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The Hidden Cost of Cotton

Jonny Rogers investigates how the cotton industry is involved in supporting the detainment of minorities in China.

Photo by Magda Ehlers

Cotton might well be one of the most important plants in the world, being invaluable to the cosmetic, fashion and textile industries alike, but a fifth of the world’s cotton supply could be connected to slave labour in China.

As reported by the BBC in December, a recent investigation lead by Dr Adrian Zenz has uncovered new evidence suggesting that upwards of half a million minority peoples in the Xinjiang region of China could be involved in a state-run coercive labour program disguised as a voluntary ‘poverty alleviation’ scheme.

"For the first time we not only have evidence of Uighur forced labour in manufacturing, in garment making, it’s directly about the picking of cotton, and I think that is such a game-changer." – Dr Adrian Zenz

This report follows the increasing exposure of China’s ‘re-education’ camps, in which Uighur Muslims are being forced to learn Mandarin, renounce their faith and swear loyalty to President Xi Jinping under strict surveillance. Some are even being tortured, separated from their families and sterilised, before being forced to work in factories and farms – a system which has been described as “the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since the second world war”.

Which Brands are Connected to Uighur Cotton?

Although the UK government passed anti-slavery legislation in 2015 under the Modern Slavery Act, the traceability of cotton products, as Kate Larsen reports, is notoriously challenging. In 2019, Amy Lehr of the CSIS Human Rights Initiative told the BBC that Xinjiang cotton can go through “several stages of transformation” before being sent to Western companies.

In response to the recent investigations, the BBC approached 30 international brands to explore which retailers source cotton from Xinjiang. Whilst many said that they have policies in place to avoid connections with China, others were unable to ensure that unethical cotton did not unknowingly enter their supply chains. Last year, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region published an extensive list of brands and retailers linked to Uighur cotton – a list which includes H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Gap and Calvin Klein – though some have already severed connections to the region.

On the other hand, a number of fashion brands are more transparent about their use of Xinjiang cotton, with the Japanese brand Muji even launching a controversial ‘Xinjiang Cotton’ collection in 2019. One haunting advertisement proudly declared that their ‘organic cotton’ was “delicately and wholly handpicked in Xinjiang”.

Nevertheless, Kate Larsen hopes that the recent investigations into Chinese cotton will provoke wider change throughout the fashion industry:

"The increase in forced labour of Uyghurs [...] presents an opportunity to come together, deepen supplier insight, improve collaboration to reduce forced labour and other risks, and influence and deliver positive social impact for Uyghurs, Chinese and many more."

How to Support Sustainable Fashion

Given the permeance of Xinjiang cotton in the international cotton trade, it is, unfortunately, all but unavoidable for those who cannot afford or are unaware of the increasing range of ethical clothing brands. Thankfully, however, a number of independent initiatives, such as Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced (YESS) and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), have promised to increase transparency and accountability in the garment industry, already influencing a number of brands.

Nevertheless, although this article has focused on political injustice in cotton production, unethical working conditions is symptomatic of broader issues within the ‘fast fashion’ industry which notoriously underpays workers, supports excessive wealth disparity and condones over-consumption and pollution.

Last year, a report published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment concluded that the fashion industry produces over 92 million tonnes of waste each year, with 79 trillion litres of water utilised in the production of new materials. It has even been suggested that the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global yearly carbon dioxide emissions. As a result of the first Covid-19 lockdown, fashion brands suddenly cancelled orders for items already in production, leaving countless garment workers without payment.

The entire industry – and the world at large – would benefit from our mutual support for a radical change in attitude towards what we buy and wear. Before purchasing anything online or in-store, take a moment to check whether there is a clothing rental service, charity shop or clothes swapping event nearby – and if nothing else, always look closely at the label (and not just the big name at the top).


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