Founder’s Letter: A New Chapter for Uzbek Cotton and Their National Textile Industry

I recently returned from a trip to Uzbekistan, where I had a chance to tour cotton farms, spinning mills and denim mills and jean factories. It was an eye-opening experience and I want to share what I learned with all of you.

But first, some perspective.

Back in late 2019, I was approached by an Uzbekistani denim mill I had never heard of asking if they could exhibit at Kingpins. Thoughtlessly and by rote, I responded negatively, telling them that due to forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, no fabric buyers at Kingpins could buy their products. The factory contacted me again in early 2020. But before replying, I thought I should educate myself first. At the time, I was working a lot from home and I had time to read about Uzbekistan and its history of forced labor and the changes that had been going on in the country. 

In 2016, Uzbekistan elected its second president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who won the election with 88.6 percent of the vote. After he was sworn into office, Mirziyoyev removed most of the previous president’s officials and urged the government to employ “new, young people who love their country.” 

After a year in office, Mirziyoyev moved away from many of his predecessor’s policies. For textiles, that meant new labor practices and a shift from just being a cotton grower to mechanizing the industry and beginning to export yarn and full-package products.

During my March 7-12 trip, I spent the majority of my time in and around the nation’s capital, Tashkent, as well as a day in Bukhara. Much of my time was spent driving around from garment factories to textile mills and cotton farms, which provided a great chance for me to learn about this seriously important cotton-growing nation. Where else can you drive a short distance from a major city to cotton farms, spinning factories and jean factories? 

The highlight of the trip was a press conference hosted by the Ministry of Labor, where it was announced that the international boycott of Uzbek cotton was over. Reports of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry had led the Cotton Campaign to enlist support from 331 brands and retailers who pledged to boycott Uzbek cotton until the practice of using forced labor ended. And now, 12 years later, the Cotton Campaign — joined by the Responsible Sourcing Network and other NGOs — are now encouraging everyone to buy Uzbek products made from cotton.

It’s a wonderful story where the protagonists are committed advocates who diligently work on what they believe is the right thing to do. Their efforts helped change a nation’s policies concerning the treatment of their children and labor force. Anyone who thinks a few people cannot change a nation should read more about what has gone on in Uzbekistan over the last 12 years. Congratulations to everyone involved.

Today, Uzbekistan is the seventh-largest cotton producer in the world, putting it on par with the crop-size of Pakistan and larger than that of Australia and Turkey. The country employs between 2.5 million and 3 million farmers and makes almost 1 million metric tons of cotton. For those bad at math, that’s about 2 billion pounds  — or enough for 4 billion T-shirts or 1.3 billion jeans. But what’s amazing is that Uzbekistan’s spinning capacity now exceeds its cotton production and in 2023, they will begin importing cotton. From what I could tell, we are seeing the very beginning of the Uzbek denim story. The country currently has only three denim mills and four jeans factories but I was told both Jeanologia and Tonello have sold equipment to one factory.

And for those that love organic cotton, Uzbekistan’s cotton farms do not use GMO seeds at all. Although the country currently produces no organic cotton, it is on track to become a huge producer over the next few years.

I am sure in 2023 Kingpins will have Uzbek exhibitors and I am confident that Uzbekistan is on the threshold of being an important jeans supplier to the textile industry. 

-Andrew Olah

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