So-called “sustainable” cotton certifications such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) aren’t guarantees of fair labor conditions, a new policy paper says. In fact, such schemes may continue to engage with operations in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where mounting reports of genocidal crimes against ethnic minorities, including forced labor, have provoked international outrage.
But despite evidence that credible social-compliance audits cannot be conducted in Xinjiang’s oppressive environment, GOTS may be continuing to certify suppliers located in the region, said Berlin’s European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which recently filed a complaint in the Netherlands against C&A, Nike and Patagonia for being “directly or indirectly complicit” in the use of Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang, which the brands have denied.
And while BCI and CmiA standards focus on cotton farming and ginning, neither of which appears to take place in Xinjiang within their frameworks, their end products may still be at risk of involving Uyghur forced labor, the report said, since both programs allow cotton spinners to blend certified cotton with their own under a system known as “mass balance.” There’s also the fact that some BCI and CmiA spinning mills in China are—or were until recently—located in Xinjiang, where they might have hired or trained “rural surplus” workers as part of coercive labor-transfer programs under the guise of “poverty alleviation.” These facilities might also be part of vertically integrated companies with subsidiaries in Xinjiang that supply their cotton, meaning that their products are at risk of being made with forced labor either directly or indirectly.
“The study shows once again that auditing and certification are willfully blind to serious human rights risks in their supply chains,” Corina Ajder, legal advisor at ECCHR, told Sourcing Journal. “While it is well known that due diligence in Xinjiang is impossible in the current political situation, the study found that GOTS may still certify suppliers in Xinjiang and BCI may still have members in the Uyghur region. This is highly problematic in terms of the image of sustainability these labels and certifications project to consumers and brands.”
These relationships warrant scrutiny because many apparel brands and retailers claim to “adhere to human-rights due-diligence norms” by sourcing certified materials, the paper noted, particularly as enforcement of import prohibitions on forced labor, both in the United States and elsewhere, dials up.
“The new ECCHR report should be a wake-up call for apparel retailers and for consumers that certification schemes are not what they seem,” Laura Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, told Sourcing Journal.
“My own research has shown that BCI has at least 10 member companies located in Xinjiang,” said Murphy, author of a recent report that found that 100 global retail brands, including American Eagle, Calvin Klein, Gap, Ralph Lauren, J.Crew and Uniqlo, could be using cotton produced or processed in Xinjiang despite policies stating otherwise. “I have had many retailers and manufacturers indicate to me that they rely on GOTS and BCI certifications as their assurance that they are protected from buying Xinjiang cotton. This new report suggests that these certifications are most certainly not adequate assurance.”
Indeed, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organization that produces one-third of China’s cotton, employs 12 percent of Xinjiang’s population and generates 17 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, casts a “long shadow,” said Irina Bukharin, program director of human security at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), whose August report found numerous links between Uyghur abuses and global trade and finance. Though cotton merchandise from the XPCC is banned in the United States, the organization’s nearly 2,9000 majority-owned subsidiaries are able to evade detection because of the tangled web they weave.
“Xinjiang cotton is linked to global supply chains, including through certification programs,” Bukharin told Sourcing Journal. “In addition to the links identified by ECCHR, C4ADS analysis shows that Better Cotton Initiative-certified companies source cotton from Xinjiang companies, including from the XPCC. This means that there is a high likelihood that cotton certified to be ethically sourced is, in fact, produced by companies tied to forced labor.”
GOTS said it takes any allegations against businesses that bear its seal “very seriously.” There will be no GOTS-certified companies in Xinjiang from mid-January, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. The certification of one company ran out last week and the others will expire in early January. There are also currently no GOTS-accredited certification bodies operating in Xinjiang since Control Union decided to halt auditing activities in the region.
“GOTS does not allow raw fibers that originate from producer projects that have irrefutable gross violations of ILO core labor standards,” the spokesperson said, referring to the International Labour Organization. “Thus, GOTS expects the third-party certification bodies to consider the origin of the organic fiber during certification and requires them to reject raw material entering the GOTS supply chain in these cases.”
The Aid by Trade Foundation, the nonprofit organization responsible for the CmiA standard, said that it “firmly rejects any form of discrimination, e.g. on the grounds of religion or ethnicity” and that it has decided to sever ties with stakeholders operating in Xinjiang.
“As cotton standards cannot grasp the issue of state-imposed forced labor in the textile supply chain beyond the sustainable production of raw materials on their own, sector-wide solutions and approaches are needed to ensure a transparent chain of custody and stringent due diligence,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Therefore, we continuously review developments in the region to ensure that our decisions are made in accordance with the principles of our foundation and do not rule out adjusting the approach described above if new developments in this matter become available.”
BCI declined to comment.
Ajder said that brands that want to avoid forced labor should not “outsource” their due-diligence responsibilities to textile certification initiatives. “Brands should always do their own due diligence, and carefully map their supply chain to ensure they do not source products from Xinjiang, directly or indirectly,” she added.
Bukharin agreed. “Brands and retailers should acknowledge that cotton is a high-risk commodity,” she said. “This means that they must conduct their own supply chain due diligence beyond adherence to certifications.”