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16 Jun 2022

Alexandra Stevenson and Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times (USA)

China: Global fashion brands turn to alternative cotton sources given lack of access to Xinjiang's supply chain

‘Escalation of Secrecy’: Global Brands Seek Clarity on Xinjiang

27 May 2022

In the summer of 2019, an executive at Patagonia got a phone call from a trusted auditor working in China. A planned trip to visit some cotton farms in the region of Xinjiang wasn’t going to happen. Soon other barriers were thrown up. Information from suppliers in the region ran dry.

“We saw this escalation of secrecy,” said Matt Dwyer, the Patagonia executive who oversees the privately held outdoor apparel maker’s supply chains. He spent a year trying to figure out what was going on as media reports detailed widespread repression and forced labor of Uyghur people in Xinjiang. [...]

The lack of access in Xinjiang has also made it pretty much impossible for global clothing brands like Patagonia to figure out if their Chinese suppliers use forced labor.

At best, their auditing firms have been offered factory visits by video. At worst, local monitoring staff members are harassed and their offices raided and shut down by the Chinese police. [...]

Brands are typically keen to showcase actions they have taken against forced labor, but when it comes to Xinjiang many simply avoid the subject altogether. Some fear that speaking out might imperil their other China operations and provoke officials to delay shipments of their goods. Mr. Nova at the Worker Rights Consortium said some brands had given him informal commitments to leave China but on the condition that the information remain private.

Prominent fashion brands like Reformation have spoken out in the past about labor issues but declined a request for comment for this article.

Patagonia’s willingness to share its experience in moving its cotton supply chain out of China stems in part from a corporate identity rooted in activism. And its executives have decided that their relatively small presence in China is worth risking. [...]

Patagonia has now turned to cotton farmers in Peru, but many are still transitioning to growing organic cotton. As a result, Patagonia has had to change product labels to note they are made with “cotton-in-conversion.” [...]

Many bigger companies outsource the manufacturing of their products to companies like Li & Fung, a Hong Kong-based company that connects big-brand retailers with manufacturers in China.

Li & Fung did not respond to a request for comment, but its chief executive, Joseph Phi, recently gave an interview to Nikkei Asia, a Japanese media group. When asked whether Li & Fung worked with factories in Xinjiang, Mr. Phi did not respond.

Instead, he told Nikkei that the subject of Xinjiang had become politicized and that Li & Fung was apolitical. “We don’t take certain positions,” he said. [...]

Part of the following timelines

China: 83 major brands implicated in report on forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang assigned to factories across provinces; Includes company responses

China: Mounting concerns over forced labour in Xinjiang

Brands face boycott in China over decision not to source Xinjiang cotton due to allegations of forced labour