On January 13th the US banned cotton products that were produced in Xinjiang China.Several Major European Brands have spoken out about the cotton grown in Xinjiang and the abuse that is involved. A major group that is involved in this abuse is the Muslim Uighur minority group that is being forced into labor. China is accused of a violated serious human rights violation against the Muslim Uighur people.
What is going on in Xinjiang China?
Global tension has been building between human rights groups and the communist Chinese government over their treatment of the, mostly Muslim, Uighur people in north west China. Over the past few years more than a million Uighurs have been placed in "re-education camps", there is evidence of forced labor and women being forcibly sterilized.
The fashion industry and Xinjiang, China
In response, "The Trump administration banned all imports of Xinjiang cotton and merchandise derived from it in January" (Financial Times). The US having banned cotton from this region, has had a large impact on China's cotton industry. In 2020, China's cotton imports to the US went down by nearly 40%, according to, South China Morning News . While the US and other countries have blocked imports, some are worried that other materials may be at risk of being banned as well, such as viscose. Congress is trying to pass the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban all imports from Xinjiang unless the importer can prove they are not connected to forced labor. The problem is that 20% of the world's cotton is produced there, and 50% of the world's cotton is spun there, making it difficult for brands to ensure their cotton is not in violation. Companies like Nike have spoken out against this. This has had brands scrambling to ensure their supply chain at deeper tiers like where their cotton was spun, no small feat as the fashion industry has yet to completely transition to a blockchain mapped supply chain.
Supply chain experts say that it is almost impossible to run a labor audit because of Uighur in Xinjiang are not able to speak openly to outsiders. The Chinese branch of the Better Cotton Initiative (a respected organization ensuring standards in the cotton industry) has split from their headquarters insisting no forced labor is taking place. The BCI has suspended activities in the region and stopped the licensing of the region's cotton.
China's communist rule has reacted to foreign criticism of these abuses by blocking brand sales in China. This is the case for stores like H&M and Nike along with Burberry, New Balance and Tommy Hilfiger. China has blocked these retailers’ websites so Chinese citizens cannot shop there and has even gone as far as not being about to hail a taxi to the physical stores. China has used this rejection of foreign brands to elevate its local brands. Beijing has denied these allegations and responded with retaliatory sanctions on European lawmakers the first involving the UK. Due to these changes, H&M has been practically erased from China. Though physically, stores are the still open, the communist party is trying to make it almost impossible to shop there and will surely have an impact of the sales of the company.
What brands should be doing
Tracking lower tiers of a fashion brand's supply chain has always been challenging but this is putting extra strain and attention on the matter. Assessing modern digital solutions like Sourcemap to track their supply chain may become more relevant than ever before not just for transparency but literally for the ability to import into the US at all. For more information on block chain and supply chain tracking check out this feature on Harvard Business Review.
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