Is your T-shirt a human rights violation?

A farmer harvests cotton in a field on October 10, 2020 in Hami, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. (Photo by Pulati Niyazi/VCG via Getty Images)

The next T-shirt you buy could be made from cotton harvested by forced manual labor in the Chinese territory of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has fiercely retaliated against clothing brands and retailers that posted basic statements of "concern" about alleged human rights abuses in the region. And its strongarm tactics appear to be working. Some of the statements about human rights abuses were deleted from corporate websites. Today, it can be very difficult for consumers to discern which companies continue to use cotton sourced from Xinjiang. 

Popular Information contacted 17 consumer clothing brands and asked them to clarify whether their products contained cotton produced in Xinjiang. Only one provided a response. 

The issue pits these companies' professed commitment to ethically source materials for their products against their desire to have full access to the massive Chinese market. Many companies are prioritizing their economic interests. Others are pursuing strategic ambiguity in an effort to avoid controversy.

What's happening in Xinjiang

A March report by the U.S. Department of State detailed "genocide and crimes against humanity" by the Chinese government against "Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang."

Genocide and crimes against humanity occurred during the year against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. These crimes were continuing and include: the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians; forced sterilization, coerced abortions, and more restrictive application of China’s birth control policies; rape; torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained; forced labor; and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement.

The Chinese government claims that "the crackdown is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism." They believe that "militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest." Their actions, however, are not targeted at "militants" but millions of ordinary Uyghurs. 

The Chinese government claims that reports of forced labor are "completely fabricated" and that the Uyghur people are being given "vocational training" and are paid. But the State Department report found that the program was far from voluntary:

There is evidence of forced labor exacted by the use of force, threats of detention or other abusive practices against workers laboring in the camps, large industrial parks, and residential locations in Xinjiang. There are also reports of individuals “graduating” from “vocational training centers” and then being compelled to work at nearby facilities or sent to factories in other parts of China.

The Chinese government acknowledges more than one million Uyghurs are part of these programs annually. Their primary activities include "picking and processing cotton and tomatoes." 

How Xinjiang's cotton industry works

Documents from the Chinese government uncovered by the Newlines Institute in December provided new details about how the cotton industry in Xinjiang works. The materials document how, by 2018, "three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme." While much of the world's cotton harvesting has been mechanized, in 2019 "about 70 percent of the region’s cotton fields had to be picked by hand." 

While Uyghurs perform the grueling labor, "[g]overnment supervision teams monitor pickers, checking that they have a 'stable' state of mind, and administer political indoctrination sessions." 

“Anyone who cares about ethical sourcing has to look at Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton and 20% of the world’s cotton, and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’” Dr Adrian Zenz, the author of the report, told the BBC.

Action and reaction

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a coalition of major apparel manufacturers, brands, and retailers that seeks to increase "sustainable cotton production," including making "global cotton production better for the people who produce it." The organization certifies cotton as "BCI compliant." Compliance requires certification that "[a]ll forms of forced or compulsory, including bonded or trafficked labour, are prohibited." BCI members include major brands such as Walmart, IKEA, Adidas, New Balance, and Levis. 

Until very recently, however, BCI certified cotton produced in Xinjiang. In November 2019, Apparel Insider reported that BCI "used a key Chinese Implementing Partner which is part of an entity widely described as a ‘quasi-military organisation’ with deeply ingrained links to forced and prison labour." Further, "Huafa Fashion, a Chinese textile supplier with strong links to forced labour" was on the BCI Council.

In March 2020, BCI suspended its certification program in Xinjiang. In July 2020, a number of major individual retailers announced they would stop sourcing cotton from the region. A statement by European fashion brand H&M posted to its website in September 2020 said it is "deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethno-religious minorities." 

And, in October 2020, BCI announced it was withdrawing from the region:

Sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China have contributed to an increasingly untenable operating environment, and BCI has, therefore, taken the decision to cease all field-level activities in the region effective immediately, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting.

A few months later, the Chinese government began retaliating in earnest. 

China strikes back

In recent months, backlash from the Chinese government has tested retailers' commitment to human rights. In March, H&M was targeted on Chinese social media. “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton while trying to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” read a post by the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of China's ruling party.

