The world’s fashion brands need to confront—and abandon—their complicity with human-rights atrocities being perpetuated against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwestern China, a coalition of more than 180 human-rights groups announced Thursday.
With Xinjiang producing more than 80 percent of Chinese cotton, according to Washington D.C’s Center for Strategic & International Studies, “virtually” the entire apparel industry is tainted with a vast network of forced labor that has become a key facet of the Chinese government’s strategy to control and repress up to 1.8 million Turkic Muslims, the coalition said, urging brands, governments and international bodies to offer more than empty declarations.
“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, 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.”
Critics have described the manifold abuses, which include arbitrary detention, torture, involuntary separation of families, compulsory sterilization of women and coercive “reeducation” in mass incarceration camps on a scale unseen since the Holocaust, as tantamount to cultural genocide.
“Graduates” from these camps, human-rights experts say, are funneled into regional factories, where they can serve as a cheap and compliant labor force that supports the Chinese government’s economic ambitions for Xinjiang, which authorities have tapped as a hub for the $1 trillion infrastructure-expansion scheme known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which will link up the economies of Asia, Europe and Africa through a connective tissue of highways and rails.
Despite mounting outrage from the international community—not to mention the criminality in countries such as the United States of trafficking in goods made with forced labor—apparel brands continue to source millions of tons of cotton and yarn from Xinjiang, “bolstering and benefiting from the government’s assault on the peoples in the region,” the coalition said.
Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally, it claims, contains fiber or yarn sourced from the Xinjiang region.
“The Chinese government has carried out the largest mass internment of an ethnic and religious minority since World War II and so far suffered very little in terms of economic consequences for those crimes against humanity,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, told Sourcing Journal. “But it’s important to stress that for brands and retailers, the central issue is that they are complicit in forced labor in violation of their own standards. And if they’re importing goods into the U.S. with forced labor content, they’re also breaking the law.”
Last year U.S. Customs and Border Protection blocked the entry of Costco baby sleepers from Hetian Taida Apparel, a clothing manufacturer in Xinjiang, after procuring information that they were “produced, in whole or in part, using forced labor.” (Costco said in a subsequent statement that it had “no reason to believe” the sleepers were “inappropriately sourced” but was suspending their sale out of an abundance of caution.)
But Costco is far from the only company with rumblings of a connection with abuses in the region. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Xinjiang factories employing Uyghur labor were supplying personal protective equipment such as face masks to countries around the world. A slew of investigations and reports over the past two years have also linked dozens of brands and retailers—including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Amazon, Fast Retailing, Gap, H&M, L.L. Bean, Nike, Patagonia, Skechers and Zara owner Inditex—to companies that have operations in Xinjiang or have accepted government subsidies or government-supplied labor at these operations.
Not all these businesses are based in the Uyghur region, the coalition said, naming Hong Kong’s Esquel Group, whose Changji knitting mill landed on a U.S. blacklist but has since strenuously denied charges, along with yarn and textile producers such as Huafu Fashion Co., Lu Thai Textile Co., Youngor Group, and Shandong Ruyi Technology Group Co., which it claims have benefited from the forced-labor transfer of workers from Xinjiang to units in other parts of China.
Many brands, like H&M, have rebuffed any suggestion that they conduct business in the region.
“We do not work with any garment manufacturing factories located in XUAR, and we do not source products from this region,” an H&M spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We have an indirect business relationship with the yarn producer Huafu’s unit in Shangyu, Zhejiang province, but not with their unit in XUAR. However, we are currently reviewing our business relationship with Huafu.”
Nike says it is “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uyghur or other ethnic minorities,” though it insists it does not source directly from Xinjiang.
A Gap spokesperson said the company, which also owns the Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, does not source from the XUAR region but that it is taking steps to better understand how its global supply chain may be indirectly impacted, “including working with our suppliers and actively engaging with industry trade groups, expert stakeholders, and other partners to learn more and advance our shared commitment to respecting human rights.”
Inditex declined to be interviewed, and others did not respond to requests for comment.
Several brands have cited their commitment to sourcing Better Cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), an international not-for-profit that promotes cotton grown with less water and fewer pesticides and explicitly prohibits forced labor. (Better Cotton accounts for 22 percent of global cotton production.) But BCI was dragged into the scandal last year when it emerged that Huafu, a partner, sat on the organization’s council.
BCI initially defended Huafu, noting that an independent investigation had uncovered no evidence of forced labor. Huafu later disappeared from the BCI website, and in January, BCI announced it was suspending licensing in Xinjiang, “based on the recognition that the operating environment prevents credible assurance and licensing from being executed.” It will, however, continue to support farmers in the region in the meantime.
“We are in an ongoing dialogue with a selection of members of the XUAR coalition, civil society organizations and other stakeholders about how the Better Cotton Standard System can better support decent work in farming communities,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We remain committed to our mission: to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment in which it grows and better for the sector’s future. We will continue to engage with all concerned parties and experts to adapt and respond to challenging contexts so that we can further support farming communities and promote more sustainable practices.”
Divesting from Xinjiang will be easier said than done, particularly when apparel supply chains are built on a foundation of purposeful opacity to present a veneer of plausible deniability for bouncing off criticisms, said Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Certainly it will be more difficult than boycotting Uzbek cotton, which brands were much more willing to do, probably because it accounted for a much smaller fraction of the world’s cotton even at its height. Chinese cotton, on the other hand, made up 22 percent of the global market in 2018-19.
“We are aware that divesting will result in financial loss for some of the brands implicated, but that’s the cost of continued complacency,” Irwin said. “Switching to other cotton suppliers could potentially impose logistical and financial costs on brands, but these costs are nothing in comparison to continuing business in a region with widespread forced labor and rights abuses.”
In response to the coalition’s call to action, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and U.S. Fashion Industry Association released a rare joint statement reiterating their “continued focus on identifying and eradicating forced labor.”
They also appealed to U.S. lawmakers, who recently agreed to sanction Chinese officials involved in the detention scheme, to immediately establish a multi-stakeholder working group to “develop and deploy a collective approach” that assesses the problem, identifies solutions to increase transparency, and guards both the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains. “We are and will continue to be committed to working with all key stakeholders on this critically important human rights issue,” they said.
The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Donald Trump last month, stops short of broadly banning imports from Xinjiang but has shifted the burden of proof to importers who must show “clear and convincing” evidence that goods imported from the region are free of forced labor. (The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, still pending in Congress, make take a more blanket approach.) Across the pond, the European Parliament is plotting legislation that will hold European companies accountable for any social or environmental violations in their supply chains. Still, brands need to take a more proactive stance, too, the coalition said, adding that it will continue to pressure brands where it hurts.
“I think brands are much more aware of their own supply chains than they often let on,” Irwin said. “They haven’t divested from the region because the cost associated with continuing with business as usual was not high enough to make a change. We will increase this very cost to the point where action to exit the region will be the only option.”