Many Western fashion businesses have remained quiet when it comes to the Chinese government’s stance on local issues, fearful of losing favor in one of the world’s most powerful and fastest growing consumer markets or access to a critical manufacturing hub in their supply chains. But on the issue of Uighur forced labor, a change is coming, as is new U.S. legislation. One bill introduced in Congress this spring would make it so that any goods from Xinjiang would be presumed to have been made using forced labor, and that only those for which companies could provide “clear and convincing evidence” otherwise could be imported.
H & M, for one, said that it did not work with any garment manufacturing industries in Xinjiang. The Swedish retailer said it was reviewing its indirect business relationship with the yarn producer Huafu, which H & M suppliers worked with in other Chinese regions, though they did not source materials from its Xinjiang factory. A spokeswoman also said that, until now, H & M’s suppliers had sourced cotton from Xinjiang farms connected to the Better Cotton Initiative, which now does not license cotton from Xinjiang.
Fashion supply chain transparency has become a hot topic in recent years, with a particular focus on “tier one” factories where the final assembly of garments takes place. But labor abuse and polluting practices are also rife in the raw production of materials and yarn, and are harder areas to audit for Western companies, including in China.
Outsourcing labor means a number of companies can be involved in the production of an item. Coerced labor could therefore happen at many points, including during the growing and picking of cotton, the production of thread and fabric, and the manufacturing of the finished item. According to some industry experts, even if more clothing retailers commit to the Xinjiang withdrawal pledge, many will struggle to track the degree to which the production of their goods may be tainted.
“Companies will need to drastically increase their ability to trace their supply chains to origin to understand the risk of Xinjiang-linked forced labor,” said Amy Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has researched labor in Xinjiang. “Most cannot do this now.”
“The other challenge for brands is that, until there’s more access to Xinjiang, they can’t carry out their normal due diligence on the ground to know whether there’s forced labor there or not,” Ms. Lehr added.