Blog: Leonie BarrieUzbek cotton ban has limited reach

Leonie Barrie | 21 October 2011

With more than more than 60 of the world's biggest and best-known apparel companies and brands - including Adidas, Burberry, C&A, Levi Strauss, Li &Fung, Liz Claiborne, PVH Corp and Wal-Mart Stores - already boycotting cotton from Uzbekistan, it's not surprising there were no western buyers at the annual cotton fair in Tashkent earlier this month.

But does this really show the embargo, which has been gathering force since 2004, is working?

Not according to local media reports, which suggest all the cotton and textiles sold at the event will instead be heading to CIS countries, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Japan, UAE, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore.

The Uzbek government also says there are no signs of a slowdown in the number of participants at the fair. From around 170 trading and textile companies at the first event in 2005, more than 660 representatives from 330 companies were attending this year.

The country is mired in controversy over the use of forced child labour in to pick the raw fibre. Each year, the Uzbekistan government is said to close schools and force more than 200,000 children into the cotton fields during the three-month long harvest.

But as the world's third largest exporter of cotton, is it really conceivable that its raw material won't make it into the supply chains of the companies banning its use? After all, the big purchasers of the fibre at this year's cotton fair were from the world's main garment producing countries.

In the same vein, cotton is an internationally traded commodity, raw cotton sources are not always easily identifiable, and cotton from different sources gets mixed up during the production process. Indeed, some estimates point out it can be very difficult to trace the origin of the fibres since more than 30% of the world's consumption of cotton fibre crosses international borders before processing. Monitoring is made even harder by the complicated and global reach of most garment supply chains.

Without systems in place to track and trace the origin of the cotton used in clothing and textiles, a commitment to ban the use of Uzbek cotton becomes virtually meaningless. It's a valiant gesture, but one that so far seems to have done little to persuade the Uzbek government to change its ways.


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