A worker at a cotton factory in China's Xinjiang region © Yuan Huanhuan/VCG via Getty Images
A worker at a cotton factory in China's Xinjiang region © Yuan Huanhuan/VCG via Getty Images

Major brands 'likely to have cotton linked to slavery in supply chains'

17 November 2021

Opaque supply chains mean many companies may still be falling foul of slavery laws by purchasing cotton produced in China’s Xinjiang province, a report has found.

The report by Sheffield Hallam University said there was a high likelihood Xinjiang cotton, made with slave labour, was still entering international supply chains because large amounts of it is shipped to third countries for garment manufacturing.

Researchers identified 103 Western companies that may unwittingly be buying cotton from the region via international markets, including C&A, Calvin Klein, Carrefour, Marks & Spencer, Michael Kors, Nike and Primark.

Despite due diligence by firms, buyers still had much work to do to eliminate the product from their supply chains.

“The mechanisms in place for Xinjiang cotton operate unfettered precisely because they make it plausible for the end consumers to not know the origins of the raw material in apparel. Opacity is a deliberate feature of many global supply chains,” said the report.

The Uighur region produces approximately 85% of all of China’s cotton, and while shipping records indicate that cotton imports from the region have practically disappeared in the last two years, it is likely cotton produced in Xinjiang is still being purchased around the world.

The top destinations for China’s export of raw cotton, yarn and fabric are Bangladesh, Vietnam, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Cambodia.

These countries account for more than 52% of exports of semi-finished cotton goods from China and serve as intermediaries in finishing cotton-based apparel.

This obscures the provenance of the cotton to overseas buyers, the report found.

Researchers found that 53 intermediary manufacturers (from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, China and Mexico) had purchased unfinished cotton goods from five leading Chinese manufacturers that had sourced Xinjiang cotton.

More than a hundred well-known international brands purchase from these intermediaries and are at high risk of having Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains.

Research also identified several individual items of apparel that are currently being sold by international brands that run a high risk of being made of Xinjiang cotton due to these relationships.

It called for the closure of loopholes in international regulations and legal frameworks that deal with forced labour and accountability in supply chains, and “for a fundamental shift in perspective regarding human rights due diligence law”.

“International brands may be unaware of the Chinese manufacturers their suppliers are sourcing from,” said the report.

“This research indicates that they can no longer afford not to know, and that desk-based due diligence can serve as an effective route in identifying supply chain risks.”

It said companies interested in identifying intermediary processing of Xinjiang cotton should scrutinise any suppliers located in the top export countries for raw cotton and semi-finished cotton goods from China.

“Companies should be wary of those suppliers that source (directly or indirectly) from the Uighur region but claim not to use those materials in the manufacture of particular goods, as it is often exceedingly difficult to prove,” said the report.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington said: “There is no forced labour in Xinjiang. Cotton-picking is highly-paid work.”

He called allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang “malicious lies concocted by a few anti-China forces”.

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