Patagonia says it will no longer source materials from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China amid mounting concerns about human-rights abuses that some have likened to cultural genocide.
The news arrived shortly after a coalition of more than 180 human-rights groups urged brands and retailers to sever ties with suppliers in the northwestern territory, where Chinese authorities are widely believed to employ mass internment, indoctrination and forced labor schemes to “reform” some 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities into model Mandarin-speaking and Chinese Communist Party-supporting citizens.
Previous reports and investigations by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others have established relationships between dozens of apparel brands, including Patagonia, and companies that operate in Xinjiang or have accepted government subsidies or government-supplied labor at facilities where “graduated” detainees serve as a low-paid and tractable workforce.
“We are deeply saddened and extremely concerned to continue to read reports about forced labor and other human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China,” Cara Chacon, vice president of social and environmental responsibility at Patagonia, said in a statement. “In accordance with guidance from the Fair Labor Association, we are actively exiting the Xinjiang region.”
The outdoor-wear brand, Chacon said, has performed the “painstaking and important” work of mapping the source of its products to the farm level, and it is continually working to ensure its products are manufactured without human-rights abuses and the “smallest environmental footprint possible.”
Xinjiang, it has informed its suppliers, is now verboten.
“We have communicated to our global suppliers that both fiber and manufacturing in Xinjiang is prohibited,” Chacon said. “Our supplier vetting process is enforcing this mandate.”
Patagonia, a certified B Corp that has committed itself to upholding strict social and environmental standards, has a history of promoting better pay and conditions for garment workers. Since 2014, the brand has offered Fair Trade-certified clothing as part of what it dubs a “first step” to ensuring living wages throughout its supply chain. Today, it says it produces more Fair Trade -certified sewn styles than any other apparel brand, improving the lives of more than 66,000 workers in 10 countries around the globe.
The company did not immediately respond to a query, however, about why it’s taken this long to divest from Xinjiang. Reports about the construction of new internment facilities—and the expansion of existing ones—have been circulating since mid-2017, when satellite imagery and leaked government documents revealed the growing scale of the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on the Uyghur language, culture and religious practices.
In March, Patagonia released a less equivocal statement noting that it doesn’t source finished goods from Xinjiang and that it is “committed to only sourcing from farms and mills where we can confirm there are no human rights abuses.”
“We hope to have continuity with our longtime manufacturing partners, as we know they also feel strongly about human rights and environmental sustainability, but we are prepared to make changes if we can’t confirm that our values are being upheld,” a spokesperson wrote. “We are committed to working with the Fair Labor Association, other businesses, governments and other stakeholders to ensure all workers are guaranteed their fundamental human rights.”
The FLA, a workers-rights-focused multi-stakeholder initiative that counts among its members brands such as Adidas, Fast Retailing and Nike (all of which have also been connected to forced Uyghur labor), has called for an “immediate end” to these violations, vowing to work with governments, civil society, unions and multilateral organizations to achieve this goal.
“We have directed our affiliates to review their direct and indirect sourcing relationships, identify alternative sourcing opportunities and develop time-bound plans to ensure that their sourcing is in line with the FLA’s principles,” it wrote in a statement in March. “The FLA will engage with our affiliates as well as governments and other stakeholders to identify shared solutions to end these human-rights violations.”
Xinjiang produces more than 80 percent of Chinese cotton, according to Washington D.C.’s Center for Strategic & International Studies. China itself is the world’s largest producer and supplier of raw fibers, yarns, textiles and clothing, but experts say Xinjiang cotton could also be infiltrating supply chains outside China through yarns exported to countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia.
As such, “virtually” the entire apparel chain is likely tainted with forced Uyghur labor, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region said last week. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally, it claims, contains fiber or yarn sourced from the Xinjiang region.
“To end the slavery and horrific abuses of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim peoples by the Chinese government, brands must ensure their supply chains are not linked to the atrocities against these people,” Jasmine O’Connor, CEO of Anti-Slavery International, a member of the coalition, said in a statement. “The only way brands can ensure they are not profiting from the exploitation is by exiting the region and ending relationships with suppliers propping up this Chinese government system.”