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This Initiative Wants to ‘Drive Change’ to End Modern Cotton Slavery

Avoiding cotton harvested using modern slavery isn’t an impossible task, but it does require companies to adjust their sourcing strategies, a new pilot study has found.

Spearheaded by the Responsible Sourcing Network’s (RSN) Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced initiative, or YESS, the project demonstrates that training and assessing spinning facilities and textiles mills on due diligence processes can “empower them to drive change,” said Patricia Jurewicz, CEO of the California-based nonprofit.

When Jurewicz drafted the YESS standard in 2018, there wasn’t a tremendous industry appetite for a new approach, even though the Uzbek government had already made headlines for strongarming millions of children and adults every year into harvesting cotton by hand. RSN, in fact, helped rally 300 North American and European brands, from Adidas to Zara, to shun Uzbek cotton for more than a decade.

The landscape has changed, however. In the years since, U.S. Customs & Border Protection has slapped Withhold Release Orders on cotton from Turkmenistan and then China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region over forced labor concerns. With the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act poised to go into effect next month, there’s now a “heightened interest” in solutions that go beyond tracking shipments from one node to another.

“I know that a lot of effort has been going into traceability, blockchain and other mapping platforms, but none of them really focus on how to build capacity and empower the textile mills and yarn spinners,” Jurewicz told Sourcing Journal. “There’s no expectation or effort given to trying to fix the problem.”

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In many cases, cotton sourcing isn’t so much a supply “chain” as it is a supply “web.” Because of the mixing of fibers that occurs at the facilities, a “lot of traceability [regarding country of origin] is lost at the spinning mills,” she added. “They are the gatekeepers of a lot of the fiber, [so] let’s give them the tools they need to identify risk.”

To test its methodology in a real-world setting, YESS worked with more than 15 as-yet-unnamed apparel, footwear and home-goods brands, plus yarn spinners and textile mills in India, Malaysia and Pakistan. The hardest part about the process, as it turned out, wasn’t negotiating the myriad moving parts but rather Covid-19, which placed restrictions on travel that made in-person training challenging.

“We were only able to train in-person auditors who were already located in the countries of the pilot, whereas originally we thought that we could try to bring in some auditors from other countries to train and observe the pilot audits,” Jurewicz said. “And that’s what we weren’t able to do.”

The YESS approach, which is based on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s due-diligence framework, provides guidance to help each facility to develop its own policy around forced-labor identification and mitigation. From there, it looks at management systems that can promote that policy, including value-chain mapping, internal inventory control systems and processes that can validate the origin of the material.

“Spinners can trace cotton through their processes, from the laydown of the bales through to the yarn manufacturing,” Jurewicz said. “So there is this concept of a cascading due-diligence approach for identifying and addressing forced-labor risk.”

Having such processes in place from the get-go also makes it easier for facilities to fulfill the requests for spreadsheets’ worth of information that they are now inundated with. It’s harder to “go backward” to locate this data because they’ve never been asked to track or share it before.

Though YESS will have its “hands full” with yarn spinners and textile mills in the near future, she would eventually like to expand the program to encompass gins, which can also be transparency black boxes.

“We think there’s probably going to have to be a standard for gins in the future, but I think we’ll start learning a lot just implementing the standards with mills and spinners,” she said. “But I’m happy for others to really take that on, especially organizations that have a local presence in various cotton-growing countries that have a lot of ginning facilities.”

Meanwhile, RSN plans to expand YESS to more countries, including Uzbekistan, where a cotton boycott was recently lifted. “There is unfortunately still a risk of forcing people to work,” Jurewicz said. “So implementing a YESS approach can be beneficial in showing that there’s independent monitoring occurring, there are grievance mechanisms and that if issues show up, they’re being addressed.”

Scaling up the program is now the next hurdle. Every country requires its own localized strategy, since the drivers of forced labor in, say, India can be very different from those in Burkina Faso. (Xinjiang is a unique case since it’s illegal to conduct any kind of forced-labor investigation in China at the moment. Audits in the province have also proven difficult.)

“I invite brands, retailers and others who are interested in this approach to support the YESS initiative,” Jurewicz said. “There are sponsorship opportunities; we’re looking at creating a membership organization so that we have sufficient resources to do the capacity building and management of the assessments that need to happen.”