Clothing retailers can try to ensure their cotton is not tainted by forced labour in Uzbekistan, but tangled supply chains mean they remain unable to offer any guarantees

When it comes to cotton from Uzbekistan, brands choose their words carefully. They don’t want it in their products because the dictatorial Uzbek regime forces its people to work at cotton harvest time. This previously included children, though in response to international pressure, those under 15 were not sent to the fields in 2012 or 2013.

Instead of blanket promises not to use Uzbek cotton, however, corporate statements on the issue are guarded. The Walt Disney Company is typical. It says it asks suppliers to make “their best efforts” to not use Uzbek cotton, and that “we have no knowledge to date of Uzbek cotton being used in any of our branded products”.

Silvia Raccagni, Adidas sustainability communication manager, is similarly cautious. Adidas cannot offer any guarantee about Uzbek cotton. “We have reminded our suppliers that we expect them to ensure, to the best of their knowledge, that no cotton and cotton materials used originate from Uzbekistan,” Raccagni says. In the meantime, Adidas is “further maturing the traceability of our material”.

Lorenz Berzau, managing director of the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which coordinates a supply chain code of conduct for companies sourcing from the emerging and developing world, says this simply reflects the reality. Companies “cannot be 100% sure” that their products do not contain Uzbek cotton.

Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-biggest cotton producer and its output might find a point of entry very far down long and complex supply chains. Spinning mills mix cotton from different sources when producing yarn, and often do not want to tell their buyers the details because they mix different qualities in order to compete on price, Berzau says. “I believe [western brands] are trying very, very hard, but no one can really guarantee that a product has been produced without any International Labour Organisation convention violations,” he adds. 

Best brands

The Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), in a recent survey, rates how companies are tackling the problem of Uzbek cotton, on the basis of their policy statements, supplier codes of conduct, supply chain disclosures, traceability and auditing programmes and other indicators. It finds that Adidas, Marks & Spencer, Ikea, Patagonia and Phillips-Van Heusen, the owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, score best.

Others clearly have work to do. British retailer All Saints, and US groups Urban Outfitters and Costco Wholesale failed to respond to the RSN questionnaire and so came bottom of the rankings. RSN says another group of companies, including C&A, Gap, Tesco and Wal-Mart, also need to do more, but they are at least making an effort on the issue of Uzbek cotton.

Ratings of current supply chain practices, however, might miss the point. To ensure traceability, says Lorenz Berzau, supply chains need to change – they need to be shorter, and to be based on long-term relationships with trusted suppliers.

One model that brands struggling with the Uzbek cotton issue could look at, he says, is the Cotton Made In Africa initiative, under which a group of mainly German brands has entered a “strategic partnership” to buy cotton from sub-Saharan African smallholders. In this case at least, companies can be sure where their cotton comes from.

cotton production  labour  supply chain practices  traceability  Uzbek cotton  Uzbekistan 

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