China is poised to launch its own version of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) after the not-for-profit sourcing network halted all activities in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the wake of allegations of forced labor last year, the South China Morning Post reported Thursday.
Though Zhongnong Guoji, a cotton vertical service provider in Beijing, started the Weilai Cotton project two years ago, progress stalled until January, when the China Fashion Association and the Modern Seeds Development Fund threw in their support.
“We have been living with Switzerland’s standards for years, but the country doesn’t even produce cotton,” Zhao Yan, a coordinator for the initiative, told the Hong Kong-based newspaper. “Now it is time to form our own national standards.”
BCI, which spun out of the World Wildlife Fund as an independent organization in 2009, has head offices in London and Geneva. As the largest cotton sustainability program in the world—its boldface partners include Adidas, Burberry, H&M, Ralph Lauren and Ikea—its goal is to promote so-called “better” cotton grown with less water, fewer pesticides and higher yields for farmers.
Zhao, who will serve as chief brand officer for Weilai Cotton, which means “future cotton,” told the South China Morning Post that mounting international backlash against Xinjiang cotton helped crystalize the project, which will serve as a “national aspiration” at this “crucial moment.”
A spokesperson for BCI said the group will be “communicating on this topic as soon as we are in a position to do so,” declining to enter into details.
The organization has had a fraught history with Xinjiang, where experts believe that half a million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim ethnic minority workers are being forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme. Xinjiang cultivates 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn amounts to roughly one-fifth of the world’s supply.
When news of mass internment camps rife with alleged forced labor in Xinjiang exploded into the mainstream media in 2019, BCI released a statement saying that it found “no direct evidence” of forced labor at BCI-licensed farms in the region. It also defended Huafu Fashion, a BCI partner that sat on the organization’s 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.”
But Aksu Huafu Textiles, German researcher Adrian Zenz said in his testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation that December, had received half a billion Chinese yuan—or $71 million—in subsidies from the Xinjiang government, which was likely used to train and employ prisoners and detainees against their will.
BCI suspended licensing and assurance activities in the region the following March. A couple of months later, the United States added Xinjiang textile firms, including Aksu Huafu Textiles, to sanctions lists, prompting brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and H&M to stop sourcing from Huafu entirely. By October, BCI had severed ties to all field-level activities in Xinjiang. This past January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection initiated a blanket ban on all cotton and cotton products, plus tomatoes, from the region.
“Multiple American brands have canceled orders,” Huafu said in a Shenzhen stock exchange filing in February, adding that it lost at least $54.3 million last year and contrasting it with the $62.5-million net profit it garnered in 2019. “It’s brought negative effects to the company.”
After Chinese netizens raised a national furor late last month over months-old statements from H&M, Nike and others expressing their concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang, domestic brands Anta Sports and Fila China, which is operated in Greater China by Anta, announced they were quitting BCI. The organization told Sourcing Journal at the time that it would have a statement on the “evolving situation in China as soon as possible,” but no such statement emerged. “As I’m sure you are aware, we are a not-for-profit organization with a small team,” a spokesperson said.
At some point, BCI locked down its Twitter page. Its Facebook page, which was last updated in 2014, continues to receive messages lambasting the group. A user named Zhang Qian Na, wrote, “Who gives you the right to judge which country’s cotton is better? You are just a brainless political tool! Get out of China!”
She and others repeatedly posted “Blood Cotton Initiative” above an image of Klu Klux Klan members in a cotton field.
BCI’s Instagram page turned off comments two weeks ago. Before that, it, too, received a slew of criticism. “Stop your fake news in China! Cotton in Xinjiang is harvested with machines, not forced human labor, stop your slander and [smear] campaign against China!” one user wrote. “You actually hurting Uyghur merchants! You are not helping, but making things worse. Shame on you!”
The head of BCI’s Shanghai branch recently said that it never found evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang. “In response to overseas claims about forced labor concerns in Xinjiang, we have repeatedly conducted stringent inspections and submitted two of our investigation reports and compiled years of reports from third-party visits,” Wu Yan told state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) on March 27. “We have also repeatedly told international non-government organizations as well as other stakeholders that we haven’t identified one single case of forced labor.”
BCI’s move to suspend licensing in Xinjiang will prevent some 500,000 tons of the region’s cotton from entering the global cotton supply chain, he added.
“Human-rights organizations required the BCI to suspend licensing in Xinjiang and demanded BCI claim that any decisions made by it have nothing to do with these human-rights organizations,” Liu Haoran, project manager of the BCI Shanghai office, told CCTV.
Responding to CCTV, a BCI representative said that the organization is “committed to promoting sustainable agriculture everywhere cotton is grown,” including in China, where it will focus its efforts on the provinces of Hubei, Hebi, Shandong and Gansu, which produce roughly 15 percent of the nation’s cotton output. “We are engaging in a constructive dialogue with all interested local actors across China,” the representative added.
Axios noted Tuesday that BCI has scrubbed from its website a statement saying it was stopping activity in Xinjiang, in a move similar to what some brands did at the height of the Beijing-sanctioned backlash in March. A BCI spokesperson declined to comment on this “at the moment.”
Gady Epstein, China affairs editor for The Economist said on Twitter on Wednesday, however, that he had asked the BCI last month about the vanished disappearance and was told that “they took down the statement in response to DDoS attacks and would eventually ‘repost relevant information.’”
“I think it’s probably more accurate to say that it was removed in response to the pressure created by the boycott campaign in China, of which the DDoS attacks were but one manifestation,” Epstein added.
Both state media and the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of the ruling Communist Party, the South China Morning Post reported, have spotlighted the removal of the statement this week, accusing BCI of being hypocrites. “[Your] face must hurt! BCI secretly removed a statement ‘boycotting Xinjiang cotton,’” the Communist Youth League posted on Weibo on Thursday.
BCI’s withdrawal from Xinjiang “underscores how much human rights matter for consumers, for brands and for governments,” said Leonardo Bonanni, founder and CEO of Sourcemap, a New York-based supply-chain transparency company that deploys software to help businesses measure and manage risk. Whether a version of the organization, Chinese or otherwise, succeeds boils down to trust.
“The biggest hurdle to monitoring human rights and working conditions is transparency,” he told Sourcing Journal. “Suppliers in high-risk regions need to provide traceability data to corroborate working practices, and must give unfettered access to independent auditors. Any new standard for sustainable cotton—BCI or otherwise—is going to be sidelined unless it’s founded on human rights and can be independently verified through transparency and traceability.”