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.
But amid rising awareness of the role of Uighur persecution in their supply chains, most others are having to admit that there’s still is a lot about their supply chains they don’t know. Considering the scale of the forced labour issue and the prevalence of Xinjiang cotton in the market, few brands can honestly guarantee consumers it isn’t being used in their products.
Brands rarely buy raw materials or weave fabrics like denim and canvas themselves, which leaves them with only an approximate sense of where the cotton they use is grown and under what conditions. Cotton trails polyester as the world’s second-most popular fibre. 25 million tons of cotton are grown each year, according to OECD agricultural statistics.
Companies have pledged to increase traceability of their materials in recent years, but have struggled to establish visibility and control throughout the chain. This is partly due to the fact that supply chains are constantly changing as product specifications evolve, and as opportunities to source components at the best price jump around the globe. Plus, there are breakdowns in the chain of custody: it’s possible to trace leather skins to a slaughterhouse, for example, but rarely to a farm. Cotton is traded in large quantities on the global commodities market alongside cocoa and gold, a long way down the ladder from where fashion brands are used to operate.
Zara-owner Inditex, Nike and Lacoste all provided statements denouncing forced labour, and touting efforts to better audit their supply chains, but did not go so far as to promise that Xinjiang cotton wasn’t being used.
The concern isn’t limited to mass-market fashion. French luxury group Kering was dragged into the fray after European parliamentarian Raphael Glucksmann tagged its Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga brands in an open letter on social media to Kering’s chief executive officer François-Henri Pinault. Glucksmann called attention to the group’s involvement with a 10,700-hectare cotton farm in the region.
“Forced labour is so systematic in this region where your group has decided to operate that it is up to you to provide proof that your supply chains and manufacturing don’t use forced Uighur labour,” Glucksmann said. “If you can’t prove that forced labour isn’t taking place because of the lack of transparency there, you must leave Xinjiang.”
Kering responded that it never tolerates forced labour or exploitation in any form. “If Kering knew about any forced labour in its supply chain, the group would immediately take steps to end the relationship with that supplier,” its statement said. The farm in question was a research project in partnership with the conservation group RARE to investigate more sustainable cotton farming practices rather than a supplier of its brands, the company added. Kering says its NGO partners verified labour conditions at the farm during multiple visits.
But the call-out still highlighted which guarantees Kering couldn’t make. The company estimates six percent of cotton used in its products is grown in China. “Kering doesn’t directly buy cotton or other raw materials, but rather finished products like fabrics,” the company said. While the group can now trace most materials to the country level, it does not track which regions or farms the cotton being used to make its Gucci canvas bags and Balenciaga hoodies comes from.
LVMH, the largest luxury fashion group, echoed the view that while its brands may have strict guidelines on suppliers, they were not direct buyers of raw materials. The maker of cotton items including Louis Vuitton’s canvas “Neverfull” handbags, Dior book totes, Givenchy t-shirts and Kenzo hoodies declined to say how much of the material came from China or Xinjiang, instead pointing out that its cotton mainly came from other places like India, the US, Egypt, and Turkey and was “mostly” certified by trade groups like the Better Cotton Initiative.
Burberry, whose gabardine trench coats are also made of cotton, said that they did not use any raw materials from the region.
Sportswear giant Nike said it no longer uses any textiles or spun yarn from Xinjiang, but that tracing the raw material of cotton itself remains a “difficult, industry-wide challenge.” A report by The New York Times found that the sportswear giant had employed lobbyists to try and water down new restrictions on importing Xinjiang cotton to the US (Nike disputes what the lobbyists were trying to achieve in what they referred to as “constructive” discussions with Congress). That law passed a first vote in the House of Representatives in September but has yet to be signed into law.