Fashion Revolution started their campaigning in 2015 with the slogan #whomademyclothes? That is an important question but there is a long and complex supply chain before it gets to the point of making your clothes. An equally important question is, who made the components that go into my clothes?

Chloe Cranston, the Business and Human Rights Programme Manager for Anti-Slavery International was one of the speakers at the Sustainability, Ethics and the UK fashion industry event I recently attended at the Westminster Business Forum. I’ll be writing more about this insightful event in the future but I want to focus on the issue of supply chain transparency here.

Modern slavery

There are an estimated 40.3M people in modern slavery around the world. The textile industry is the second highest industry who exploit people through slavery (second only to the construction industry).

Every autumn over a million Uzbek and Turkmen citizens are forced by their own government to leave their regular jobs and go to the fields to pick cotton. A large proportion of this cotton ends up in global supply chains and in our shops. Children are also used to harvest the cotton, although the numbers have reduced significantly under international pressure. This short explainer video will give you an overview of the situation.

Environmental damage – The Aral Sea

Two major rivers in Uzbekistan that feed the Aral Sea were diverted in the 1960’s to irrigate farmland to produce cotton. The Aral Sea is the size of the island of Ireland and has virtually dried up. The fishing industry has been decimated and intense dust storms have become more frequent. I wrote about this in a recent blog post, Five things you need to know about the fashion industry.

The Perfect Storm

The cotton that you are wearing may have come from this region. If so, it was harvested by state-sponsored slavery and has helped to cause an environmental disaster. The lack of transparency in the supply chain means that you don’t know where the materials in your clothes come from.

The more I learn about sustainability, the more I realise that you can’t separate the elements of the triple bottom line, people, profit and planet.

What are the solutions?

Boycotting might seem like one pressure tactic to change the situation. However, Anti-Slavery International generally do not support boycotting products or brands.

Boycotts can actually make the situation worse and undermine the economy of an already poor country. As well as hurting employers using slavery-like practices, they could also hurt those who are not exploiting their workers, and worsen the poverty that is one of the root causes of slavery.

However, we do call for a boycott of companies purchasing cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In these particular cases of state-sponsored forced labour, the boycott is not going to make the situation worse for those affected by it.

The possible solutions are many and complex and include:

  • Better legislation in human rights and due diligence
  • Government inspection
  • Living wage
  • Collective bargaining
  • Good purchasing practices
  • Transparency in the supply chain

I would add raising consumer awareness to this list. Despite my years in retail I was still shocked the facts and figures that Anti-Slavery International presented in relation to the fashion sector. While we’re much more aware of exploitation in garment factories than we once were, we are much less conscious of what goes on further up the supply chain in the cotton fields.

What can you do?

This blog was going to be a comment about Black Friday but I realised that I would have made the same points as I wrote in last year’s blog post. Instead of the rush to consume more and congratulate ourselves on the latest “bargain”, we need to give some thought to what went into our purchases before we “add to cart” online or in store. That bargain often comes as the cost of either a person, or the planet, paying a steep price further back along the supply chain.

Due to the complexity of the supply chain it is almost impossible to ascertain whether or not slaves were employed at some point in that supply chain. You can help by supporting Anti-Slavery International, learning more about the issue and joining the End Cotton Crimes Campaign

© Retail Renewal 04/12/19

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