Cotton Program Overview

The Cotton Program at the Responsible Sourcing Network supports cotton value chains that aim to eliminate the most egregious human rights abuses and environmental destruction at the field level. We advocate for cotton supply chain transparency, traceability and accountability, and believe these objectives can be best achieved using the collective force of a diverse group of stakeholders.

By leveraging the economic position of home goods and apparel brands and retailers, the historical knowledge of socially conscious investors, and the expertise of NGOs, we approach challenges in the cotton value chain using diplomatic and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies.

RSN is proud to be a Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) member, a multi-stakeholder organization committed to improving the sustainability of sourced materials for apparel and footwear. It oversees the Higg Index, an open source, indicator-based tool that can be used to evaluate materials, products, facilities, and processes based on environmental, social, and product design choices.

The Problem

While forced labor in cotton production remains endemic in many countries, nowhere is it more organized than in Uzbekistan, where the Uzbek government forces over one million citizens to labor in the country’s cotton fields each year. The government shuts down schools and public offices for months at a time, mobilizes the country’s youth, teachers and civil servants, and sends them to the cotton fields every autumn.

Uzbek citizens are given daily quotas they must fulfill, oftentimes mandated to pick up to 110 pounds of cotton in a given day. Some will be lucky to receive $1.00 per day for picking that amount, and then may be charged for their food and lodging. The Uzbek government can sell 100 pounds of Uzbek cotton on the open market for approximately $120 dollars.

The Uzbek government enforces these orders with threats; uses local law enforcement to mobilize the workers; detains and tortures Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation; and refuses to allow international monitors to observe the cotton harvest.

Additionally, the government dictates the price of inputs (seeds and fertilizers) for the farmers, controls irrigation, tells the farmers specifically what to plant and when to plant it, and then purchases the crops for a fraction of the market price. This abusive practice, a relic of Uzbekistan’s Soviet past, earns the Government of Uzbekistan over one billion dollars annually.

What We Are Doing

The Responsible Sourcing Network operates within a broad network of NGOs, apparel brands and retailers, investors, industry associations, and trade unions seeking to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector through a variety of strategies.

We leverage our unique position both as an NGO and as a socially responsible investor (SRI) to ensure major apparel brands and retailers are fulfilling on their commitments to not source cotton from Uzbekistan, until the Uzbek government stops exploiting unwilling citizens during the cotton harvest.

We also coordinate with other stakeholders to utilize diplomatic and private sector channels to apply pressure on the Uzbek government, encouraging them to interact with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and transform its cotton sector to abide by international norms.

Our Reports

Our Initiatives

What Consumers Can Do

  1. Before you purchase clothes, check apparel companies’ websites to see if they have developed policies on Uzbek cotton.
  2. Spread the word to friends and family about forced labor in Uzbekistan to help raise public awareness of the plight of the people there.
  3. Purchase garments that have accountability built into them, such as those made with alternative cottons (Organic, Fair Trade, Better Cotton, et cetera).
  4. Check out our resource pages for the latest information and links to others in our network.

What Companies Can Do

Businesses have a responsibility to conduct due diligence that ensures human rights are respected in their supply chains, even if they have not contributed directly to the rights violation. Since slavery-like practices are used in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, businesses must avoid using Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until the use of forced labor in the Uzbekistan cotton sector is ended.

  • Sign the RSN Company Pledge against forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan. Signing the Pledge demonstrates a company commitment to respecting human rights and is also an important public denunciation of forced labor.
  • Create a policy that prohibits suppliers from sourcing Uzbek cotton until the Government of Uzbekistan ceases using forced labor to harvest cotton.
  • Establish procedures that ensure suppliers are abiding by the company policy to not source Uzbek cotton.
  • Implement a supply chain traceability program to track the Country of Origin for the cotton inputs in company’s products.
  • Boycott suppliers that are using Uzbek cotton.
  • Become an active member in the Economic Leverage Working Group (ELWG) and participate in quarterly conference calls. The ELWG is a multi-stakeholder network that is collectively working to end forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. Participants in the ELWG:
    • Learn about the situation on the ground and latest activities to hold the Government of Uzbekistan Accountable;
    • Share their knowledge of activities to eliminate Uzbek cotton from supply chains; and
    • Share the global message that business does not tolerate forced labor.