How your favorite jeans might be fueling a human rights crisis

In December 2018, I visited a large dyeing facility inside the Shaoxing Industrial Zone, south of the coastal city of Hangzhou, China. Twenty minutes out from the manufacturing hub, I began to smell it: the rotten-egg stench of dye effluent.

The Zone, as it’s known, is 100 square kilometers, nearly double the size of Manhattan. More than 50 textile printing and dyeing companies stand in huge rows, facing out over the Cao’e River where it flows into Hangzhou Bay. Trucks stream north on the highway from the Zone carrying miles of dyed and printed fabrics, en route to becoming billions of dollars’ worth of shirts, dresses, shorts, and leggings.

I was there to research a book I was writing about clothing and textiles, and the Zone, in terms of its sheer scale, was unlike anything I had ever seen in the US. Yet it’s a landscape that a mammoth American consumer market — and the steady, supersize patronage of US clothing brands and retailers — has been critical in shaping.

The US has gobbled up far more Chinese garments and textiles than any other nation every year since 2006. Between 2002 and 2020, China was by far the largest source of garment imports into the US. In 2020, Vietnam outstripped China as the biggest exporter of garments to the US market, but that fact obscures the reality that the cloth used to make those Vietnamese garments is frequently Chinese-made, and is often sewn in Chinese-owned factories.

Because of the deep reliance on this single source to meet insatiable clothing appetites, clothing companies — and consumers — now have a particularly big moral dilemma on their hands.

US officials and human rights organizations say the cotton fields and factories in the Xinjiang region of China are using forced labor, mainly that of the Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs imprisoned in the vast internment camp system that the Chinese government has built in the region in recent years.

In January, the Trump administration banned cotton from Xinjiang because of its connection to the alleged human rights violations, roiling a fashion industry heavily reliant on Chinese textiles. Reports of the detention camps began circulating in 2019, but by 2020, reports had surfaced that major international brands’ supply chains were marred by forced labor. Soon, those brands were rushing to make public statements condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, eagerly professing a zero-tolerance policy on forced labor. Some, like Adidas, pledged to cut Xinjiang-made materials from supply chains; others, such as Patagonia and the millennial “it” brand Reformation, have said they will stop using Chinese cotton altogether. The problem, however, had been building for some time.

Though Beijing has vociferously denied using forced labor, calling it “totally a lie fabricated by some organizations and personnel in the United States and the West,” US senators met in committee in March to hash out possible solutions to the problem and its presence in the supply chains of US companies.

One of the witnesses giving expert testimony that afternoon, Julia K. Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association, suggested that it was important to focus on “the real actions that will get to the perpetrators of the crime, which is not the US companies that are good corporate citizens.”

But just who is responsible is, by any account, a difficult question to untangle. China is both the world’s largest producer of cotton yarn and its largest yarn importer, buying up cotton thread from India, Pakistan, and Vietnam to supplement its domestic thread. This yarn is knit, woven, and dyed to make textiles that will become summer dresses for Zara, T-shirts for Gap, and socks, hats, and jeans for the Japanese retailer Muji, even the cotton tote bags that have proliferated in recent years as a replacement for plastic. China is also one of the world’s biggest producers of raw cotton. And nowhere in China produces more cotton than Xinjiang.

An autonomous region located in the country’s far northwest corner, bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia, Xinjiang has been under Chinese control since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Uyghurs — the majority of whom follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, one of four schools of thought within Sunni Islam — are by far the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, although the region is also home to many Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Hui (Chinese Muslims). Their culture is distinct from that of Han Chinese — the majority ethnic group in China — in many ways: Their food is largely halal, based on mutton, wheat noodles, nan, and savory pastries.

Uyghur farmers in Xinjiang were formidable farmers, making virtuosic use of rain-fed agriculture to grow food. But a new agricultural regime would turn the land to another crop: cotton.

Xinjiang has long been strategically central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project intended to link China globally via railroads, shipping lanes, and gas pipelines. The initiative’s central arteries crisscross the province, which happens to also hold huge reserves of natural gas. As the Chinese government has moved to assert tighter control over the region, cotton has operated as both an end and a means. In the 1990s, it was used as a way to encourage Han migration into the region. Today, it feeds the Chinese textile industry.

