An alliance of more than 180 human-rights groups has criticized the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) for scrubbing all public references to its decision to withdraw from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, where allegations of forced labor and other human-rights abuses are rampant.
As the world’s largest cotton sustainability program, BCI’s “continued silence” runs counter to its mission statement to “make global cotton production better for the people who produce it,” the End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition, whose members include Anti-Slavery International, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Worker Rights Consortium, said this week.
BCI’s relationship with Xinjiang cotton, which accounts for 85 percent of Chinese cotton, has been the source of much controversy.
When China’s mass internment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities first made mainstream headlines in 2019, BCI released a statement saying that it found “no direct evidence” of forced labor at BCI-licensed farms in the region.
The organization also defended Huafu Fashion, a BCI partner that once held a seat on its council, pointing out that the world’s largest mixed-color cotton yarn mill had commissioned an “independent social compliance audit” at its Asku subsidiary and “did not identify any instances of forced labor.”
In March 2020, however, BCI announced it was suspending all licensing and assurance activities in the contentious cotton-growing region, where experts believe up to half a million Uyghur workers are being forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme.
That October, the organization, which counts fashion and home nameplates such as Adidas, Burberry, H&M, Ralph Lauren and Ikea among its members, made the decision to throttle all field-level activities, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting, noting that “sustained allegations of forced labor and other human-rights abuses” in Xinjiang have contributed to an “increasingly untenable operating environment.” The timing was apt; U.S. Customs and Border Protection would block all Xinjiang cotton and cotton products from crossing American borders just a few months later.
Those statements have since disappeared from BCI’s website, in a move reminiscent of what brands like Zara owner Inditex and Calvin Klein operator PVH Corp. did at the height of the Chinese netizen backlash in March. The same month, BCI’s China branch said it had not found signs of forced labor related to cotton production in Xinjiang. None of this, however, has protected the group from China’s nationalist rage, a vicious torrent of which has forced BCI to lock down its Twitter account and shut down comments on its Instagram page. (It hasn’t updated any of its social media in half a year.) A domestic version of BCI, based on Chinese standards, is also brewing.
Meanwhile, the organization’s continued refusal to comment on the situation or explain its actions isn’t doing it any favors with human-rights advocates.
“In failing to be transparent and public on BCI’s rationale for exiting the Uyghur region, BCI is putting at risk any credibility it could have in its commitment to ensure that decent work is embedded across its global cotton sustainability program,” the End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition said. “BCI’s own website states that ‘BCI does not operate in countries where forced labor is orchestrated by the government.’
By continuing to operate in China without clarity on its “zero tolerance” for forced labor or its reasons for retreating from Xinjiang, BCI is “allowing itself to be used by the Chinese government to claim that business can go on as usual and to deny the ongoing crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic forced labor, in the Uyghur region,” the coalition added.
The alliance is urging BCI to republish “without delay” all previous statements and issue a new one that makes clear that it left Xinjiang because of “ongoing and credible evidence” that systematic forced labor is taking place.
Its refusal to speak out, the coalition said, “taints all brands and retailers that use BCI cotton as an ethical alternative in an industry widely tainted by forced labor, as well as the farmers who trust BCI to take a stand for ‘better cotton’ production everywhere.”
BCI declined to provide a comment.