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Seven years on, Uzbek cotton shows brand power

Back in 2005 I found a report on the web. I didn’t know much about Uzbek cotton then. We all know a bit about it now.

The report is from the respected International Crisis Group, titled “The Curse of Cotton: Central Asia’s Destructive Monoculture” and it eventually, I believe, helped set in motion brand action on the ethics of the Uzbek cotton industry.

Having read the report I wrote this piece about it, “Killing them softly“, which eventually led to a call from BBC Newsnight. I helped them with their investigation as best I could, and they went big on the issue on the nightly news.

Companies scrambled to respond. Some tried to pretend traceability was impossible. They soon changed their minds. To give them credit, at first, it may well have looked impossible. But once it was all over the news, then incentive and resources emerged to make it happen. 

(I don’t mean to suggest that others had not raised this issue previously, by the way. It has been going on for a long time, and so have objections to the practice) 

Seven years later, the Responsible Sourcing Network is “thrilled to announce we surpassed 100 signatories to the RSN Cotton Pledge. The Pledge has united an unprecedented number of American and European apparel powerhouses, luxury brands and consumer favorites around ending forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.”

They point out that some progress is being made, despite opposition from the Government:

“According to observers of the 2012 cotton harvest, including the Uzbek-German Forum,
this year the Uzbek government intensified adult forced labor,
continued forced child labor, and signaled that ending the practice will
require stronger external pressure. Despite a statement by the Uzbek
government that child labor would be prosecuted, the scale of forced
labor of young school children (ages 7-14) was merely reduced.”

So has brand action, even if catalysed by NGO campaigns, made a difference to forced child labour in Uzbekistan?

It’s clear to me that it has. It’s taken many years, but companies have played a positive role, and should note that.

Of course, as noted in a previous post, there is still big market for Uzbek cotton picked by children, or anyone else.

But that doesn’t mean the NGO campaign, supported by brands, has not been effective.

It’s taken longer than anyone would have wanted, and has not completely solved the problem. But it has raised the level of debate on child labour to serious governmental levels, put the issue on company radars, and made a big contribution towards keeping children out of Uzbek cotton fields.

We need to celebrate the chinks of light when we see them, and progress when it clearly happens.

This is one of those times.

As people, small wins sustain us, as much as big, rarer victories do, particularly if we acknowledge them.

1 Comment

  1. This is great news for short-term human rights issues (child labor and working conditions for everyone) but the headlines of child labor also serves to divert attention from the environmental tragedy of the Aral Sea, which is both a human rights issue (health and livelihoods) as well as a rights-of-nature issue. As an American who has had to listen to campaign speeches carefully avoiding mention of climate change, I am very sensitive about the main headline diverting from other important messages!

    Bringing in environment as a CSR issue for cotton is not only important for Central Asia, but would also expose the just-as-bad cotton policies of the US. Cotton production in Arizona is one major reason that the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea, Shouldn't that be condemned too?

    My point here is that playing both the human rights and environment cards simultaneously is more authentic and also might be more effective, because we are no longer pointing fingers only at Central Asia, but at ourselves (speaking from the US perspective) as well. That way we might be in a better position diplomatically to work collaboratively to find solutions that fit both geographic and cultural contexts.

    These kinds of issues are explored, or at least referenced, in the Water Ethics Network e-newsletter and Facebook/Twitter sites: You are invited to join the discussion!