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Brands Commit to Remove Forced Labor Cotton from Supply Chains

As more incidences of cotton picked with forced labor come to light, brands are working to ensure their supply chains are free from the non-compliant practice.

In Uzbekistan, most often mentioned for the prevalence of forced labor in its cotton sector, the government reportedly forces its citizens to work the harvest each year. In an effort to uncover what brands are doing — or not doing — to combat the use of forced labor for cotton in their products, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) surveyed 49 home goods and apparel companies to find out. The results were published in early 2014, and now a 2015 addendum has updated their research.

The Labor Department named nine countries with documented incidences of forced labor and 18 countries found to engage child labor in their cotton sectors. Cotton is one of the commodities with the most rampant cases of child labor.

“Although other countries are listed for forced labor in their cotton sectors, Uzbekistan is considered the worst since the Government of Uzbekistan orchestrates the practice and such a large number of people are forced to work each harvest,” said Patricia Jurewicz, director of RSN.

This year, RSN released its Cotton Sourcing Snapshot: 2015 Addendum to review which countries had improved scores in terms of acting to eliminate existence of labor abuse in their supply chains, what trends were apparent in cotton sourcing, and what best practices brands have put into place.

RSN developed a scoring for each of the 11 indicators in the categories of policy, public disclosure, engagement, and implementation and auditing, so if a company had the highest score per indicator, the total score would equal 100. A score lower than 20 demonstrates that a company is not addressing a high social risk in its supply chain or is not being transparent about its activities.

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Adidas, Marks and Spencer and IKEA took the top three spots with scores of 68, 63 and 62.5 respectively, reflecting a robust public policy against cotton sourced with forced labor and a well-defined strategy or action plan.

The five lowest-scoring companies were All Saints Retail Limited, Urban Outfitters, Inc., Costco Wholesale Corporation, Forever 21, Inc., and Sears Holding Corporation —though Sears increased its original score more than ten-fold, the company came in with a ranking of 26.

According to RSN, having a better understanding of what leading companies are doing and what percentage of the industries are following suit, the path forward becomes more evident. After analyzing the survey results, the organization recommends companies take the following actions: contribute to the establishment of an industry-wide spinner and mill certification system, integrate supplier compliance into existing IT management systems, and disclose practices and challenges.

Transparency has become increasingly key for supply chains and more and more companies are releasing information about sources and practices to the public. More so following tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, brands have to be proactive about sharing supply chain details in order to avoid potential reputational harm.

“Transparency is growing in popularity because it is either being demanded (pulled) by consumers and investors, or it is being pushed by factory and farm workers,” Jurewicz said. “New technologies and social media are transforming the expectations on companies. Point of purchase mobile phone apps like GoodGuide and Buycott provide information to consumers about companies’ sourcing practices. Facebook campaigns and Twitter posts from workers throughout supply chains, or by human rights activists supporting the workers, inform everyone — from consumers to investors — of exploitative activities embedded in supply chains. Brands can no longer turn a blind eye to abuses that are hidden in the manufacturing of their products…including forced labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.”

RSN’s Cotton Pledge, which asks companies to ensure that child and adult forced labor is not embedded in their products, has been signed by 165 brands and companies including Adidas, Gap Inc., and Hennes & Mauritz.

“It’s notable that Sears, a recent signatory to the Cotton Pledge, also showed the most improvement in the updated survey scores, highlighting the successful impact that outreach and consumer pressure can have on company behavior,” Jurewicz said.

To determine the best way forward and garner industry support, RSN said It contracted sustainable fashion consultancy, Made-By, to undertake a feasibility study designed to benchmark spinner verification against other current initiatives interacting with yarn spinners and textile mills to determine the best way to harmonize efforts. The results of the study are expected to be completed by the second quarter of this year.