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Is China’s Homegrown Better Cotton Workaround ‘Dead on Arrival’?

China has launched its own “sustainable” cotton certification program as a retaliatory strike against what it has deemed unfounded Western accusations about human-rights abuses in its cotton-rich Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where reports of forced labor of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have intensified in recent years.

The China Cotton Association (CCA), a domestic trade group, and other industry organizations officially rolled out the Cotton China Sustainable Development Program last Thursday, with the goal of “counter[ing] the West’s dominance that has posed [a] serious threat [to] China’s cotton industry,” wrote the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet.

The homegrown standard is set to go toe to toe with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which promotes so-called “better” cotton grown with less water, fewer pesticides and higher yields for farmers. The world’s largest sustainable cotton program—its partners include household names like Adidas, Burberry, H&M, Ralph Lauren and Ikea—BCI incurred the wrath of Beijing after it pulled out of all field-level activities in Xinjiang in October, citing “sustained allegations of forced labor and other human-rights abuses.” A subsequent BCI forced labor task force report, which noted the scale of restrictions to freedoms that prevented Xinjiang farmers from speaking freely about their predicament, only served to fan the flames.

Despite BCI’s subsequent erasure of public statements mentioning Xinjiang and forced labor, along with a statement by the head of BCI’s Shanghai branch that the organization uncovered no evidence of forced labor in the region, China’s rage remained unquelled. BCI, by virtue of being “manipulated by some anti-China forces in their slandering against China and its policies,” the Global Times wrote, has lost credibility in the eyes of the country. The Cotton China Sustainable Development Program, on the other hand, will provide China with a tool to “reasonably defend itself and protect its legitimate interests against Western political crackdowns,” it averred.

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“We had already begun the work, but the BCI’s [license suspension in April] further raised the urgency and sped up the process,” Wang Jiandong, vice chairman and secretary-general of the CCA, told the outlet. “All industry bodies have been uniting to help promote Chinese cotton, to make us less constrained by [other nations].”

Wang had harsh words for BCI, which declined to comment for this story, in particular.

“Why does the BCI’s license have such a global influence? And why [does] China—as the world’s largest cotton consumption country and the world’s second-largest cotton producer—[have] a limited say in trade practices in [the] international sphere?” he said. “We should reverse this situation.”

By developing quality Chinese cotton that is environmentally friendly, traceable and boasts “respect for labor,” the Global Times said, the Cotton China Sustainable Development Program will encourage the consumption of domestic cotton while expanding its global market share. Banned from entering the United States, Xinjiang cotton comprises 85 percent of Chinese cotton, which in turn accounts for one-fifth of the world’s supply of the fiber.

‘Dead on arrival’

Carving out a separate standard is a “well-worn path for China,” which has acted similarly on digital rights and data privacy, said Bennett Freeman, a member of the steering committee of the End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign labor-rights initiative and former deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the U.S. State Department.

“China has become very assertive—which is its right, of course—and not just countering what it perceives to be biased Western standards but in developing its own alternative standards,” he told Sourcing Journal. “I don’t want to pooh-pooh the environmental sustainability dimensions of this, but while the new standard may work well on the labor side with China, it’s dead on arrival, at least with Western companies.”

The problem, Freeman said, is that while China has a sovereign right to create its own standard, there are international standards it must still adhere to, including a “whole series” of International Labour Organization conventions that promote freedom of association and prohibit all forms of forced and compulsory labor.

“This new standard may play internally on a domestic basis,” he said. “It’s not going to play externally—internationally—at least not with Western apparel brands, sourcing managers, consumers and investors unless it makes a commitment [to ensure] transparent, accountable implementation mechanisms [that] demonstrate [its] adherence to international labor standards, especially including [those regarding] forced labor. And that involves monitoring, auditing and reporting, as imperfect as those tools are.”

And even then, all the auditing and reporting in the world won’t be sufficient or effective without a “high degree of civil society built with a high degree of transparency and accountability,” Freeman added.

Getting past China’s recalcitrance has proven to be an impossible hurdle. In September, a number of leading supply-chain auditing firms that previously performed or participated in labor audits in Xinjiang, including Bureau Veritas, RINA, TÜV SÜDnd Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), confirmed they would no longer conduct inspections in the region because of the lack of unfettered access.

