The silk route was a historical network of trade routes that linked China to Europe and the Mediterranean over thousands of years, it has been described by many as the birth of modern commerce and globalisation. Used to transport silk and other valuable goods from China to Europe the route travelled through breathtaking mountain passes and across desolate tundras. It helped facilitate economic, cultural and social development within the nations that it passed through on it traversed the globe from east to west .
The silk route depended on the geographical significance of central Asia – most notably the nations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for its success, many of the biggest cities in central Asia exist because of their significance within the ancient silk routes. The development of modern transportation links and the rapid growth of globalisation have negated the need for the silk route. However In recent years these countries have become an important focus of a modern day silk route , and that is the ‘fast fashion silk route’.
The economies of these nations have flourished in recent years due to the discovery of natural gas and oil reserves, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have averaged annual growth rates between 6% – 10% since 2000. Littered with raw materials from oil & natural gas to gold & uranium government income has sky-rocketed as a result there has been an increase in employment, wages and living standards. Billions of dollars in government oil revenues have been used to transform cities such as Almaty and Tashkent into modern architectural wonders.
Previously part of the communist USSR Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have rapidly embraced capitalism since gaining independence, this combined with a growing middle class has created the perfect market for the world’s biggest fashion retailers. New found wealth from the oil industry has led to a huge demand for consumer goods with sales of western cars, clothing and gadgets experiencing huge increases. Modern day Almaty, Astana & Tashkent are now home to glass skyscrapers, huge shopping malls and luxury car dealerships – a far cry from it’s Soviet heritage.
Global brands such as Zara, Marks & Spencer, Topshop, Mango and Gap already have a presence in these markets and many others such as H&M, Forever21 & Uniqlo have expressed their imminent expansion into central Asia. Shopping malls are popping up all over Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan along with huge shopping streets lined with luxurious designer brands and fast fashion behemoths. The newly opened Khan Shatyr mall and entertainment complex (Below) is one of the most impressive examples of the consumer boom sweeping the country. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are once again being used to link Europe and Asia, this time however their geographical significance enables brands such as Zara to boast a network of stores from stretch from London all the way to Beijing.
However the emergence of this new silk route has highlighted one of the biggest controversies facing the fast fashion industry, Uzbek cotton. The rapid modernisation of these countries through black gold bounties is being challenged by some of the worst working conditions in the developed world.
Over 1 million Uzbek citizens are forced into the annual cotton harvest by the government to maximise profit in exports. Children as young as ten are used in cotton fields working 10 hour days for little or no pay as the government closes schools across the country. Farmers and workers are expected to meet tough quotas imposed by the president Islam Karimov, a man infamous as one of the worlds last dictators.
The biggest names in fashion have come together to implement a global ban on Uzbek cotton at an industry level due to the appalling human rights violations carried out within the industry. Working with NGO’s such as the Better Cotton Initiative , Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and the Responsible Sourcing Network over 100 global brands have signed a petition to oppose the use of forced labour in the annual Uzbek cotton harvest. Cotton is one of the most widely used materials and it’s role in the global garment industry is massive, as long as there is a demand for cotton this annual forced labour harvest will continue. Further controversy stems from the fact that the dictators daughter Gulnara has tried to forge a career as a fashion designer Many of her runway shows at world famous fashion weeks have been banned due to the human rights controversies surrounding her fathers regime.
By boycotting illegally farmed cotton these companies hope to force the Uzbek cotton industry to collapse, this is seen as the only way to bring the awful working conditions and human rights breeches to an end. This huge emerging market offers so many brands the change to capitalise on a huge new customer base who are hungry for consumer goods at a huge rate. The problem is their expansion into the area is helping to finance the Uzbek cotton industry both directly and indirectly. As the issue gains global attention from NGO’s and governments this marks an important time for companies with regards to their corporate ethics and social responsibility practises. As long as children are forced to farm cotton illegally a dark cloud will hang over fashion retailing in central Asia and the business practises of those brands choosing to travel the fast fashion silk route.
So all eyes are on the development of this fast fashion silk route and the controversies surrounding it, I hope that the illegal Uzbek cotton harvest is stopped and central Asia can be free to embrace the fast fashion culture we take for granted.
What do you think about this emerging fast fashion silk route? Do you think these brands can end the force labour in the Uzbek cotton fields?