Skip to main content

China’s BCI-Snubbing Cotton Sustainability Standard Goes Into Effect

China’s homegrown cotton sustainability standard, which took effect Friday, might have a long road ahead before it gains the confidence of the international community, experts say.

“On the heels of the Uyghur Act in the United States, widespread fraud and allegations of greenwashing in cotton and other fibers, a ‘labels without substance’ approach to sustainable fashion is a thing of the past,” Crispin Argento, managing director of The Sourcery, which helps brands and retailers source sustainable cotton, told Sourcing Journal.

Argento pointed to the example of Uzbekistan, whose systemic and state-sanctioned employment of child and forced labor in its cotton fields led to a global freeze-out for more than a decade. The shunning was so successful that demand for Uzbek cotton fell from 50 percent of the country’s exports to less than 1 percent, costing the Central Asian nation billions of dollars in revenue.

“Only recently has Uzbekistan begun to regain this trust as it has emerged after years of market isolation. This required new government leadership, intervention and open communication,” Argento said. “Still, the future will continue to be an uphill battle to change hearts and minds as Uzbekistan works diligently to revive its cotton and textile industry through radical transparency.”

The China Cotton Association (CCA) developed its standard, part of its broader Cotton China Sustainable Development Program, as a direct repudiation of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which it accused last year of casting unfounded aspersions on human-rights conditions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. BCI had suspended licensing and assurance activities in Xinjiang, which contributes 85 percent of China’s cotton, in March 2020 following reports of mass internment camps that strongarmed inmates into forced labor. By October, it had eliminated all field-level activities in the region. Bristling under what it derided as “Swiss standards,” the trade group decided to enact its own. The CCA’s 3,200 members make up two-thirds of the country’s market share, it said.

Related Stories

The standard focuses on “core issues” of sustainable agricultural development, the CCA said, including the management and use of agricultural chemicals, ecological and environmental protection, fiber quality and occupational health and safety during planting and harvesting. Workers must receive no less than the local minimum wage and medical checkups must be provided at least once a year at no cost.

“The publication and implementation of this standard will help guide cotton producers to adopt sustainable production and operation, meet the demand for high-quality and sustainable cotton products, solve the problem of unbalanced industry development, promote ecological civilization, increase cotton farmers’ income and improve the level of rural economic development,” an official told Xinhua, China’s official state news agency.

The CCA will pilot the standard with six partners, all of them “large cotton enterprises,” with a total annual cotton turnover of more than 1.6 million tons, though it did not specify their names. China is a “globally significant cotton producer, consumer, and textile and garment exporter,” it said, adding that the standard will help cotton growers adopt sustainable production and operation methods, meet the demands for high-quality cotton products and boost their incomes. BCI declined to comment on the new certification.

Bennett Freeman, a member of the steering committee of the End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition and co-founder of the Cotton Campaign labor-rights initiative, previously told Sourcing Journal that the certification may play well “internally” but may have trouble gaining a foothold “externally.”

While China has a sovereign right to create its own standard, there are international standards it must still observe, including a “whole series” of International Labour Organization conventions that promote freedom of association and bar coerced labor.

“China has become very assertive—which is its right, of course—and not just countering what it perceives to be biased Western standards but in developing its own alternative standards,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to pooh-pooh the environmental sustainability dimensions of this, but while the new standard may work well on the labor side with China, it’s dead on arrival, at least with Western companies.”