“Normal social compliance audits cannot be conducted in the XUAR due to restrictions on the movement of third-party auditors, including restrictions that prevent the necessary amount of access to factories required for auditors to conduct a satisfactory review,” Seth Lennon, communications manager at WRAP, previously told Sourcing Journal. “As a result, WRAP is not presently performing audits in the XUAR.”

For Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an organization in Washington, D.C., that fact alone is damning enough.

“What does it say to these brands that their own auditors find it impossible to determine if forced labor exists in their supply chains?” he previously asked Sourcing Journal.

No robust labor-rights guarantee

Another issue that Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, sees is that many brands are using BCI and other kinds of certification or licensing schemes as proxies for due diligence, which they’re not set up to do.

“BCI is not really designed to be a risk-mitigation strategy for brand members,” the human-rights lawyer told Sourcing Journal. “It’s a continuous improvement model whereby BCI works with farmers over time to increase the value proposition of cotton. And so it’s not designed to be a robust labor-rights monitoring scheme or a robust labor-rights guarantee.”

China’s denial of modern slavery in Xinjiang cotton production aside, the Cotton China Sustainable Development Program would provide little help in meting out forced labor even if decent work was one of its tenents. Brands, she added, have an obligation to map out all tiers of their supply chains, down to the raw material level, and not only in China, if they want to have any kind of meaningful visibility into their operations.

At the same time, it’s in Beijing’s interest to frame the Uyghur crisis as a conflict between China and the West rather than something that demands international scrutiny, Gill noted.

“This is a situation where you have many credible reports, survivor testimonies, satellite imagery, government documents that show this pattern of systemic abuses, including forced labor in cotton production, perpetrated against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples,” she said. “There are no separate rules or laws about forced labor or decent work that are only applicable in one country and not in others. These are universal standards and they need to be treated as such.”

But Crispin Argento, managing director of Amsterdam’s Sourcery, whose Direct to Grower platform connects brands with fiber farmers, argues that Western brands may not be able to avoid this new system if they’re engaging with Chinese cotton or textiles, which are likely made or blended with cotton from Xinjiang.

“If China uses this tool as a way to lead towards more transparency, then it is a positive direction, but if they use it as a protectionist alternative for BCI then [it] will not fly in Western circles—until it does because there is no Plan B outside of China for Western brands unless the sector totally transforms itself away from the trade manufacturing and trade practices from the past three decades,” he told Sourcing Journal.

A bigger question, Argento said is how much latitude the United States, United Kingdom and potentially the European Union will allow for products from Xinjiang through pending legislation and policy.

“If this is the case, brands will have to start moving out of China for much of their goods, but this will take 10 to 15 years given the continued growth of the industry, limited supply of cotton outside of China and massive capital investments made in China in manufacturing,” Argento said.

A wake-up call

On the environmental side, the case for improving the sustainability profile of one of China’s largest exports is clear. Alongside Brazil, India, Pakistan, Turkey and the United States, the superpower is expected to face increased climate-change risk from wildfires, drought, heat stress and extreme rainfall, according to a report published Wednesday by Forum for the Future, whose Cotton 2040 platform promotes sustainably grown cotton.

The world’s first analysis of climate risks to global cotton production, the study was conducted by Cotton 2040 partner and climate-risk firm Acclimatise, which is part of Willis Towers Watson’s Climate and Resilience Hub. Under a worst-case scenario, researchers said, cotton-growing regions worldwide will face increased risk from at least one climate hazard by 2040.

Roughly half of all cotton will have higher exposure to drought, while 60 percent will be increasingly threatened by damaging wind speeds. In addition, three-quarters of cotton-growing regions will face a burgeoning risk of cotton exposure to heat stress, while all of them will have to prepare for a higher incidence of wildfires. The worst-effected regions, the report said, are likely to be northwestern Africa, including northern Sudan and Egypt, and western and southern Asia.

“This analysis is a wake-up call for the cotton industry, on which much of the apparel sector is currently hugely reliant,” Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, said in a statement. “In order to build resilience for a highly disrupted and uncertain future, the widespread shifts to sustainable forms of cotton production must be bolstered by ambitious and aligned action to reduce carbon emissions while also preparing the industry to operate in a very different world.”

Current emissions reduction commitments and targets are “being missed” by the majority of countries, meaning a planetary warming of more than 3 degrees is “probable” by the end of the century, said Alastair Baglee, director, corporates, of the Climate and Resilience Hub.

“However successful we are with decarbonization, we will face decades of unavoidable climate change and disruption,” he added. “Preparing today is essential if we are to limit the impacts of climate change on society.”