Fashion and Uyghur Exploitation: The Cotton Conflict


Fashion and Uyghur Exploitation: The Cotton Conflict

By Sophia Powell

Your favorite brand may be profiting off of forced labor. Have you ever thought about what is involved in the production of the clothes that you wear? 

Cotton, it’s in everything: your favorite jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt, and even bedsheets. Nearly every store you shop at will sell products that contain cotton. But did you know that a portion of the world’s cotton is produced in forced labor camps that are responsible for the largest internment of people since World War II? 

Photo Credit: TRTWorld

China is the largest cotton producer in the world, 84% of its cotton and 20% of the world’s cotton is sourced from the Xinjiang region where the Chinese government has forcibly imprisoned an estimated 1.5 million members of the Uyghur ethnic group and other Turkic Muslim people. The policies enacted by the Chinese government toward the Uyghurs have been described as “genocidal” and have included torture, separation of families, forced sterilization of women, and re-education programs. This horrifying treatment of the Uyghurs has sparked global outrage in recent years, leading countries, including the United States to impose bans on products coming directly from the Xinjiang region. However, the traceability of supply chains is a tricky issue because brands can list products as directly manufactured in other regions while still relying on cotton from Xinjiang. 

Last year, over 180 brands were exposed for using cotton from the Xinjiang region, including household names H&M, Gap, Zara, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Amazon, Abercrombie & Fitch, Polo Ralph Lauren, Uniqlo. Several brands flatly denied involvement in Xinjiang cotton, notably Gap which released a statement claiming that they  “do not source any garments from Xinjiang ” and went a step further by vowing to increase the traceability of their supply chain. Even companies not listed in the release, including ASOS, Reformation, and  WE Fashion, claimed to start investigating the sourcing of their cotton. However, though these brands should be commended for speaking out and pledging action, the cotton supply chain is obscure, making it very hard for brands to trace.  

Watchdog groups explain these results from the fungibility of cotton, noting that “it’s nearly impossible”  to distinguish Xinjiang cotton from cotton produced anywhere else. Further complicating the issue, countries can easily enact bans from products and materials coming directly from Xinjiang; however, it is significantly harder for them to enforce and to force companies and brands to trace the entirety of their supply chains. This is especially hard for popular fast-fashion brands such as H&M with over  1,700 manufacturing factories worldwide that employ 1,6 million people to conduct accurate supply chain reviews. 

What you can do to be an ethical shopper:

  1. Shop from small, local businesses. While they may be a little more expensive than large brands, smaller brands are less likely to be sourcing cotton from Xinjiang if their clothes are made in the United States or Europe. This is also a great way to support local, minority, and women-owned businesses! 
  2. Do your own research. If you are concerned about a brand’s possible use of forced labor, try to see if they or their parent company has a page covering their sourcing and what steps they have taken to prevent forced labor in their supply chain. This should exist, especially for larger brands
  3. When in doubt, email. If you are purchasing from a smaller brand and are unsure about their material sourcing, email their customer support address and ask. There are templates online. Or, you can always write your own telling them how much you like their products and that as a loyal customer, you are concerned about the use of forced labor in supply chains and are wondering what actions they are taking to promote human rights within their own supply chain. You can also take action and contact your congressional representative to bring this issue to their attention. Don’t forget your power as a customer or constituent––both the brand and your representative should value your support! 
  4. Shop Secondhand. Secondhand sites such as Depop, Poshmark, ThredUp, and TheRealReal are all great options if you want to shop ethically and sustainably. Buying pre-owned clothes means that you would not be supporting any brands that produce clothing themselves, avoiding the risk of supporting a company that directly or indirectly employs Uyghur labor. 

Uyghur exploitation is a dark side of the fashion industry where nearly every major brand is complicit either directly or indirectly, given the obscurity of the cotton supply chain. This is why it is imperative that we utilize our power as consumers to put pressure on brands – and the world – to stand against forced labor.

Featured Image Credit: Fashion Network

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