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Spotlight on bio-based textiles: How to make sure modern slavery is not embedded in your sustainable cotton products

By Patricia Jurewicz, founder of Responsible Sourcing Network

Before all eyes in the apparel and home goods sectors turned toward surviving the economic and logistical devastation of Covid-19, brainstorming was occurring on the best way to identify and address modern slavery embedded in cotton textile supply chains. Unfortunately, it has become clear that forced labour is more rampant throughout the cotton supply chain than anyone could have imagined. Even sustainable cotton—such as organic or Better Cotton—is not immune to modern slavery.

Over recent months there has been a growing awareness and evidence of the inhumane treatment the Chinese government has inflicted upon the local Uyghur and Turkic minority Muslim populations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. Forced “re-education” and prison camps are widespread in the region with reports of more than one million people being forced to work in yarn, textile, and apparel production facilities, and in surrounding cotton fields. Harvesting is reportedly often performed by women and children under the threat of being sent to the detainment camps like their husbands and fathers if they do not pick cotton.

It is important to note is that XUAR is the highest cotton-producing region in China, producing approximately 84% of Chinese cotton, which is responsible for approximately 1 in every 5 bales of cotton produced globally. Plus, China is a country that the global fashion industry is intensely reliant on for materials, product manufacturing, and consumers—with a market now coming out of lockdown.

Furthermore, the US government is imposing sanctions and considering regulations that would prohibit the import of cotton products into the US manufactured with forced labour in XUAR. One strong possibility is that the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection Agency will put in place a Withhold and Release Order (WRO), similar to what it did for Turkmenistan.

In addition to the evaporation of in-store sales, this situation adds to the struggles of global brands and retailers.

My organisation, Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) created a new initiative, YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced, which could be the most effective and practical approach to take to identify and address forced labour in the cotton supply chain from XUAR as well as other high-risk countries. Created to drive modern slavery out of cotton production by eliminating the market for cotton produced with forced labour, YESS utilises the OECD risk-based due diligence approach to educate and then verify spinning mills are not sourcing any tainted cotton.

RSN (@SourcingNetwork) is now looking to modify its YESS Standard and Assessment Workbook for application with textile mills. Since brands lose visibility to the location of yarn spinners—and origin of their cotton—if the textile mills are purchasing their yarn (not spinning it themselves), there is a growing need to have textile mills implement a similar due diligence process.

Textile mills and yarn spinners located outside of XUAR may be interested in the YESS approach to show customers their efforts to identify and address, and therefore minimise, risk of forced labour in their cotton supply chains.

Untangling the chain of custody of cotton may be a bit complicated and daunting. However, by working together to develop and implement tools that promote transparency and accountability, yarn spinners, textile mills, brands, retailers, and consumers will feel confident that they are not contributing to harm on the planet.

For more information about the topics raised in this article, please contact Patricia Jurewicz, founder of Responsible Sourcing Network, on patricia@sourcingnetwork.org

This expert view is part of BMI’s spotlight week on bio-based textiles. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Bio Market Insights’ editorial team and management.


If you were interested in this story, you may also be interested in the ones below.

Read: New report: Introducing bio-based and sustainable components to long-standing supply chains.

Download: New report – Standardisation and certification developments in the bioeconomy

Read: 5 Minutes With… Katharine Teague, Head of Advocacy and Sustainability at AB Sugar.

Read: The first ‘Cotton + Corn’ shoe from Reebok’s sustainable range hits the shops.

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