Three US senators are demanding answers from fast fashion retailer Shein after cotton linked to slavery was found in the company's products.
In a letter to the company the senators – Bill Casssidy (Rep), Elizabeth Warren (Dem), and Sheldon Whitehouse (Dem) – said: “We are concerned that cotton fibres harvested in Xinjiang with forced labour may have entered Shein’s supply chains.”
The moves comes after a Bloomberg analysis in November 2022 found two randomly tested samples of Shein garments shipped to the US were both made from cotton produced in Xinjiang, where widespread abuse of the Uyghur population has been recorded.
Almost nine in 10 (85%) cotton products in China are made in Xinjiang, representing 20% of global supply.
The senators call on the company to explain its supply chain auditing and mapping process and its human rights due diligence procedures.
The letter said: “We are concerned that American consumers may be inadvertently purchasing apparel made in-part with cotton grown, picked, and processed using forced labour. Considering Shein’s large, decentralised network of suppliers, we are concerned that cotton fibres harvested in Xinjiang with forced labour may have entered Shein’s supply chains.”
The senators also suggested the fashion giant was intentionally pricing shipments under the $800 threshold at which the Customs and Border Protection would be permitted to inspect imports.
A spokesperson for Shein said it had its own international fibre traceability lab, Oritain, which provided independent testing and origin verification for cotton products.
Shein said its suppliers were required to adhere to a code of conduct aligned with the International Labour Organization; that it engaged with third-party agencies to conduct regular, unannounced audits of supplier facilities to ensure compliance; and that it required suppliers to purchase cotton from Australia, Brazil, India, the US and other approved regions.
It added it had built a “traceability management system” to grant visibility into cotton production.
The spokesperson said: “As a global company, Shein takes visibility across our entire supply chain seriously. We are committed to respecting human rights and adhering to local laws and regulations in each market we operate in. We have zero-tolerance for forced labour.”
The US signed the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act into law on 23 December 2021, which made the import of goods manufactured wholly or in part in the Xinjiang region of China illegal, as they are presumed to be made using forced labour.
The Senate Finance Committee last month launched an inquiry into links between US carmakers and Xinjiang, which a report suggested could be found in “practically every major car part”.
Shein was also under scrutiny in December following allegations of worker abuse at supplier factories in China, as a Channel 4 documentary said garment makers worked 18-hour days for as littles as 3p per item produced. At the time, the company said it was spending $15m to overhaul up to 300 factories within four years.
Shein’s 2021 sustainability report said “many” of its suppliers needed to improve to meet international standards.