There’s a good chance your cotton T-shirt was made with slave labor by Jewher Ilham

There’s a good chance your cotton T-shirt was made with slave labor

Jewher Ilham

Much of the world’s cotton comes from the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government is ethnically cleansing its Muslim minority. Fashion conglomerates know this

A Uyghur-American activist rallies in front of the White House in support of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, October 2020.
A Uyghur-American activist rallies in front of the White House in support of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, October 2020. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Fri 9 Apr 2021 06.17 EDT

In the era of conscious consumerism, it’s often the case that companies are quick to say the right thing, but slower to actually do the right thing. Yet for companies being asked to remove Uyghur forced labor from their supply chains, the opposite is true. Many of the world’s largest brands are willing to rearrange their operations in order to source products from areas that are not known – as the Xinjiang region in western China is – for atrocious human rights violations, but far fewer are willing to do so publicly. As it turns out, “easier said than done” does not apply when facing the rebuke of the Chinese government.

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One in five cotton garments on the global marketplace is tainted by forced labor, and more than 20% of the world’s cotton comes from the Xinjiang region. Forced labor is an integral part of the ethnic cleansing program being carried out by the Chinese government, which is targeting the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples and subjecting them to involuntary labor and “re-education”. Several countries including the US have officially declared this campaign a genocide. Last week, the US and its allies sanctioned Wang Junzheng, the head of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Yet it is still a challenge to convince some corporations to prioritize workers’ lives over profits.

That’s because companies that have dared to voice their concerns over what is happening in the Xinjiang region are now facing threats of a boycott in China – a perfect example of the rebuke these brands have been trying to avoid.

China is by many measures now the world’s largest economy, and in the wake of this boycott, major global apparel companies including Inditex and PVH have removed policies against forced labor from their websites. So far these companies are in the minority, but they own global brands such as Zara, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. As long as there is a market for goods sourced from the Xinjiang region, the Chinese government will be emboldened to keep operating the mass detention camps where Uyghur people are being held in indentured servitude.

While the shameful cowardice shown by the group of companies choosing to quietly erase their statements against human rights abuses is reprehensible, even more stunning is the choice some brands have made to defend and proudly publicize their use of Xinjiang cotton. In an effort to placate China and preserve market share, MujiFila and Asics have all publicly announced their support for goods from the Xinjiang region. (Muji said it has conducted “due diligence” on its supply chain and is taking steps to “improve working conditions”.)

Hugo Boss is another illustrative example. After previously denouncing the use of forced labor, Hugo Boss took to social media last week to enthusiastically announce its plans to continue using Xinjiang cotton. A few days later, their corporate headquarters deleted the post, calling it “unauthorized,” then issued a statement acknowledging concerns about allegations of forced labor in the Xinjiang region. From a brand known for supplying uniforms to the Nazis during the second world war – also made with forced labor as part of a larger genocide – that seems like the absolute least Hugo Boss could do. But the brand’s oscillation reflects the complexity of the challenge facing companies trying to balance market access in China with basic respect for human rights. Ultimately, their wishy-washy stance – along with others’ complicit silence or outright support – serves to embolden the Chinese government in its abuse of the Uyghur people.

How will they explain their choices to consumers outside China – ones with almost unlimited choice in what they buy, and who overwhelmingly do not want to wear clothes made with forced labor?

There is no denying that China’s 1.4 billion people hold a lot of purchasing power, and that it is a potential financial risk for brands to speak out against the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghur people. But as consumers around the world enjoy more and more access to information, and increasingly demand that the companies they buy from reflect their values, these brands are just one Google search away from being revealed as purveyors of slave labor. For most consumers around the world, that kind of revelation would likely lead them to seek out a T-shirt that hasn’t been stitched by victims of crimes against humanity. And on the other side of the coin, brands that have signed the call to action from the Coalition To End Uyghur Forced Labour, like Marks & Spencer, Asos, and Eileen Fisher, are being rewarded by consumers.

Companies turning a blind eye to protect profits is nothing new. But once you have acknowledged that human rights violations are taking place, it’s difficult to justify continuing your patronage of goods that rely on those violations. For the brands that have done this in response to China’s scare tactic: the world is watching. You may still have a chance to land on the right side of history, but it depends on what you do next. Your decisions could mean the difference for millions of Uyghur people.