Photo by Lionel Abrial/Unsplash

Think “forced labor” and the image of a bleary-eyed worker, hunched over a sewing machine in a crowded factory, stitching clothing for pennies on the hour, is what most quickly springs to mind. In a typical garment supply chain, however, modern-day slavery often begins not in the sweatshop but in the field, where millions of children and adults in countries such as Uzbekistan toil to harvest the cotton that ultimately becomes our clothes. Neither does the exploitation take a breather immediately after. In India’s poverty-plagued south alone, tens of thousands of girls work in spinning mills as a form of bonded labor. It’s for these reasons that the Responsible Sourcing Network, a project of sustainability nonprofit As You Sow, developed a new program, one that seeks to uncover and, more important, eliminate cotton and yarn produced with forced labor.

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Yarn Ethically & Responsibly Sourced, or YESS, which has received a signed statement of support from brands such as Adidas and Hudson’s Bay Company, aims to help companies “comply with new anti-slavery regulations, minimize verification costs, establish an industry-wide traceability approach, and manage a global list of verified spinners,” according to a press release.

“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,” Patricia Jurewicz, director of RSN and creator of YESS, said in a statement. “YESS is providing an innovative solution around which the entire industry can collaborate and contribute.”

Spinning mills, Jurewicz said, are “uniquely positioned” to identify forced-labor-produced cotton and prevent it from traveling further downstream.

Jurewicz said that YESS is one of only a few initiatives to work directly with spinning mills, which, by virtue of their placement in the supply chain, are “uniquely positioned” to identify forced-labor-produced cotton and prevent it from traveling further downstream.

“This initiative identifies a gap in transparency between where forced labor occurs in the cotton fields and the facilities in which different cottons are blended together,” Jurewicz said. “YESS aims to close this gap by focusing on yarn spinning mills in the supply chain, and establishing a training, assessment, and verification process.”

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YESS will pilot in India and China, where spinning mills are legion and the problem of forced labor is “particularly egregious.”

“YESS offers a truly revolutionary approach that will allow apparel brands identify and root out forced labor from the middle of our supply chains,” said Scot Leonard, co-founder and CEO of Indigenous, a YESS Working Group member. “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-labor challenges.”

+ Yarn Ethical & Sustainably Sourced

+ Responsible Sourcing Network