Marks & Spencer formally committed Wednesday to keeping its sourcing activities away from China’s embattled Uyghur-heavy region.
A coalition of 72 Uyghur rights groups and more than 100 civil society organizations and labor unions—including the Clean Clothes Campaign, Worker Rights Consortium and Anti-Slavery International—issued its “Brand Commitment to Exit the Uyghur Region” call to action in July. By signing on, companies would agree to cut all ties with suppliers implicated in forced labor and end all sourcing from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, from cotton to finished garments, within 12 months.
M&S became one of the first companies to formally sign the agreement, it announced Wednesday. The British retailer claimed it already does not work with any supplier in or source from Xinjiang and that it is committed to tackling indirect supply risks.
“At M&S, sourcing ethically and sustainably is core to how we do business and the promise we make to our customers, that’s why we do not source cotton from Xinjiang,” Richard Price, managing director of clothing and home at M&S, said in a statement. “When it comes to sustainable and ethical clothing, we can only achieve real change at scale by working with others, which is why we are proud to be formally supporting the coalition and providing additional assurance to our customers they can purchase from M&S with confidence.”
Every factory M&S works with is independently audited at least once a year, it said, with follow-up visits from a team of 19 individuals who together have more than 275 years of experience in ethical trading. Furthermore, the retailer lists all its suppliers on an online interactive map with information on more than 800 factories covering more than 700,000 workers.
“We welcome the leadership shown by Marks & Spencer today to commit publicly to the call to action, providing assurance to its consumers that M&S products will not be linked to the abuses of Uyghurs,” Jasmine O’Connor, CEO at Anti-Slavery International, said in a statement. “The call to action sets out a clear path of action for brands to follow in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and we call upon other major brands to follow suit with M&S and commit to the call to action urgently.”
The Chinese government is believed to hold at least 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in internment camps and prisons as part of a broader campaign of coercion, torture and indoctrination. A December report from the Center for Global Policy think tank indicated that more than half a million ethnic minority workers in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme.
Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn accounted for more than 22 percent of the world’s supply in fiscal year 2019. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region said, adding that “virtually the entire apparel industry is tainted by forced Uyghur and Turkic Muslim labour.”
Late last month, the Fair Labor Association prohibited the sourcing and productions of goods, whether directly or indirectly, from Xinjiang. The multi-stakeholder initiative counts Adidas, Fast Retailing, Gildan, Hanesbrands, Lululemon, Nike, Patagonia and Under Armour among its affiliates. Several of these brands are listed on the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition’s website as companies the coalition is concentrating its advocacy efforts on. Both Adidas and Nike have denied selling products made with forced labor from Xinjiang.
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a law designed to end the use of Uyghur labor in corporate supply chains by a 406-to-3 margin in September. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban all imports with content from Xinjiang unless the brand importing the product could prove it was not made with forced labor, has not yet passed through the Senate.
In December, the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition announced it had written to 17 companies, including Adidas, Amazon, Apple, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Gap, Heinz, Inditex, Kohl’s, L Brands, Nike, Nordstrom, PVH, Ross, Target, TJX and Walmart, to demand “they come clean about their stance” on the proposed law. According to The New York Times, Nike and Coca-Cola are among the companies lobbying to weaken the bill.
Also last month, the United States Customs and Border Protection announced a Withhold Release Order blocking imports of all products containing cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). The XPCC is a Chinese government paramilitary organization that produces one-third of China’s cotton, employs 12 percent of Xinjiang’s population and generates 17 percent of the region’s gross domestic product.
“The ban on XPCC cotton products raises the stakes for global retailers and brands to disentangle their supply chains from Uyghur forced labor,” Allison Gill, forced labor program director at Global Labor Justice–International Labor Rights Forum, said in a statement. “But for companies to have Uyghur forced labour-free products, companies need to stop back-channeling to kill legislation and affirm their own standards by signing the call to action and divesting from supply chains using Uyghur forced labour.”