These last few months have seen the public and major fashion brands becoming more aware of the problem of forced or slave labour in the cotton industry. This has been happening for years and probably been around since slaves were picking cotton in the American South. The difference now maybe that due to social media and the constant news availability we know more about it.
“UK consumers bought over 14bn of goods made by slaves in 2017”Global Slavery Index
The fashion industry has highly complex supply chains that stretch across the globe making it very easy for big brands to claim they don’t know what is happening due to work often being subcontracted out. The nature of cotton as a global commodity also means that it often traded many times adding further complexity when it comes to establishing the source of the raw goods.
The latest incidences of forced labour that have hit the headlines are of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, China. Alongside imprisonment, torture, forced separation and compulsory sterilisation approximately 1.8m Uighurs are forced to work in the cotton fields and factories. China is the largest producer producer of cotton in the world with the majority of it’s cotton coming from the Xinjiang region which relies heavily on hand-picking.
“Virtually the entire [global] apparel industry is tainted by forced Uighur and Turkic Muslim labour,”The Coalition of Human Rights Groups
In 2020 83 big brands such as Amazon, Gap & Zara were exposed for using cotton produced in the region and many are scrambling to find out where their cotton comes from. Some big names including H&M, Nike, Burberry and Adidas have released statements saying they will no longer use cotton from that region. Those that took a stand has received a backlash from Chinese celebrities and consumers with some vowing to stop buying their products and some burning their Nike trainers. The Chinese government has removed H&M from it’s digital world so that no one in China can shop online with them.
Because of this backlash some global apparel companies including Inditex (owners of Zara) and PVH (Owners of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) have now removed their statements against forced labour from their websites. Some brands, namely Muji, Fila and Asics have even proudly announced their use of Xinjiang cotton in order to not lose trade and market share.
“Roughly one in five cotton garments sold around the world contain cotton or yarn from Xinjiang”Uighur Human Rights Project
In September the US congress passed a bill to block all imports of cotton from the Xinjiang region and several companies who grow cotton in the area were sanctioned. The UK government has said the UK companies doing business in China will face fines if they can’t prove they are not linked to Xinjiang. The EU has also passed similar legislation.
Not Just China
Sadly China is not the only place where it’s citizens are being made to work in the cotton industry. Uzbekistan is also well known for it’s state sanctioned use of mass enforced labour to work in the cotton fields during the harvest and planting seasons. The Uzbek sector is one of the largest producing 2.9m tonnes of raw cotton generating over $1bn. Turkmenistan is also known to use systemic forced labour practices to grow and pick cotton.
Avoiding Slave Labour
Keeping up to date with which brands are not using cotton from Xinjiang is a good way to try and avoid supporting Uighur slave labour, but also educating yourself on policies, campaigns and the latest news will give you a better idea of what is happening. There are many human rights organisations you could follow on social media that will be in the know including the Clean Clothes Campaign. Get involved in their campaigns and spread the word to friends and family.
If you have a favourite brand then ask them questions and challenge them to not use slave labour cotton or look for others who don’t. GOTS organic cotton has a social criteria it must meet to gain certification which prevents forced and child labour. Supporting and shopping with ethical brands (like us) who use certified organic cotton therefore offers peace of mind. You can see our certification here.
We aim to be as transparent as possible to show our ethics and sustainability and we want to educate others to bring real change to the industry. If you want to know more about such issues in the industry try reading my post Does Child Labour Still Exist? or How do I Know If It’s Ethical?