Hand-in-Hand: Cotton & Forced Labor


Cotton is a staple in so many people’s lives. It’s in almost any textile – clothes, towels, bed linens, stuffed animals, and even American money is made with a cotton blend. It’s been such a staple for humanity that we can trace back cotton growth and fabric production to between 6000 BCE to 5000 BCE, where archeological discoveries have found fabric and tools in Peru and Sudan.

It’s no surprise that 27 million tons of the fluffy stuff is grown and harvested each year globally, with the United States being the biggest exporter of raw cotton, followed by Brazil, India, and Australia. It’s an over $15 billion industry. And with such a big industry, the question of ethics is raised both in an environmental and humanitarian sense.

Cotton and forced labor seem to have a history that goes hand-in-hand. We are all familiar with slavery and the cotton industry in the United States, which was made illegal when the 13th Amendment was signed into law on April 8th, 1864. However, though chattel slavery ended in America, unfortunately, the practice still persists in many other parts of the modern world.

According to antislavery.org, forced labor surrounding cotton is still going strong – particularly in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In 2019 they released an article that the governments of those nations send thousands of their citizens each year to harvest cotton. These citizens are forced to leave their daily jobs to go to the fields, regardless of their profession. Doctors, teachers, anyone that can pick cotton is forced to do so and must meet a certain quota for harvest. If they don’t, those people can face harassment and even lose their regular jobs due to their low production.

In 2020, troubling reports were released that China’s Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous Region, or XUAR, was using forced labor to harvest and produce cotton products. This motivated brands like Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Victoria’s Secret to release statements that they would stop using cotton made in China. The reports prompted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to issue a seizure of any cotton products (and tomato products too, which, I had no idea that region produced tomato products for the U.S., but here we are) made in the XUAR.

Raw White Cotton Fabric Spools

Unfortunately, forced labor is just one piece of a massive problem plaguing the world regarding labor laws. Sweatshops are still an enormous problem in many Asian countries where clothing and shoes are produced, and even right here in our own back yard where migrant workers aren’t paid fairly and work long, grueling hours planting and harvesting crops to provide for their families back home.

So, what can you do about it? Aligning with organizations like antislavery.org is an excellent first step, but so is checking to make sure you know where your products come from. Buy products and clothing from brands that are fair trade certified, which you can find a list of here. Read up on the International Labour Organization’s Indicators of Forced Labour. If you’re a member of PPAI, there are several free on-demand sessions with topics like Supply Chain Mapping and Traceability, CAS: A Tour Through the Global Cotton Supply Chain, and The Virtual Product Responsibility Summit 2020: Human Rights and Forced Labor in the Supply Chain for you to check out and learn more about the subject. You can also reach out to your favorite brands to see how they source their raw materials and manufacture their goods and avoid brands you know are using unethically sourced and made products.

Together, we can make the world a better place to work and live in.

Are you looking for a way to find products that support a specific cause? With SAGE Online, you can filter down your search results to include products from suppliers that participate in social good programs, or that are eco-friendly, union made, minority-owned, women-owned, recyclable, veteran-owned, and more. Questions? Reach out to your SAGE representative today!

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(Marketing Content Writer)

Betty is the Marketing Content Writer at SAGE. She is a self-proclaimed, bonafide nerd, and when she's not writing, you can find her playing video games, watching space documentaries, hunting for vintage Star Wars toys, and binge-watching the latest show on Netflix.

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