Fashion retailer H&M Hennes and Mauritz has come under pressure to break ties with clothing suppliers that buy cotton from Uzbekistan, where large quantities of the fibre are produced using forced and child labour.

Anti-Slavery International said that despite pledging not to source Uzbek cotton, H&M is refusing to take steps to guarantee no companies in its supply chain "profit from slavery in Uzbekistan".

According to the human rights group, around 90% of Uzbek cotton is harvested by hand, with half of all cotton picked by state-sponsored forced labour and children as young as nine forced to work for up to three months a year to fill the shortfall in voluntary adult labour.

The country is the sixth largest producer of cotton in the world, and the third largest exporter, earning over US$1bn through the export of around 850,000 tonnes of cotton each year.

According to the charity, Korean conglomerate Daewoo International runs three large cotton processing facilities in Uzbekistan. Daewoo processes cotton from all over the world, and sells cotton yarn and clothing to apparel companies, which means it is difficult to know which products come from Uzbekistan.

While H&M has pledged not to buy cotton from Uzbekistan, and denies that it buys clothes from Daewoo International, the cotton processing company has told the South Korean press that it does sell to the Swedish apparel giant, Anti-Slavery International said.

Responding to the claims, a spokesperson from H&M told just-style that it has worked actively for "many years" to eliminate Uzbek cotton from its supply chain. 

"Our company policy prohibits the use of Uzbek cotton in our products which is also communicated to all our suppliers. In order to support a more sustainable cotton industry we joined Better Cotton Initiative and Textile Exchange in 2004.

"We are working continuously to improve traceability of the cotton used for our products and we aim for all cotton to come from more sustainable, fully traceable sources by 2020 at the latest.

"For the last two years in a row we have been the biggest buyer of organic cotton according to Textile Exchange," the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson emphasised that the retailer signed a pledge facilitated by the Responsible Sourcing Network to not knowingly use Uzbek cotton. It plans to strengthen this commitment in the near future, calling on its suppliers to sign similar pledges.

"The suppliers that don't sign the commitment will not be allowed to work with H&M," the spokesperson added.