Compromised cotton: slave labour, genocide, and the Uighur population
In recent news connections have been made between cotton, slave labour, and the Western province of Xinjiang, China, which produces an astonishing 20% of the world’s cotton supply - with major brands including M&S, Nike, and Calvin Klein implicated in the situation so far. US Customs and Border Protection claims to have seen evidence of abuses including debt bondage, withholding of wages, intimidation and abusive working conditions within what the Chinese Government are calling ‘re-education institutes’ - which led to a landmark US decision to ban cotton imports from the region. The UK and Canada have also announced measures to restrict trade with Xinjiang. This blog aims to raise awareness of the issues, the implications within fashion, and what we as individuals can do about it.
Sadly, reports of questionable working conditions within the fashion industry are nothing new - but since the issues in this case relate to the raw materials rather than later stages in the supply chain, it’s much harder for companies and certification bodies to trace. There are reports that Organic cotton, and even products previously certified by the Better Cotton Initiative, may have been involved. And the issue doesn’t just relate to fast fashion: according to the Business and Human Rights Manager at Anti Slavery International, “There is a high likelihood that every high street and luxury brand runs the risk of being linked to what is happening to the Uighur people” - a terrifying prospect.
But what’s the connection to genocide and Uighur muslims?
International organisation Human Rights Watch reported on the use of technology to flag ‘suspicious’ behaviours which triggered arrests and led to detention in the camps. These behaviours included studying the Quran, wearing religious clothing, installing encrypted messaging apps, and travelling or calling internationally.
Over the past five years door-to-door visits have become a key mechanism of control in Xinjiang, with 350,000 officials dispatched to gather detailed, intrusive information on every single minority household, an anonymous Uighur source for the BBC reported. It’s believed that up to 1.8 million Uighur and minority individuals were enduring forced labour in Xinjiang in 2020.
Traditionally, rural communities composed largely of Uighur muslims have been viewed as lazy-minded with “outdated ideas” by the Chinese government, whose aim to eradicate absolute poverty in time for its centenary is believed to be a driving factor behind the detainments. A notice issued by the Xinjiang regional government in 2016 specifically instructed officials to “strengthen the ideological education and ethnic unity education” of cotton pickers, and a 2020 policy document decreed that cotton pickers must be transported in groups and accompanied by officials who “eat, live, study and work with them, actively implementing thought education during cotton picking”. The level of suppression, and consequences of practicing their faith in these camps just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Under the UN definition, genocide encompasses acts committed to destroying a national, ethnic, racial or religious group - including “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”. With accounts emerging in The Guardian and The BBC of forced sterilization practices within the camps, many news outlets and government bodies have joined the call for the atrocities in Xinjiang to be officially classed as genocide. Birth rates in the two largest Uighur regions have fallen by 60% in recent years - in stark contrast to a 4.2% fall nationwide.
Thanks to movements highlighting injustice across fashion’s supply chains - including the #whomademyclothes and #payup campaigns from Fashion Revolution and Re/Make - transparency is a hot topic, and is increasingly demanded by consumers. But many brands are still reluctant to shed light on their operations, so increased and continued pressure is needed at all levels to safeguard those at risk of exploitation. In a world where consumerism drives everything we do, have you considered what story your clothes are telling? Try to think of each purchase as a vote with your money, and aim to shop where you’re confident that money will be used to sustain a fair system.
What has this got to do with GNGR Bees?
All materials used by GNGR Bees are reclaimed - the core purpose is to repurpose waste and divert it from landfill or contributing towards ocean pollution, so no virgin cotton is used in GNGR Bees products.
If you’re familiar with the brand, you’ll know that transparency in the supply chain is taken very seriously (see here) …but sadly many companies don't adopt the same strict guidelines - and sometimes certification bodies can also fail them, as we’ve seen above with BCI. The BBC asked 30 major international brands if they intended to continue sourcing products from China as a result of the findings - of those that replied, only four said they had a strict policy of demanding that items sourced from anywhere in China do not use raw cotton from Xinjiang.
GNGR Bees believes strongly in human rights and using business to empower - not exploit - those within the supply chain, and in the power of education to drive individual and collective action. Please help by spreading the word about this issue, calling on brands to thoroughly review the likelihood of their involvement, and petitioning for an end to forced Uighur labour here.
If you’d like to learn more about our sustainability practices and commitment to workers across our supply chain, check out our blogs on “Why sustainable fashion matters” and “You asked, we answer - supply chain”.