As we begin to taste that Spring/Summer freedom thousands of people are enslaved to harvest Cotton

Spring has finally arrived and you know what that means...

Summer is on its way and all I can think about is whipping out a cute summer dress and heading for the beach with my gal pals. In summer, we tend to wear a lot of natural fibres because they are breathable, absorbent and keep us cool. The majority of these items are likely to be made with either part or 100% cotton fibres as cotton accounts for 90% of all natural fibres used in clothing. We all know everything has to come from somewhere, so where does the cotton come from that make up our wardrobe? It is extremely hard to trace the origin of cotton and without having eyes across every part of a garment’s supply chain, how do we know if we are buying (therefore supporting with our dollar) garments made from forced labour? The answer is that we simply don’t - therefore, I have put together a little guide to help you next time you’re shopping for your slavery-free summer wardrobe. But first I want to touch on the current situation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan involving forced labour during the harvesting of cotton.

Here’s where our cotton comes from…

Right now, approximately 12,000km away, a community of around 1 million Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan citizens are filled with fear in the lead up to the September/October cotton harvest season. This region located in Central Asia is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cotton and remains one of the biggest violators of human rights with their state-led, forced labour cotton scheme. In order to supply a world full of cotton lovers (let’s face it, we all love cotton!), the government is forcing children, students and professionals out of their daily routines and into the cotton fields during harvest. Students are expelled from school if they refuse to participate, mothers are fired for refusing to leave their children at home alone while her and her husband are sent to the fields, and medical practitioners are forced to abandon patients in risk of losing their job. I think you’ll agree, this definitely shouldn’t be happening to fuel our fashion addiction and keep our summer wardrobes looking fabulous.

Imagine waking up every day for two months and operating as a slave to cotton after being forced by your own government?! Now bear in mind, cotton picking is no picnic amongst the sunflowers, nor a vacation. It’s dangerous work! Cotton picking has claimed the lives of many Uzbek and Turkman citizens with many more becoming ill and/or injured and are placed at a very high risk of disease. So, what’s so dangerous about picking a few cotton buds off a plant I hear you inquisitively ask? Well unbeknownst to many, conventional cotton (non-organically grown) use more insecticides than any other single crop out there. That is, approximately 25% of the world’s total insecticides and more than 10% of the world’s pesticides! Just a little ‘fun/not so fun fact’ organophosphate pesticides, often used for conventional cotton, were originally marketed during World War II as a toxic nerve agent that affects the nervous system by disrupting an enzyme that regulates a neurotransmitter! Um, what?! I think it’s safe to say you would never want that near your body. Ever! I believe it’s pretty self-explanatory how the exposure to many of these chemicals and more in the fields, plus the lack of access to safe drinking water, unsanitary housing, and long, treacherous working conditions can be deadly. Without sufficient protection against these substances, nor the support from local governments, it’s hard to comprehend the dangerous environment these locals are forced to work in.

“But we love cotton!”

I hear you all chanting and that’s okay! Cotton is one of the loveliest fibres around so I have created a whole other blog post on what to look out for when buying cotton including a list of well-known companies who have signed The Cotton Pledge against Uzbek cotton. My next blog will tell you what you can do to shop cotton slavery free!

Now as much as I’d love to be, I’m in no way an expert on cotton nor modern slavery, however, I do know some wonderful people who are all across this issue and there are very insightful and reliable resources out there about forced labour in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I have listed some great resources below if you wish to learn more. 

Here are some useful resources if you wish to learn more!

The Cotton Campaign 

Make Fashion Traffik Free

Australian Cotton Facts

Here is a fabulous little video that explains the Uzbek cotton story in summary. It is in German but if you’ve read this far, you’ll certainly be able to tackle the subtitles, I promise.

Interesting read! World Bank funds linked to forced labour in Uzbekistan