Keeping forced-labor cotton out of the US is proving nearly impossible

At the onset of the decade, the widespread repression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur community in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang prompted action. Much of the world decided to stop doing business with the region guilty of a plethora of human rights violations.

In December 2021, US president Joe Biden even signed legislation barring goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China from entering the US market.

The on-paper ban hasn’t been so straightforward to implement on the ground, though. Finding partners that can provide equally abundant and similarly cheap cotton has been a task, and keeping the supply chain clean is onerous.

In Germany, researchers found traces of Xinjiang cotton in Adidas, Puma, and Hugo Boss in mid-2022. French prosecutors went after Zara, Uniqlo, and Sketchers. Basically, staying has its costs — reputational damage, legal repercussions, and boycotts in China — but leaving isn’t easy either.

Now, US authorities have more evidence that Xinjiang cotton is perhaps too deeply embedded in the global supply chain, and continues to make its way into the US. Roughly 27% of tests — 10 out of 37 — performed on apparel and shoes collected by US Customs and Border Protection in May showed links to cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, Reuters reported for the first time on Sept. 1, citing documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

This testing in double-digits barely scratches the surface, considering the US imports millions of dollars worth of apparel and shoes each day. And Chinese cotton doesn’t only come from China. Cotton and yarn produced in China is used extensively in other countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh — the world’s largest producers of cotton clothing and consumer goods.

Quotable: Hardly any apparel shipments are stopped and tested

“The numbers are completely underwhelming. It’s a few dozen shipments stopped. We’re talking about thousands and millions of packages coming in that contain apparel items.”

Kim Glas, National Council of Textile Organizations, to Wall Street Journal in August 2023

Xinjiang cotton by Uyghur laborers, by the digits

15%: Tests deemed to be consistent with Xinjiang, including seizures in May, April, and December of last year

87%: Share of China’s production that Xinjiang cotton accounts for

23%: Xinjiang cotton in the global supply in 2020 and 2021

100,000: Uyghurs and other ethnic minority ex-detainees that may be working in forced labor conditions in China, according to Department of Labor estimates

53: Intermediary manufacturers — from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, China, and Mexico — that purchase unfinished cotton goods from five leading Chinese manufacturers (Huafu Fashion, Lianfa Textiles, Luthai Textiles, Texhong Textiles, and Weiqiao Textiles) that have sourced Xinjiang cotton, as per an October 2022 study by Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University analyzing state and corporate records

103: Well-known international brands that are supplied by those 53 intermediaries and are therefore at high risk of having Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains

Company of interest: Oritain

Customs officials and companies identify specific geographic origins of cotton using isotope analysis — a sort of DNA test for cotton. Verification companies measure stable carbon, nitrogen, and other elements found in tested samples, and then compare those figures against a library of geographically distinct “fingerprints” to determine the origin of a particular sample.

New Zealand-headquartered Oritain is one of the prominent players in this industry.

The US Customs and Border Protection has made payments worth $1.3 million to Oritain since 2020 for cotton goods analysis, according to records from the agency obtained by Reuters under FOIA. (It’s not clear if Oritain conducted the December 2022 or April and May 2023 tests.)

Companies also work with Oritain directly to keep their production practices traceable and transparent. For instance, lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, which requires that suppliers “retain all documentation for the origin of raw material, processing and manufacturing,” says Oritain testing may be conducted on the cotton used at any stage of the garment-making process — on fiber, yarn, fabric, or finished goods.

Of course, good intentions don’t always translate to fair practices. Shein, the Chinese fast fashion into which the US launched a probe for sourcing cotton from the controversial Xinjiang region in May, contracts with Oritain, an isotopic testing company headquartered in New Zealand, to verify the origin of cotton in their supply chains. Ralph Lauren, which has been working with Oritain for years, is being investigated by Canada’s corporate watchdog for allegedly benefiting from forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China as of this month.

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