Campaigners warn it is not safe to source cotton from the country amid evidence that the state-enforced harvest continues, writes Terry Slavin

A haunting reminder of the wanton destruction done by cotton farming is in the Aral Sea basin in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, where desert has replaced once-viable land, and toxic chemicals used in pesticides and fertilizers were left exposed on the dried-up sea bed, to be inhaled by people for miles around.

The environmental destruction, however, pales in comparison with human rights violations from the state-imposed system of forced labour, including children taken out of schools to harvest cotton, which has been in force since the days of the Soviet Union.

A campaign by US-based NGO Cotton Campaign led to more than 100 North American and European brands signing up to the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Cotton Pledge, refusing to source cotton from Uzbekistan. Almost all western brands are signatories.

The dried up Aral Sea is a reminder of the damage cotton can inflict. (Credit: alsem/Shutterstock)

Far-reaching reforms promised by the new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who replaced long-time dictator Islam Karimov after his death in 2016, have raised hopes that Uzbekistan may be ready to come in from the cold.

But a new report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, which monitored the 2017 harvest, found evidence that state-sponsored forced labour continues, including in World Bank-funded cotton projects in the South Karakalpakstan republic, contrary to the bank’s loan agreements.

Bennett Freeman, a co-founder of the Cotton Campaign and former senior vice-president for Calvert Investments, last month led a delegation of human rights, labour groups and supply chain specialists to Uzbekistan, and presented Uzbek government agencies with a roadmap for eliminating the systematic use of forced labour, starting with this year’s upcoming cotton harvest.

It will be 'several years at least' until it will be safe for brands to source from Uzbekistan again

While the new government has promised to mechanize and modernize cotton production, diversify cotton with cash crops, and reduce water intensity, along with eliminating forced labour, Freeman said it will be “several years at least” until it will be safe for brands to source from Uzbekistan again.

“You can’t eliminate 80 years of that system overnight through speeches and decrees. It is critically important that brands don’t break the pledge until they [the promised reforms] translate into demonstrable change on the ground.”

Main picture credit: Cotton Campaign

This article is part of the in-depth briefing, Sustainable Textiles. See also:

How the fashion industry is cottoning on to the circular economy

Unpicking the confusion over what constitutes ‘sustainable’ cotton





Aral Sea  Uzbekistan  Sustainable fashion  Responsible Sourcing Network  Cotton Pledge  Cotton Campaign  World Bank 

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