Beijing’s effort to move cotton and cloth production west to Xinjiang unfolded in several phases. The Eighth Five-Year Plan (1991-1995) highlighted the region’s huge potential for cotton, and the subsequent plan specified that Xinjiang be turned into a national cotton-producing base. Meanwhile, planners also transferred textile production west, from its traditional base on the east coast. Central planners felt that China’s textile industry could become more competitively priced by being closer to the cotton fields and employing a cheaper rural workforce.

Twenty years later, Xinjiang has a cheaper workforce than planners in the ’90s could have dreamed, and the reason is disturbing. From softer, coercive policies — like giving cotton quotas to Uyghur farmers that they had to meet, even if it wasn’t profitable — Beijing has turned to a policy of forcefully interning Uyghurs in massive, heavily guarded camps, subjecting them to what it has described as “reeducation” but is believed to include sterilization and forced labor. They are actions that, when taken together, constitute what the US State Department has termed a genocide. They are actions that have also been a boon to industry.

The Chinese government dramatically scaled up its repressive policies against Xinjiang’s Uyghurs in late 2016, when Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, a hardliner who has escalated invasive, tech-driven policing and monitoring tactics in China, assumed leadership of Xinjiang. Massive internment camps, which Beijing terms “vocational education centers” — though satellite imagery has revealed that these camps are encircled with barbed wire fencing and surveilled from watchtowers — have since been erected.

The policy of “reeducating” Uyghurs has dovetailed with a desire to keep garment production in China after labor costs there grew uncompetitive with those in places like Vietnam or Bangladesh. By 2018, evidence began to emerge of a major pipeline between detention centers and factories producing garments for US brands when the Associated Press tracked shipments from a factory inside a Xinjiang internment camp to Badger Sportswear in Statesville, North Carolina. Badger quickly moved to source its sportswear elsewhere.

But garments stitched by imprisoned Uyghurs were quietly entering the American wardrobe through myriad avenues — much of it, it would soon be revealed, made from cotton harvested by enslaved people. In January 2021, a shipment of men’s cotton shirts from Uniqlo was blocked from entering the Port of Los Angeles by US Customs agents who believed the goods were produced in part using forced labor in Xinjiang. In July, France’s antiterrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into four brands that it has alleged profited from human rights crimes in Xinjiang: Zara, Uniqlo, Skechers, and SMCP (owner of Sandro and Maje). Even after the situation in Xinjiang had become unmistakable, it was clear that the effort to remove cotton harvested by forced labor from the market was squarely at odds with the imperative to produce ever-cheaper clothing.

Journalists face extreme restrictions in their attempts to enter Xinjiang, but I had procured a tourist visa for my December 2018 research trip to China and, following my time on the nation’s east coast, I had planned to head to Xinjiang in the guise of a sightseer, to gather whatever I could that way. My research focus was, at that time, on the ecological costs of cotton.

I had enrolled in a formal “Silk Road” tour as a way to avoid imperiling Uyghur interview subjects, who can be arrested for something as minor as speaking to an American. Days before I was scheduled to fly out, I got an email from the tour company with the subject line “URGENT.” “I regret to inform you that we have to cancel your tour,” the email said. “It is something beyond our control.”

Months passed before I again heard from the American employee of the Uyghur-owned tour company who had informed me of the cancellation. She was back in the US, she said, and wanted to explain what had happened now that she had access to a secure email account. Days before my tour, the family that ran the company had been rounded up and “sent to their home village” — a euphemistic way to say that they were sent to an internment camp.

At the time, the detention of Uyghurs by the Chinese government was just beginning to be widely reported. I felt sick. I had assumed that I was being kept out because the ruling Chinese Communist Party was becoming more careful about concealing its actions in Xinjiang and didn’t want to risk even the occasional nosy tourist. This, however, was more direct, more brutal, more blunt.

