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YESS Aims to Eliminate Modern Slavery in Cotton Sourcing

Creating foundational documents aimed at establishing an industrywide approach to identify and address forced labor in cotton sourcing, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) on Wednesday released the YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced Standard, and YESS Workbook.

The YESS Standard is a detailed framework that assess the operations and sourcing procedures of cotton yarn spinning mills. It is meant to be a guide for spinners to avoid purchasing cotton that has a high production risk of forced labor.

The YESS Standard applies the globally recognized Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) “Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector.” The OECD guidance provides a practical framework to help companies identify and prevent harms related to human rights, labor, environmental and integrity risks in their operations and supply chains. It also provides information on applying due diligence recommendations to specific risks in the garment and footwear sector.

“After years of engaging brands on the issue of forced labor in the cotton sector, it was clear to me that a robust industrywide initiative was needed to identify and address the harm of forced labor in the upstream cotton supply chain,” Patricia Jurewicz, vice president of RSN, said. “Not only has there been huge success with a similar approach for conflict minerals, but companies are now being required by law to address forced labor in their supply chains.”

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RSN said even with recent improvements and increased support for sustainable cotton initiatives, cotton produced with forced labor still makes its way through global supply chains into clothing sold by major brands and retailers. The organization said the YESS standard will verify whether spinning mills are improving or avoiding purchasing cotton produced with forced labor. By doing this, YESS will give brands, consumers and regulators assurance that proper action was taken to keep modern slavery out of their cotton products.

So far, 77 supporters—including Adidas, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Hudson’s Bay, Hugo Boss and Tesco—have signed a YESS statement expressing their commitment toward ethical and sustainable cotton and yarn sourcing, confirming their support of the development and implementation of the initiative.

Jurewicz and Liz Muller, lead authors of the YESS Standard and workbook, developed the documents with input from brands, spinning mills, industry associations and labor experts. They visited 16 spinning mills, piloted five trainings at mills in Bangladesh, Turkey and Uzbekistan, and addressed more than 200 comments from a public consultation process.

“After two years working with Responsible Sourcing Network to research, train spinners and brands, and conduct YESS feasibility assessments, I am more convinced than ever that spinners can conform with the YESS Standard and contribute to reducing and eventually eliminating cotton produced with forced labor from entering the global supply chain,” Muller said.

On a webinar, Jurewicz said 1.5 million people are being forced to pick cotton today, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Guided by ILO data, YESS has identified nine countries with high-risk of forced labor in cotton production, including Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Muller explained that in high-risk supply chains, spinners should be able to identify risks and assess whether they can be mitigated, validate the country of origin, and develop a process to identify, assess and manage risks.

Shanel Orton, manager of responsible materials and traceability at VF Corp., said during the webinar that while the company had strong internal standards for cotton sourcing, it also recognized the importance of having “a robust framework in place.” That’s why VF joined YESS last year.

“Spinning mills are the gatekeepers in the cotton supply chain,” Orton said, which is why VF supports the development of the Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced Standard.

“VF understands the value of taking an industry-wide approach in YESS,” she added.