Major apparel brands which have not entirely cut ties with cotton produced in Xinjiang, China, appear to have maintained their existing stances after a United Nations (UN) report released on Wednesday (31 August) said the Uyghur ethnic community may be facing crimes against humanity in the region.
China’s western Xinjiang autonomous region produces a fifth of the world’s cotton. Authorities there have been accused of rounding up the native Uyghur population for torture and political education.
The report by the UN human rights office detailed evidence of ethnic minorities being forced into factory work after detention stints. Companies in the region are given subsidies to hire such transferees, and rural workers are sent to work in urban areas under security escort, the report said.
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Such practices run alongside allegations of arbitrary custody, torture, forced sterilisation and rape in facilities China call vocational schools but are widely regarded as detention centres, the report added. The details corroborate with findings from past exposés by newspapers and rights groups.
Since details of such abuses came to light in recent years, some brands have vowed to avoid sourcing cotton from Xinjiang, though others have said they will rely on more careful checks instead.
In response to queries, Ryohin Keikaku, which produces the Muji line of clothes and home products, said that it conducts third-party audits annually on its cotton used, and has not identified any “material violations” thus far, repeating a statement it made last year. A spokesperson said the company will cease business relationships if such violations are found.
Muji remains one of the biggest brands outside China that has not distanced itself from Xinjiang cotton, with some of its clothes tags clearly labelling its material as originating from the region.
Muji’s foreign customer base is heavily Chinese. Of around 600 stores the brand has outside of its home country Japan, over 270 of them are in China.
A 2020 report by a think-tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute linked Muji, along with over 80 other brands internationally, to suppliers that could be part of labour transfer schemes in the Xinjiang region.
Hugo Boss, a German apparel brand, told Eco-Business it has not sourced “ready-made garments from the Xinjiang region of China”, and that it does not tolerate forced labour and modern slavery.
Last year, the Chinese branch of Hugo Boss said on social media that it buys and supports Xinjiang cotton. The firm later said the post was unauthorised and published a statement that it has not procured goods from Xinjiang “from direct suppliers”.
A Hugo Boss spokesperson said it expects partners across its supply chain to abide by its ethical standards, but did not address a question on whether the firm would consider a general ban on cotton and materials from Xinjiang in response to the UN report.
Fila from Korea and Asics from Japan did not respond to queries. Both firms do not have policies to ban materials from Xinjiang across its supply chains, and neither have issued statements in response to the UN report.
Businesses must conduct rigorous human rights risk assessments for all goods coming out of China, not just Xinjiang.
Justine Nolan, professor, University of New South Wales
Enforcing a ban on Xinjiang cotton has proven challenging given the complexity of the commodity’s supply chain. Some researchers think there may be a concerted effort to obfuscate records further by sending raw materials to intermediaries in nearby countries. German scientists recently found traces of Xinjiang cotton through molecular studies in apparel made by Adidas, Puma and Hugo Boss.
Professor Justine Nolan, a human rights expert at the University of New South Wales, pointed out that the UN report said that workers from Xinjiang could be forcibly moved to factories in other parts of China. This makes it tougher for firms to avoid association with forced labour.
The UN report said businesses should step up their due diligence on human rights and report their findings. Firms in the security industry should consider if their products could contribute to abuses in Xinjiang, it added.
“Businesses must conduct rigorous human rights risk assessments for all goods coming out of China, not just Xinjiang,” Nolan said.
“Until there is broader access and independent verification of working conditions in Xinjiang, business should now assume there is a rebuttable presumption that their supply chains are tainted with modern slavery,” she added.
End Uyghur Forced Labour, a network of civil society and trade groups, said countries should ban the import of products made with Uyghur forced labour instead.
“Given the abuses documented, this can only be achieved by ending business relationships with companies linked to the Uyghur Region and the forced labour system,” said Joanna Ewart-James, executive director of anti-slavery group Freedom United, a member of End Uyghur Forced Labour.
The group added that the UN report itself has shown that “credible due diligence is impossible” in the region.
In June, the United States started banning imports involving Xinjiang groups that it says contributed to forced labour activities. The ban has resulted in blockades on textiles and solar panels. End Uyghur Forced Labour said that companies should not re-export goods denied entry to the US.
Overseas brands have drawn the ire of Chinese consumers for sidelining Xinjiang labour and materials in the past.
Swedish chain H&M grabbed headlines early last year when Chinese celebrities and e-commerce firms cut ties with the brand over a pledge to stop sourcing Xinjiang cotton. A popular boycott caused a quarterly sales slump of over 23 per cent last May, and the brand only re-listed on Tmall, China’s largest online marketplace, last month.
Other brands like Nike and Burberry also faced flak for its public statements on Xinjiang.
Non-profit Better Cotton Initiative, which certifies environmental and social standards in the commodity, also found itself in hot water in 2020 over suspending licensing in Xinjiang due to allegations of abuse in the region. Last year, the group’s Shanghai office said it found no evidence of forced labour in Xinjiang.
Better Cotton Initiative did not respond to queries from Eco-Business by time of publication.
China has issued a response saying it firmly opposes the release of the UN report. It reiterated its stance that it is fighting “rampant” terrorism and extremism in the Xinjiang region, and that its vocational centres are not concentration camps.
Apart from cotton, Xinjiang is rich in energy resources like coal, gas and lithium – a key mineral for electric vehicle batteries.