OPINION: Striving to ensure global cotton supply chains are slavery-free

by Alan McClay | Better Cotton Initiative
Monday, 7 December 2020 16:11 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A farmer picks cotton on a farm on the outskirts of Hami, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region November 3, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Responsible sourcing requires all parties to cooperate on sustainable and ethical practices

By Alan McClay, CEO, Better Cotton Initiative

Over the last twenty years or so, a plethora of industry initiatives have emerged around the theme of ‘responsible sourcing’. These range widely in scope, depth, and approach, but all share the broad aim of improving sustainability standards in today’s complex global supply chains.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought supply practices more under the microscope than ever, with large brands quick to cancel orders and workers laid off with little or no pay.

Not all failings fall at Covid-19’s door. For example, reports of Uyghur Muslims in the Chinese province of Xinjiang being forced to work in manufacturing and agriculture are widespread. In response, over the last few months, the US government has issued a number of legislative and regulatory initiatives to prevent trade in cotton from the province.

Examples like these ask difficult questions of those of us in the certification business. Are industry initiatives delivering tangible change? Or, as some critics maintain, are they an ineffectual distraction from the real issues at hand?

As the world’s largest cotton sustainability programme, at the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) we are convinced that certification schemes have a positive contribution to make. Since setting up over 10 years ago, we have helped policies and plans take root to improve smallholders and workers’ wellbeing – invariably in places where employment frameworks are weak or non-existent.

Labour abuses still occur, however, and we join in the view of all right-minded citizens in abhorring any abuse of people’s human rights. Forced labour is never right, and urgent steps must be taken to prevent it – wherever in the world it occurs.

In a case like that of Xinjiang, where we were working with a number of producer groups, the first obligation on an organisation like ours is to investigate thoroughly. Travel restrictions and security risks have made it difficult for our assessors and third-party auditors to conduct the kind of rigorous, on-the-ground audit we habitually undertake.

For that reason, we decided back in March to stop licensing, and most recently in October, to cease field-level activities in Xinjiang altogether. BCI certifies 2.3 million cotton farmers around the world, representing 22% of total global cotton production. To retain the credibility of our certification system as a whole, the decision to retire was the only one open to us.

This doesn’t remove the second obligation on us, however, which is to provide solutions to unethical or unsustainable practices. As with many organisations working to improve supply chain conditions, we believe strongly in the power of constructive engagement. Better to walk into a difficult situation and seek to improve it, we say, than to walk out of it and pretend it’s not happening. This is incidentally essentially what the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recommend. 

Even with constructive engagement, however, solutions don’t come swiftly. Issues such as forced labour and child labour are invariably complex and multi-causal. Farm-level measures can and do help, of course. Yet, to really tackle these issues and get at their root causes, a suite of interventions is needed, from basic farmer education right through to institutional capacity-building and policy making.

We are unashamedly ambitious for what certification can achieve. At its best, it cannot only help prevent the bad, but it can also encourage the good. We have seen this time and again over the last decade. In Tajikistan, for example, where pesticide use on certified farms has fallen by 38% compared to non-participating farmers, or Mali, where women comprise 39% of those trained by BCI in sustainable farming techniques.

Can we do more? Of course. Continuous improvement guides our actions as much as those of our certified farmers. In this vein, we recently convened an independent Task Force to assess the effectiveness of our system in providing dignified work. The findings, which were issued last month, have pushed us to begin revising our assurance and licensing processes to better identify and mitigate forced labour risks, among other immediate steps.

As with all responsible certifiers, at BCI, we have never promised that our certification system provides a foolproof guarantee of 100% ethical and sustainable behaviour at every link in the chain. BCI-certified producers sold 5,627,700 tonnes of cotton last year. Even an army of assessors would struggle to police every last tonne.

Our approach instead focuses on creating real change through continuous improvement. Making cotton farming as sustainable as humanly possible: that is our sole focus and our unshakeable guarantee.

To deliver what consumers want, cotton must first deliver what farmers deserve and what the planet needs; namely, dignified work and clean production.

Certification can and is helping here, yet responsible sourcing will only be fully realised when all parties lock arms to drive sustainable and ethical practices throughout their respective supply chains. Another twenty years is too long to wait. The time for action is now.