The new YESS verification programme will pilot in China and India

The new YESS verification programme will pilot in China and India

A new initiative that aims to drive slavery out of cotton goods by verifying that yarn spinners are only using cotton produced with ethical practices is being endorsed by apparel brands and retailers including Adidas, BJ's Wholesale Club, Woolworths Holdings and Hudson Bay Company.

Launched today (1 September), 'YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced' is the latest tool to help the apparel industry work towards eliminating all forms of forced labour from global supply chains – especially in cotton and yarn production.

And according to its developer, the Responsible Sourcing Network – a project of the US-based not for profit organisation As You Sow – it targets the most opaque place in the supply chain: the facilities where yarn spinners blend different types of cotton together.

"Yarn spinners are the key to knowing if the cotton that gets spun and woven into our clothes was harvested under forced labour conditions," the group says, adding: "In addition, there are tens of thousands of young women who are kept as bonded labourers in spinning mills every day."

YESS aims to close the transparency gap in the middle of the fashion supply chain by establishing a training, assessment, and verification process in yarn spinning mills.

The new programme will pilot in India and China, where there are a lot of spinning mills and where the problem is particularly egregious, and will also tackle the challenge of identifying and addressing the forced and bonded labour of young women in spinning mills in southern India.

YESS will assist companies to comply with new anti-slavery regulations, minimise verification costs, establish an industry-wide traceability approach, and manage a global list of verified spinners.

It also says it plans to coordinate its activities with industry-wide sustainable and ethical sourcing platforms.

Cotton produced by forced labour, documented in at least nine countries producing 65% of the worrld's cotton, according to the US Department of Labor, makes its way into clothing and home goods sold by major brands and retailers.

Yet according to a survey by the RSN, 80% of brands do not audit their yarn suppliers.

The RSN has already played a key role in reducing forced child labour in cotton fields in Uzbekistan, and has over 260 signatories to its Cotton Pledge against forced labour – including Stella McCartney, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, H&M, Kate Spade, and Patagonia.

However, "although many of our corporate Cotton Pledge signatories know that this is a vulnerable spot in their supply chains, they haven't known how to address the problem," explains Patricia Jurewicz, director of RSN and creator of YESS.

"YESS is providing an innovative solution around which the entire industry can collaborate and contribute."

While there are numerous projects that engage farmers and factory workers to improve labor conditions, YESS is one of just a few initiatives working directly with spinning mills.

"It is an open secret that the garment and textile supply chain is rife with forced labour and other human rights abuses," adds Dr Aidan McQuade, director of AntiSlavery International. "However, it is not inevitable that this should be the case. In Uzbekistan, we have seen how economic and political pressure has helped remove the youngest children from the cotton fields.

The new tool also comes at a time when new laws require companies to report on their actions to address modern slavery and human trafficking, consumers are demanding ethical manufacturing of their products, and investors are benchmarking companies against one another.

"YESS offers a truly revolutionary approach that will allow us and our peers to identify and root out forced labour from the middle of our value chains," says Scot Leonard, co-founder and CEO of Indigenous, one of the YESS working group members.

"This will have a global impact once it is fully implemented. The time is now for the industry to join together and address these forced labour challenges."

The massive problem of lack of transparency and traceability across global supply chains has also been highlighted this week, after US department store retailer Target Corporation pulled all luxury bed linen produced by Welspun Global Brands over concerns about the provenance of the cotton used in its products.

Cotton supply chain transparency an ongoing challenge