist on traceability of raw materials in order to identify and eliminate problems from their supply chains. In the case of materials such as cotton, the report identifies the spinners — the person, company or industry that takes the raw materials and converts them into yarn or textile — as the key players in achieving responsible sourcing.
Another major hot spot in textile sourcing is toxins — the subject of Greenpeace’s “Toxic Threads” campaign urging companies to use their buying power to hold their suppliers accountable for their negative impacts on the environment. A number of major brands — including H&M, Mango and Patagonia — have already signed the NGO’s Detox Solution Commitment, and last month Italian textile manufacturer Canepa became the first textile manufacturer to also publicly commit to abolish toxic chemicals from the production of its fabrics.