Unraveling Corporate Cotton Practices

Last week, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) released a new report, Cotton Sourcing Snapshot: A Survey of Corporate Practices to End Forced Labor and an accompanying webinar, as part of our effort to better understand what companies are doing to find and eliminate cotton picked…

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February 27, 2014
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Last week, the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) released a new report, Cotton Sourcing Snapshot: A Survey of Corporate Practices to End Forced Labor and an accompanying webinar, as part of our effort to better understand what companies are doing to find and eliminate cotton picked by forced labor before it enters their product supply chains. The focused lens of cotton sourcing in this report offers a window into wider corporate practices that can take us deeper than SB-657’s required policy-level disclosures.

Public transparency on challenges that companies face in forced labor prevention remains relatively rare. Our research revealed that 67 percent of the surveyed companies do not publicly disclose their progress in implementing prevention strategies as they relate to cotton from Uzbekistan, where forced labor is mandated by the government. Only one company, Gap Inc., fully revealed its progress and challenges. We applaud Gap Inc. for its comprehensive disclosures, for it is in the conversation about acknowledging and overcoming challenges where the most valuable lessons can be learned.

An encouraging finding was that just over 40 percent of the surveyed companies do have requirements for their suppliers to provide the country of origin for raw materials. This demonstrates the industry is beginning to see the value in knowing where its cotton originates, and in understanding the variety of social and environmental issues embedded in the cotton that pose a risk. Given the fact that country of origin appears on transportation documents, cotton from Uzbekistan is one of the easiest high-risk commodities to distinguish and eliminate from a company’s supply chain. Examples of production and shipping documents that can include country of origin are included in RSN’s report, To the Spinner: Forging a Chain to Responsible Cotton Sourcing.

Because yarn spinners and textile mills ultimately control whether they purchase cotton from Uzbekistan or other high-risk countries, the survey examined which companies audit their spinners and mills to learn where they source their yarn or fabric. Research revealed only nine companies audit their spinners and mills, indicating that more than 80 percent of the industry is not implementing this critical accountability mechanism. Abercrombie & Fitch, adidas, Fruit of the Loom, IKEA, Li and Fung, lululemon, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, and PVH conduct self-audits or independent third-party audits of their spinners and mills. Although many respondents said it was impossible or too difficult to audit a facility when a contractual relationship does not exist, RSN recognizes the aforementioned companies for proactively conducting these audits.

By offering an understanding of industry trends, a deeper level of transparency of corporate activities, and highlighting best practices, RSN urges companies to disclose more on the practices they are implementing and encourages industry cooperation to implement solutions that will help eradicate slave-labor in the cotton sector.

To learn more, visit www.sourcingnetwork.org and download Cotton Sourcing Snapshot: A Survey of Corporate Practices to End Forced Labor.

Karen Runde is Research Manager at Responsible Sourcing Network and co-author of Cotton Sourcing Snapshot.