Boycotting Xinjiang cotton will be no easy feat

The United States is moving forward with legislation that would effectively ban cotton imports from China’s Xinjiang province over potential links to forced labour – but such a step would be a massive challenge for the apparel industry, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

The Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act shifts the goalposts on forced labour by requiring importers to prove any products made in, or containing inputs from, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) were not produced using forced labour.

Leonie Barrie, Apparel Analyst at GlobalData, says: “Forced labour in any form is unacceptable, and US lawmakers clearly believe an all-out bar is the best way to tackle the problem, as well as sending an important message to Beijing over its policies in the region. Yet, it would be hugely difficult for the apparel sector to enforce due to the sheer scale and complexity of its supply chains.

“As many as one in five cotton garments sold globally is likely to contain cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, often mixed with cotton from other sources and used by garment makers around the world. So even if brands have no direct relationships with Xinjiang suppliers, it’s almost impossible to establish whether the cotton in their clothes is tainted by Uyghur forced labour in China.”

Difficulties in accessing the region and speaking openly with workers mean third-party supply chain audits are not an option. Although new tools are being developed to provide greater transparency and traceability from cotton field to consumer – including the use of forensic science and DNA tagging – they can only confirm if the cotton in a product comes from a known source. There are as yet no accurate tests to specifically identify or eliminate Xinjiang cotton.

Barrie adds: “Trying to shift production out of China is yet another challenge. Not only do global supply chains depend so heavily on Chinese materials, but nowhere else can match the country’s skills, quality, product variety, factory capacity, and range of products from raw materials to final garment.

“The next step for the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act is a Senate vote, but if it’s derailed by the upcoming November elections it will have to be reintroduced next year. Either way, the Xinjiang issue is not going to go away, so brands and retailers must brace for more scrutiny of their supply chains.”

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