H&M, the Swedish fast fashion supplier, has been accused of using cotton from the nation of Uzbekistan. Over 90% of Uzbek cotton is harvested by hand, and half of all cotton is picked by government supported forced labor, including labor by children as young as nine who are forced to serve three-month terms.
The company has vowed not to use Uzbek cotton and claims it has taken steps to eliminate the cotton for several years. Despite those pledges and an internal ban on use of the questionable fiber, some of H&M’s suppliers have been linked to Uzbekistan, including Korean conglomerate Daewoo International.
Daewoo operates three large cotton-processing facilities in Uzbekistan and sells clothing and yarn to apparel companies. Because cotton is a fungible commodity, it is often commingled, making it difficult to track where it is coming from.
H&M has denied buying clothing from Daewoo, but the firm has insisted in the South Korean press that it does sell clothing to the fast fashion giant, according to watchdog group Anti-Slavery International.
In response to the accusations, an H&M spokesperson said, “Our company policy prohibits the use of Uzbek cotton in our products which is also communicated to all our suppliers. In order to support a more sustainable cotton industry we joined Better Cotton Initiative and Textile Exchange in 2004.
“We are working continuously to improve traceability of the cotton used for our products and we aim for all cotton to come from more sustainable, fully traceable sources by 2020 at the latest.
“For the last two years in a row we have been the biggest buyer of organic cotton according to Textile Exchange.”
H&M signed a pledge through the Responsible Sourcing Network to not use Uzbek cotton and is planning to require its suppliers to sign similar pledges. The company claims that it will stop working with supplies that are unwilling to sign.
Cotton is a major Uzbek export, amounting to over $1 billion dollars and 850,000 tons per year. The nation is the world’s sixth largest cotton producer and third largest exporter.