Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Charles McCrea/Pixabay
China’s importance to global supply chains as a key source of raw materials and labor puts brands at high risk of inadvertently supporting forced labor. Right now, the focus is on the garment industry; but other industries should pay close attention and ensure they are closely monitoring their entire supply chains.
A new report from
researchers at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom has
uncovered systematic efforts to obscure the origin of cotton and cotton-derived
materials in global supply chains by China — with the intent of making it
difficult for countries and global corporations to act on allegations of forced
“The report traces how cotton from China — and especially from Xinjiang — get
transported from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka, and then to manufactures in
Africa, and then to American or European consumer markets,”
Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, urgent appeal coordinator & campaigner with the
Clean Clothes Campaign, told Sustainable
This is directly connected to the horrific human rights crisis in Xinjiang —
the western-most region of China and home to Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims,
who have their own distinct language and culture. What has been taking place
over the past four years has been well documented: A vast system of
concentration camps that
can hold more than a million
that decides who is detained or not, which can decide one's fate based on
factors such as what door you entered or left your home from, or how often you
pray. Alongside this is ongoing cultural
— as Mosques, cemeteries, shrines, and historic Uyghur
have all been destroyed.
There are even reports of prison labor
out a vast variety of consumer goods. And this is despite China making the
region nearly inaccessible to foreign observers, including canceling the
of journalists such as Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan, who first reported
on the techno-driven police
back in 2017.
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For brands, this is increasingly becoming a problem. Human rights atrocities are
not new, still taking place all around the world at varying scales. But in
China, they are systemic — with evidence connecting top officials, including Chairman Xi
to what’s happening. Moreover, China’s importance to global supply chains as a
key source of raw materials and labor for the garment industry puts clothing and
apparel brands at high risk of inadvertently sourcing from suppliers using
“Regulators and brands need to employ more measures in tracing their cotton,”
Yeung says. “They need a more robust traceability program to conduct tests in
laboratories on cotton-based products, and need suppliers to provide genuine
documentation to show where the raw materials are coming from.”
The reaction from brands has thus far been lagging. Many now say they don’t
source from Xinjiang, while others express confidence in their monitoring and
auditing capability — though few are willing to share data or information on how
they ensure they aren’t victims of laundering.
For example, in
to the report, C&A stated that it does “not buy any clothing from
manufacturers based in the province of Xinjiang, nor do [we] have any fabric or
yarn factory under contract in this province;” and Hugo Boss said it has
“not procured any goods originating in the Xinjiang region from direct
Brands must look deeper — as the report shows that Xinjiang cotton is being
diverted via secondary suppliers, including ones in countries such as Sri
Lanka. Moreover, merely avoiding Xinjiang ignores growing concerns that
is merely being exported to other Chinese provinces, as a
report from the
Australian Strategic Policy Institute found last year.
“All companies claim that their internal auditing mechanism works — until it
does not,” Yeung says. “Brands can no longer defend themselves by saying their
tier-one supplier did not source from Xinjiang; they have to look into the
intermediate agents, too.”
Also concerning is how the Chinese government has responded to forced labor
allegations not with investigations, but with reprisals against those who dare
to expose what’s happening. This includes the auditing organization
which saw its office forcibly closed by Chinese officials in April after
investigating forced labor; and non-profit efforts such as the Better Cotton
Initiative, which was attacked for releasing a statement on Uyghur forced
labor and now no longer operates in
If companies do not proactively respond, governments will force them to. This
week, the US House of Representatives
by an overwhelming margin, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act — which
would put the burden of proof on companies that goods sourced from Xinjiang are
not being made with forced labor.
“Both chambers of Congress need to pass matching language before the end of the
year, and President Biden needs to sign it into law without delay,” the
nonprofit Freedom House said in a press statement. “Evidence has shown that
forced labor is a key component of the Chinese government’s extensive network of
detention facilities, to which more than one million people remain confined.”
Right now, the focus is on the garment industry; but cotton is not the only
supply chain tainted with forced labor — other industries should be paying close
attention and ensuring they are closely monitoring their entire supply chains.
Xinjiang is also home to a massive viscose processing
— turning wood fiber from Finland, Indonesia and other countries into
polyester. It’s also a major player in the solar
with several major photovoltaic producers based in the region.
components, too, may be coming from Xinjiang and may be produced with forced
Brands may have to consider whether doing business in China is worth it at all.
The Women’s Tennis Association decided that it was
potentially forfeiting millions but also getting widespread praise for standing
with its values.
Brands, almost without exception, have failed to be proactive on forced labor —
maintaining friendly relations with a country potentially committing egregious
human rights abuses. And in doing so, they are risking long-term reputational
harm in the name of short-term profits — which is increasingly unsustainable.
Published Dec 13, 2021 9am EST / 6am PST / 2pm GMT / 3pm CET
Nithin is a freelance writer who focuses on global economic, and environmental issues with an aim at building channels of communication and collaboration around common challenges.