Boycotting Xinjiang cotton is easier said than done

Growing concerns that clothing linked to forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region is being sold by Western retailers highlights the on-going challenges of transparency and traceability across global apparel supply chains, writes GlobalData.

Last year, US athletic wear provider Badger Sport dropped Chinese supplier Hetian Taida Apparel after some of its sportswear was traced to forced labour in Chinese internment camps. As well as this, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained garments from the same manufacturer in October for allegedly being made with forced labour by prisoners.

Most recent reports suggest products produced with yarn from the Huafu Fashion Company, also based in Xinjiang in north-western China, have been sold globally by companies such as Adidas, H&M and Esprit; along with gloves from the Yili Zhouwan Clothing Manufacturing Company.

Leonie Barrie, Apparel Analyst at GlobalData, says: “Claims continue to persist of mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang’s internment camps. The growing problem should also send warning signs to companies importing goods from the region to ensure products and their components are not made with, or in any way connected to, forced labour.”

Calls for companies to stop sourcing from Xinjiang are complicated by the fact the province produces more than 80% of China’s cotton, so products linked to forced labour are likely to extend into the cotton-based yarns and textiles shipped to garment producers in countries across the region such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. On top of this, most clothing brands and retailers only have limited visibility into their supply chains beyond the tier 1 factories where their clothes are made.

The challenge is how to disentangle the legitimate or untainted sources from those government-run or instigated programmes that use coercive labour practices in Xinjiang.

Current traceability systems rely largely on paper-based trails of certification, although a growing number of tools are being developed to provide greater transparency and traceability based on radio-frequency identification (RFID), blockchain, forensic science and DNA tagging.

One of the latest initiatives is the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot, which has managed to trace organic cotton from farm to consumer – thought to be a first in the apparel industry. The process combines blockchain with on-product DNA, invisible fluorescent and microbiome markers that can withstand harsh manufacturing treatments to verify the identity of the fibre.

Barrie adds: “Forced labour in any form is unacceptable, and a considerable business risk, since under US law, for example, it is illegal to import goods into the US made with forced labour.

“Greater collaboration across the industry, coupled with the use of new technologies, is key to ensuring garments and all their inputs are produced under safe, ethical, and humane conditions. However, the real responsibility lies with brands and retailers to improve their knowledge of their supply chains.”

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