NEW YORK — Inside American Apparel’s brightly lit location in Greenwich Village, 20-somethings pick through the company’s signature clean-cut offerings, flanked by stylized Greek columns. Labels on the clothes read “Made in USA with US and imported components” – the company’s vertically integrated model, with clothes manufactured in Southern California, distinguishes American Apparel from most other large fashion retailers. Online, the company declares its commitment to sustainability, offering an “Organic Line” produced from “100% USDA Certified Organic and pesticide-free cotton.”
Yet, American Apparel is also one of the last major U.S. fashion retailers to refuse to sign a pledge to avoid knowingly sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, which employs widespread forced labor in cotton production. Another prominent holdout, Forever 21, announced that it would sign the pledge while reporting this story.
Together with Polo Ralph Lauren and a handful of other retailers, American Apparel has ignored calls to join hundreds of other companies in signing the Cotton Pledge, which commits companies “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector.”
For activists, the silence is frustrating.
“I would love to have them sign on. I think it’s a travesty that they haven’t,” said Patricia Jurewicz, founder and director of the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), which created and administers the Cotton Pledge.
Other organizations go even further. Continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton “is an endorsement of state-sponsored slavery,” said Sarah Newell, campaigns associate at the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights, labor and business organizations dedicated to ending forced labor in Uzbekistan. “Every company has an absolute responsibility to take action and boycott Uzbek cotton until the government ceases to mobilize their citizens against their will.”
RSN issued its Cotton Pledge in 2011, beginning with companies that had already committed not to source cotton from Uzbekistan. Today, over 200 companies have joined the effort, including giants such as Wal-Mart, Target and Disney.
Participating retailers cite their commitment to human rights as the deciding factor. One of the last holdouts, Forever 21, agreed to sign the pledge this October. “Forever 21 shares the same goals of eliminating child and adult forced labor, and we are fully aligned with the spirit and purpose of Responsible Sourcing Network’s cotton pledge,” the company said in an email statement.
American Apparel and Polo Ralph Lauren did not respond to requests for comment.
Cotton in Uzbekistan is big business. In 2015-16, the country was the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The five countries that produced more all have populations much larger than Uzbekistan’s 30 million.
Uzbekistan’s government controls every aspect of the cotton industry, imposing quotas on cotton farmers, setting prices and marshaling a workforce of over 1 million citizens each harvest season. Unable to attract workers at the artificially low wage set by the government, officials threaten citizens with “loss of land, confiscation of property, criminal charges, civil fines, and verbal and physical abuse,” according to a September 2016 report from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Many workers are pulled from their professions as doctors, teachers or civil servants, leaving gaps in vital services during the weeks of the harvest.
“Yesterday, it was published… that one newborn died in the hospital,” said Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at SOAS, University of London, and program officer at Open Society Foundations. “The young mother, she didn’t receive treatment and attention from doctors because they were absent. They were all in the cotton fields.”
The campaign to end forced labor in Uzbekistan claims some successes, such as the government acting to ensure that young children are not forced into the cotton fields. However, officials have compensated by replacing child workers with adults, according to a 2015 report from the International Labour Organization.
After buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices, the government exports thousands of metric tons to foreign buyers. Revenues “disappear into a fund controlled by senior officials which is neither reported to the public nor the national assembly,” according to the ILRF. The system is a holdover from the Soviet era, when the government raised export revenues by forcing children, students and civil servants to pick cotton during the harvest season, Ilkhamov said.
This top-to-bottom state control of the cotton industry is why U.S. activists feel a boycott is appropriate. Jurewicz noted that in other industries her aim is to encourage ethically sourced trade, not shut it down entirely. Uzbekistan is a unique case, she said.
“All the cotton in Uzbekistan is harvested under a corrupt and exploitative system, so it makes sense to boycott because it will put pressure on the government that they have to change,” Jurewicz said.
Among the largest buyers of Uzbek cotton are Bangladeshi traders and companies, said Matthew Fischer-Daly, a student at Cornell University. Until August, Fischer-Daly was the campaign coordinator at the Cotton Campaign. These companies then spin the cotton into yarn, weave fabrics and manufacture the actual garments which brands like Polo Ralph Lauren sell in their stores. American Apparel is unusual in that it controls more links in the manufacturing chain. Most retailers are many steps removed from their raw materials – and that is a problem for companies attempting to avoid Uzbek cotton.
“Many companies, even those that have signed the pledge, continue to manage their supply chain without actually knowing where their cotton comes from,” Fischer-Daly said. Cotton from Uzbekistan goes “to a spinning factory, where it’s often mixed with cotton bales from many other places…That spinning factory is still several tiers down from the U.S. retailer.”
As a result, even U.S. companies that conduct audits of their suppliers may not be able to guarantee that their cotton did not originate from Uzbekistan. That’s why the Cotton Pledge states that companies would not “knowingly” source Uzbek cotton, which Jurewicz said was a strategic decision. She considers signing the Cotton Pledge a “first step,” with rigorous tracking and verification to follow.
“If you can’t even take that very first step, what’s likely happening is that your suppliers are using Uzbek cotton,” Jurewicz said. “They are propping up a government that exploits its own people, putting money into the pockets of the rich and the elite, and minimizing the future of Uzbek citizens.”
Ben Dalton is a journalism student at New York University specializing in Russia and Central Asia.