The US government expanded economic pressure on Xinjiang, banning cotton imports from a powerful Chinese quasi-military organisation that it said used the forced labour of detained Uighur Muslims.
Earlier this month US Customs and Border Protection said it would ban cotton and cotton products from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), one of China’s largest producers.
China reacted by saying the US was fabricating news of forced labour and at the risk of undermining market principles and deprive people of jobs.
High-end British department store chain John Lewis & Partners would not say if it would ban raw materials from the region, although its code of conduct does prohibit suppliers from using cotton gained through forced labour, while Sainsbury’s said it would have moved to using sustainable cotton by 2025.
Carry Somers, of Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit organisation, said retailers should not shift responsibility onto their suppliers and that a ban on Xinjiang cotton was necessary.
“While many brands have been quick to reassure their customers that they don’t sell clothing sewn in Xinjiang region, most of them have only a shadowy picture of where their cotton comes from,” she said.
“In order for brands and retailers to eliminate the use of forced labour such as the Uighurs and other minorities who are picking and processing the cotton for our clothes, they first must trace their entire supply chain.”
A John Lewis spokesman said none of its products were made in the Xinjiang region, its production sites were independently audited and no signs of forced labour have been found to date.
“We take human rights extremely seriously and regularly remind our suppliers about our Responsible Sourcing Code of Practice which states that employment must be freely chosen and this applies to the whole of our supply chain.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “We do not source any own-brand clothing or general merchandise products from the Xinjiang region.”
The company said its suppliers must meet high ethical standards and are regularly required to demonstrate this, and that it is working with campaigners to better understand the concerns.
Debenhams said it was investigating its supply chain and did not intend to use cotton from Xinjiang in the future.
Other retailers including Asos and Boohoo said they required suppliers to refrain from using cotton sourced in the area.
Of 18 retailers contacted, 10 did not respond to questions over their policy on raw cotton from the region.
Tamara Cincik, of Fashion Roundtable, a lobby group, said: “As someone from Muslim heritage, I take this issue very seriously and urge all brands to consider their supply chain options, moving to organic cotton manufactured by transparent and ethical farms and factories.”
The Centre for Global Policy, a US-based think tank says information from Chinese government documents and state media reports provide evidence that hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to pick cotton by hand under a government scheme.
It alleges that in 2018, three majority-Uighur areas within Xinjiang alone mobilised at least 570,000 people to pick cotton.
On Tuesday (Netherlands time), the International Criminal Court decided not to pursue an investigation into the mass detention of Muslims, a setback for activists eager to hold Beijing accountable for persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.
Prosecutors in The Hague said they would not, for the moment, investigate allegations that China had committed genocide and crimes against humanity regarding the Uighurs because the alleged crimes took place in China, which is not a party to the court.
Beijing denies that Uighurs’ rights are abused and says re-education centres provide vocational training to help people gain employment, and are necessary to curb extremism. In a previous statement issued the Chinese government said cotton pickers entered legal contracts of their own free will.
The Telegraph, London; The New York Times