How Can We Mitigate Turkmen Cotton in the Turkish Supply Chain? YESS Is the Answer

Turkmenistan has overwhelming examples of human rights violations with state-sponsored forced labor in its cotton production. Brands and investors are concerned this tainted cotton spreads to global markets through Turkey, one of Turkmenistan's largest global trading partners.

The modern economic relationship between Turkey and Turkmenistan is rooted in deep historical and cultural ties that have created centuries of trade deals between these two countries. According to the Turkish government, in 2016, exports and imports from Turkey to Turkmenistan amounted to $1.25 billion USD and $422 million USD. Since Turkmenistan gained independence, Turkish companies have invested in more than 1,400 projects, mostly in the construction or textile industries, worth around $50 billion USD. According to, while most textile companies in Turkmenistan are state-owned, the Turkmen government often receives funding from Turkish companies; of the 22% that are foreign-owned, the majority are Turkish. 

In recent years, Turkey has become a major player in the global cotton industry, with particularly strong ties to the European market due to geographical distance and long-standing political relationships. Although Turkey is one of the top 10 cotton producers globally, it is also one of the largest cotton importers since its textile production requires more cotton than it grows. As the 6th largest textile and apparel manufacturer in the world — and third-largest supplier to the EU — Turkey is responsible for producing cotton goods for some of the world’s largest fashion, textile, and home goods companies.

As the 11th largest cotton producer globally, Turkmenistan’s cotton has the ability to enter global supply chains through Turkey in two ways:

  1. Through the importation of cotton from Turkmenistan into Turkey where it is used to produce goods for world consumption with a “Made in Turkey” label.

  2. Through the numerous Turkish-owned yarn and textile production facilities in Turkmenistan itself. Jeans or sheets could be made in Turkey with yarn or fabric from Turkmenistan. 

As the report published by details brilliantly, the challenges faced by the Turkey-Turkmenistan economic relationship lie in the Turkish companies that are doing business in Turkmenistan. Çalık Holdings, for example, is one of the largest Turkish textile manufacturers and lists having several facilities in Turkmenistan for its spinning and production. Gap Pazarlama, a branch of Çalık’s business that makes yarn, denim, and ready-made garments for brands such as Gap, Inc., Zara, and Tesco, does not include identification from where it is sourcing its cotton. As a result, the likelihood is high that Turkmen cotton produced under forced labor conditions is in many of the well-known brands that have their cotton products manufactured in Turkey.

According to the US GAINS reports, which detail import and export quantities of commodities traded around the world, Turkmenistan does not import any raw cotton; this confirms that any cotton good produced in Turkmenistan is made exclusively with Turkmen cotton and thus contains forced labor in its supply chain. Many of the brands purchasing from Çalık and other Turkish suppliers with subsidiaries in Turkmenistan may be unaware — or untrained to ask — if the products they are buying are being produced using Turkmen cotton, yarn, or fabric, or in Turkmenistan itself.

While brands have the opportunity to state their commitment to avoid sourcing cotton from Turkmenistan with the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, they have no assurances that the spinning mills in their supply chains are not using Turkmen cotton. So what can be done to mitigate the usage of Turkmen cotton while not inadvertently black-listing Turkish companies that are not using Turkmenistan cotton, or are unaware that they are using it?

This is a perfect example of where the YESS initiative can minimize brand risk as well as drive positive impact. YESS is designed to assist brands in preventing cotton produced with forced labor from entering their supply chains by requiring spinners sourcing from countries with evidence of a high-risk of forced labor in their cotton sectors — like Turkmenistan — to conduct due diligence on the cotton production. The need for this due diligence could drive the introduction or expansion of farm-level initiatives, such as Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), or Fair Trade, which have decent work criteria in their production standards. Turkish suppliers not wanting to risk losing business, or alternatively looking to become more sustainable, could gain from incorporating YESS into their compliance routines.

Additionally, as one of the largest consumers of cotton goods, the United States is enforcing its commitment to refuse goods produced with slave labor. As a result, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in 2018 issued a Withhold and Release Order (WRO) for cotton from Turkmenistan or any product containing cotton from Turkmenistan. Meaning, if U.S. Customs has reason to believe that Turkmen cotton is contained in products attempting to enter the U.S., it has the ability to stop those products at the border. If the importing company cannot prove the products do not contain Turkmen cotton, the shipment needs to be sent back or destroyed. The economic and legal ramifications this poses to companies selling products in the U.S. could be huge, which demonstrates the need for brands and suppliers to be able to identify the origin of their cotton, and highlights the vital necessity of YESS

Implementing sustainability and ethical production in the fashion industry continues to gain wider traction among consumers and international brands, marked with the recent launch of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. This new alliance “is seeking to halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion, and instead harness the industry as a driver for improving the world’s ecosystems.” Investors are also taking note of anti-slavery benchmarks such as the one KnowtheChain published on Apparel and Footwear. In July, at least 83 investors with accumulated AUM of $724 billion USD joined a statement asking brands to sign the Turkmen Cotton Pledge and to stop sourcing cotton from Turkmenistan.

The demand to have the assurance of no forced labor cotton in one’s products is only likely to increase in the years ahead. YESS is the answer to drive the sustainable and ethical cotton production we all desire and need.

Katie Chappuis