20 percent of the world’s cotton. Half a million modern slaves.
Revelations regarding the scale of the impact of China’s Uighur forced transfer and labour scheme on the global supply of cotton have landed in the headlines, leaving the public stunned and groping for answers at the height of the holiday shopping season. Concern has spread from the fast-fashion and sportswear brands most exposed to sourcing their products in China to luxury groups like Kering, the owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.
As a growing number of consumers and political leaders ask, “Was forced labour used to make these clothes?” the only answer they would conceivably accept from brands is “no.”
And yet, the most frequent response has been a far fuzzier “not that we know of.” It’s an unsurprising, if tragic, admission from multinational brands whose fragmented global supply chains often lower costs while distancing the companies from the ugliest realities of fashion sourcing.
A report by Washington’s Center for Global Policy this week found that more than 570,000 people belonging to China’s Uighur minority are being forced to work in the Xinjiang region’s cotton farms, which supply as much as one-fifth of the world’s cotton.
Evidence that members of the displaced, surveilled and frequently imprisoned Muslim minority are being forced to manufacture various products for the west has been surfacing for months, leading to denunciations by human rights groups and investigations by bodies including European Parliament and US Congress. The latest report suggests that when it comes to fashion, the problems are more widespread than previously understood.
“The majority of Xinjiang’s cotton involves a coercive, state-run programme targeting ethnic minority groups,” the report said. Previous evidence for forced labour in Xinjiang pertained mostly to low-skilled manufacturing, but the new findings “have much wider implications, affecting all supply chains that involve Xinjiang cotton as a raw material.” Uighur Muslims brought to Xinjiang for “re-education” are even subject to indoctrination sessions by government agents while they work in the field.
Fashion brands insist they never tolerate forced labour — when they find out about it. Calvin Klein-maker PVH has said it will stop using Xinjiang cotton altogether by next May.