Scientists say they have discovered traces of Xinjiang cotton in garments from Adidas, Hugo Boss and Puma despite the brands promising to no longer source materials or products from the controversial Chinese province, where reports of forced labor by persecuted Muslim minorities abound.
Experts believe that Xinjiang authorities are coercing more than half a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic groups to harvest cotton by hand under the guise of a state-sponsored “poverty alleviation” scheme. The exploitation, they say, is part of a broader campaign of assimilation and repression that many, including the U.S. government, have dubbed genocide but Beijing has vehemently denied.
Adidas said in 2019 that it has “never manufactured goods in Xinjiang and has no contractual relationship with any Xinjiang supplier.” Puma, responding to a 2020 Australian Strategic Policy Institute report that named it among companies benefiting from forced Uyghur labor, said it had “no direct or indirect business relationship with any manufacturer in Xinjiang.” Last year, Hugo Boss said that it does not tolerate any type of modern slavery and that it hasn’t procured any goods from the Xinjiang region from direct suppliers.
But the findings of an isotope analysis, as by reported German public broadcaster NDR last week, demonstrate the difficulties fashion firms may face in purging their supply chains of the problematic fiber. Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn makes up roughly one-fifth of the world’s total. Previous studies have also highlighted the problem of cotton “laundering” through other countries that may obscure the material’s true origin.
Researchers from the Agroisolab in Jülich and the Hochschule Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, both in western Germany, said they found a match between the garments they tested, which included T-shirts and button-downs, and cotton samples from Xinjiang. They zeroed in on products from Adidas, Puma and Hugo Boss because of their shared German roots.
“Nature has left a signature in the cotton, which is caused, for example, by the climate and geology of a place,” Agroisolab managing director Markus Boner told NDR. “This signature is like a kind of isotopic fingerprint.” Isotope analysis is also employed by archaeologists, geologists and forensic scientists to compare chemical elements within organic and inorganic compounds.
Responding to the study, an Adidas spokesperson told Sourcing Journal that the sportswear giant sources cotton “exclusively” from other countries and “takes a variety of measures to ensure fair and safe working conditions” in its supply chain.
Puma said that it “immediately” launched an investigation to reconfirm the cotton origin of the products in question as soon as it caught wind of the allegations.
“Our supplier has confirmed that the cotton of both products originates from Brazil and not from China,” a representative told Sourcing Journal. “We are currently conducting further investigations through an external laboratory. Based on all the information we obtained through our investigations, and the traceability controls we put in place in our supply chain, we are confident that we do not source cotton from the Xinjiang region.”
Hugo Boss said it is reviewing the NDR report and its “position remains unchanged.” Although the company is currently part of a criminal complaint in Germany for “profiting” from Uyghur forced labor, it told Sourcing Journal when it rejected the claim last year that it believes that its “values and standards have been adhered to in the manufacture of our goods and that there have been no violations of the law.” Other companies embroiled in the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights’ complaint included C&A and Lidl, which also rejected the allegations.
The analysis may hold legal implications, however. German lawmakers recently greenlit a mandatory due-diligence law that could soon fine companies millions of euros for labor abuses that occur at any point in their supply chain. The legislation will roll out in phases, first to firms with more than 3,000 employees in 2023 and then to those with 1,000 or more employees in 2024. Adidas has roughly 7,000 employees in Germany. A reported one-tenth of Puma’s 18,000 global staff are based in the company’s home country. Hugo Boss’ German headcount looks to be somewhere around 3,000.
Any hint of Xinjiang cotton could also ice out certain markets, chief among them the United States, where a ban on cotton and cotton-containing products from Xinjiang has been in effect since 2021. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in December and will kick into gear next month, goes even further by placing a rebuttable presumption that all exports made in whole or in part in Xinjiang are tainted with forced labor and are therefore verboten on U.S. shores.
“[The law] is a very important step but it basically triggers a lot of follow-ups,” Adrian Zenz, a German researcher known for his work on Xinjiang’s labor camps, as well as a key witness who provided testimony during Congressional hearings about the subject, previously told Sourcing Journal. “There’s a great need now to increase the capacity of the enforcement authorities. Source tracing mechanisms have to be strengthened—it almost probably has to be made a requirement. I believe we’re going to see more efforts on the Chinese side to conceal production in Xinjiang.”