H&M stores were also dropped as listings from China’s largest ride-sharing app, Didi Chuxing, the e-commerce titan Ali Baba, and other major digital platforms. At least 20 stores were closed. The result? H&M deleted its previous statement about Xinjiang. On March 21, 2021, it published a new one that announced its commitment to the Chinese consumer market. It wrote:

We are working together with our colleagues in China to do everything we can to manage the current challenges and find a way forward. China is a very important market to us and our long-term commitment to the country remains strong...We want to be a responsible buyer, in China and elsewhere, and are now building forward-looking strategies and actively working on next steps with regards to material sourcing. Together with all relevant stakeholders, we want to collaborate to be part of the solution and jointly build a more sustainable fashion industry.

H&M hasn’t been the only target of the Chinese government. Nike, Adidas, Puma, and other major brands that have spoken out against the Uyghur crisis have also been identified as brands to boycott. Earlier in April, Fortune reported that following the H&M outrage, “[Chinese social media] users posted videos of themselves burning Nike shoes; Nike and Adidas apps were yanked from app stores; and celebrities pulled out of their sponsorship deals with the foreign sportswear firms.”

It is unclear if companies will cave into the pressure. What is clear, however, is that the Chinese government is using the nation's collective purchasing power to punish brands for speaking out about the Uyghur crisis. “Anyone who offends the Chinese people should prepare to pay the price,” Hua Chunying, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said.

Does your T-shirt contain cotton from Xinjiang? It's hard to say. 

For concerned consumers, corporations do not make it easy to determine whether products contain Xinjiang cotton.

Popular Information contacted 17 corporations to ask if their products contained Xinjiang cotton and what steps they were taking to ensure that their cotton was not sourced from that region. Only one, VF Corporation, parent group of Vans, Timberland, and North Face, responded. It shared a resource page that noted it does not source cotton from Xinjiang. 

But according to the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition, the company has not agreed to "fully extricate their supply chains from the Uyghur Region." The End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition is an alliance of labor and human rights organizations. The group is asking that companies agree to a "Brand Commitment to Exit the Uyghur Region" that outlines a detailed set of actions to prevent the use of forced labor in their products.

Nike, a BCI member,says it “does not source products from the XUAR [Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region] and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.” The company did not respond to Popular Information’s inquiry and has not agreed to the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition's demands.

Adidas said in 2019 that it "never manufactured goods in Xinjiang and has no contractual relationship with any Xinjiang supplier.” It later admitted that Xinjiang cotton was part of its supply chain through BCI. The company did not respond to a Popular Information inquiry about whether cotton from the Xinjiang region was used in any current Adidas products. Adidas has not agreed to the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition's demands. 

A statement on the GAP website says the company does "not source any garments from Xinjiang." The company acknowledges that "we have taken steps to better understand how our global supply chain may be indirectly impacted." It says it has a "new policy" that "explicitly prohibits Gap Inc. vendors from directly or indirectly sourcing any products, components, or materials from Xinjiang in the process of manufacturing any orders for Gap Inc." GAP did not respond to a request for comment from Popular Information and has not agreed to the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition's demands.

Last fall, Burberry sent a letter to British lawmakers stating “We do not have any operations in Xinjiang, nor work with any suppliers based there.” Burberry, which is a member of BCI, did not respond to Popular Information’s inquiry and has not agreed to the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition's demands. In March, the company lost a Chinese brand ambassador who stated that the company has not “clearly and publicly stated its stance on cotton from Xinjiang.” The brand’s trademark print was also scrubbed from one of China’s most popular video games.

Lululemon is a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA). In December, the FLA announced that due to "the high risk of forced labor, the overwhelming evidence of human rights abuses, and the multiple layers of government sanctions, the FLA is prohibiting sourcing and production (including direct and indirect sourcing of raw materials, inputs, or finished products) from Xinjiang." Lululemon does not appear to have issued its own statement regarding its business activities in the region or indicated whether it would abide by the new policy of the FLA. The company did not respond to a request for comment from Popular Information and has not agreed to the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition's demands.

Fast Retailing, owner of the brand Uniqlo and a member of the FLA, has said that it “strictly prohibits all forms of forced labor” and that “no UNIQLO product is manufactured in the Xinjiang region.” Recently, the company’s CEO said that the company is “keeping an eye on its cotton supply chain to ensure none of its products are made with forced labor in Xinjiang.” The FLA, however, bars members from sourcing cotton from Xinjiang entirely. Fast Retailing did not respond to a request for comment.

Other members of the FLA contacted by Popular Information include Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and Patagonia. None responded to a request for comment.