“Do you know where your cotton comes from?” If you knew what you are wearing, you might be ashamed.
What Continental® CAN do, is to guarantee that the cotton we use does not come from Uzbekistan. (Continental® uses Turkish & Egyptian cotton.)
To substantiate this, each of the factories Continental uses, in Turkey and India, have prepared the paperwork for both the organic and non-organic cotton, to show the source of the raw cotton. It took only four days to prepare the documentation, and the documentation had to show the receipt of the cotton as it travels up the supply chain of the manufacturing processes.
With that guaranteed, you can now sleep a little better at night, however, if you wish to learn more, read on… but I warn you, it does not make happy reading if you are in any way involved in purchasing or re-selling cotton apparel…
Uzbekistan is the third largest cotton exporter in the world. About one in four of all cotton garments sold in the UK contain a percentage of Uzbek cotton fibres. The first problem is that the Uzbek regime is responsible for torture, slave labour and a continuing environmental disaster on an unimaginable scale – all in the name of cotton production. The second problem is that they don’t tell you on the clothing labels in stores where the cotton fibres came from, just where the garment was manufactured. The truth about the Uzbek cotton industry makes horrific reading, and I only reproduce here a fraction of what I have read. I do this, not to be sensationalist, but because we can actually do something about this, by raising awareness in our industry, and encouraging other manufacturers to follow suit or lose their reputation – and ultimately lose sales. In the near future, in the current climate, unethical business practises will simply not be profitable.
Don’t take my word for it. What follows is abreviated passages from the executive summary from the International Crisis Group report on Central Asian cotton of March 2005:
The Uzbek cotton industry is a disastrous aberration created by Soviet central planning. Over 80% of the loss of water from the Aral Sea is due to irrigation for the Uzbek cotton industry, so it is responsible for one of the World’s greatest environmental disasters. On most agricultural land in Uzbekistan, cotton has been grown as a monoculture for fifty years, with no rotation. This of course exhausts the soil and encourages pests. As a result the cotton industry employs massive quantities of pesticide and fertiliser. As a result it is not just that the Aral Sea is disappearing, but that and fertilisers, with no rotation.the whole area of the former sea suffers appalling pollution, reflected in appalling levels of disease. Uzbek farm workers are tied to the farm. They need a propusk (visa) to move away – which they won’t get. The state farm worker normally gets two dollars a month. Their living and nutritional standards would improve greatly if, rather than grow cotton, they had a little area to grow subsistence crops.
There are no independent research institutes allowed in Uzbekistan. In fact the proportion of the population enslaved on state cotton farms is closer to 60% than 40%.
The cotton industry in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contributes to political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental degradation. The economics of Central Asian cotton are simple and exploitative. Millions of the rural poor work for little or no reward growing and harvesting the crop. The considerable profits go either to the state or small elites with powerful political ties. Forced and child labour and other abuses are common.
This system is only sustainable under conditions of political repression, which can be used to mobilise workers at less than market cost. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the world’s most repressive states, with no free elections. Opposition activists and human rights defenders are subject to persecution. The lack of a free media allows many abuses to go unreported. Unelected local governments are usually complicit in abuses, since they have little or no accountability to the population. Cotton producers have an interest in continuing these corrupt and non-democratic regimes.The industry relies on cheap labour. Schoolchildren are still regularly required to spend up to two months in the cotton fields in Uzbekistan. Despite official denials, child labour is still in use in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Students in all three countries must miss their classes to pick cotton. Little attention is paid to the conditions in which children and students work. Every year some fall ill or die.
Women do much of the hard manual labour in cotton fields, and reap almost none of the benefits. Cash wages are minimal, and often paid late or not at all. In most cotton-producing areas, growers are among the poorest elements in society.
The environmental costs of the monoculture have been devastating. The depletion of the Aral Sea is the result of intensive irrigation to fuel cotton production. The region around the sea has appalling public health and ecological problems. Even further upstream, increased salinisation and desertification of land have a major impact on the environment. Disputes over water usage cause tension among Central Asian states. Reforming the cotton sector is not easy. Central Asian cotton is traded internationally by major European and U.S. corporations; its production is financed by Western banks, and the final product ends up in well-known clothes outlets in Western countries. But neither the international cotton trading companies nor the clothing manufacturers pay much attention to the conditions in which the cotton is produced. Nor have international organisations or IFIs done much to address the abuses. U.S. and EU subsidy regimes for their own farmers make long-term change more difficult by depressing world prices.
Three years ago Craig Murray, our British ambassador to Uzbekistan, had a sense-of-humour failure about Britain condoning torture there. His fate? The Foreign Office fired him. Labour or Conservative? It doesn’t really matter does it, they are all the same.
To effect immediate change, you should demand that your apparel manufacturer state on their garment labels where their cotton comes from, and that it does not come from Uzbekistan. With the vast volume of T-shirts bought and sold, the message will quickly spread, and High Street retail will follow. Why am I doing this? As a large user of cotton, and with our influential position in the T-shirt industry, Continental Clothing has an opportunity, if not even a responsibility, to raise awareness and promote consumer action on issues where we feel strongly – such as the state orchestrated child slavery in Uzbekistan. The wonderful thing is that it costs us nothing, and may switch cause consumers to question the garments they buy and so switch them on to cotton garments which guarantee that certain positive social and environmental conditions are met – such as Continental garments. This is often the way with ethical and environmental choices, initially they appear expensive and difficult, until you realise they can be sustainable choices for a longer term and more profitable future. So yes, we are doing this because we can, and also for personal gain. If you follow the same formula, you may benefit in exactly the same way.
Philip Charles – Director.
Philip can be reached at email@example.com