Since that first inkling that something was awry in the region, Xinjiang has emerged as the center of an international crisis. In March 2020, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) called on the Commerce Department to take steps to prevent goods produced by forced labor in Xinjiang from entering the US market. Even as the international outcry grew, Beijing worked to keep the region cloaked in secrecy. Journalists looking to document what is occurring in Xinjiang are forced to rely on satellite photos, sift through government budget reports, and collect footage of closed doors and high fences. In the startling glimpses that have emerged, cotton was front and center.

In July 2020, more than 190 organizations — interfaith groups, labor unions, Uyghurs’ rights groups, environmental organizations, anti-slavery organizations — spanning 36 countries issued a call to action, seeking formal commitments from clothing brands to completely disengage from any connection to Uyghur forced labor, either through sourcing, business relationships, or labor transfers, which serve to pipe Uyghurs from internment camps in Xinjiang to factories in other regions of China. In December 2020, German anthropologist Adrian Zenz released an intelligence briefing directly linking the cotton harvest with forced labor.

When I learned about how cotton was being harvested in Xinjiang, I thought about the tour guide who had been scheduled to drive me around, talking about the silk of China’s past. I wondered if he had become one of the prisoners laboring in the fields, picking the cotton of China’s present.

Corporations didn’t end up sourcing garments from Xinjiang internment camps by accident.

Apparel is a footloose industry, and forced labor is rampant. Brands actively seek out countries that don’t enforce their labor laws, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, “then put enormous price pressure on suppliers, guaranteeing that they’ll violate labor laws.” The companies’ public statements reveal a desire to project certainty: “Nike does not source products from the [Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region] and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region,” reads an undated statement from Nike that also acknowledges that its supply chains are opaque, even to the company itself. “Nike does not directly source cotton, or other raw materials,” the statement continues, but “traceability at the raw materials level is an area of ongoing focus.” The company concluded by saying that it was working with suppliers and others to better “map material sources.”

Slave cotton is far from new. The use of forced labor by an authoritarian communist regime to grow cotton can — and ought to — inspire the ire of the democratic West. But “free market” cotton has generally entailed very little freedom for most of those involved in its production. There is no global cotton trade outside of brutal colonial or neocolonial relations of power. Cheap cotton has been morally compromised for several hundred years.

The history of European imperialism, industrialization, and cotton are so intertwined as to be nearly identical. Cotton textiles were among the main products for which Britain colonized India. This cotton fabric was in turn the main currency used to purchase enslaved people from Africa, who were forced to grow commodity crops in the New World. After the invention of the cotton gin, cotton became the plantation’s crop par excellence in the United States. In the post-Civil War South, cotton continued to be made by unfree labor, as systematic efforts deprived formerly enslaved people of both land and alternative means of subsistence, all to force them into cotton sharecropping arrangements. Whatever could not be accomplished by this means was accomplished by Black Codes that allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for minor infractions and commit them to involuntary labor.

Large Southern landowners, cotton traders, and merchants — the same actors who had benefited from the antebellum order — were so successful in their efforts to reestablish cotton growing in the American South by forcing formerly enslaved people and landless white tenants to grow cotton via a punishing system of perpetual debt, that their strategy, known as sharecropping, became a model the world over. Today, small cotton farmers in India, for example, face crushing debt.

Private companies may direct flows of garments, but they travel along routes drawn by imperial legacies and colonial armies. In the cotton field, the division between the state and the corporation often fades away entirely. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the Chinese state-owned entity that administers Xinjiang and directs the cultivation of most of its cotton, is both a corporation and an army.

As for the garment trade itself, that too has relied on the movements of big state actors, and not just a handful of errant entrepreneurs. The globalization of the US garment industry came about as the result of the US State Department’s Cold War policy. After World War II, the Allied powers under Gen. Douglas MacArthur occupied Japan and moved to re-industrialize it as swiftly as possible so it wouldn’t “fall” to communism. MacArthur’s first economic priority was the Japanese textile industry, which had been nearly wiped out by the war. Factories were rebuilt and modernized. The State Department even subsidized the shipment of raw American cotton to Japan.

To absorb the product of these new mills, the United States then opened up its hitherto heavily protected garment market, and Japanese cloth and clothing flowed in. The US textile and garment industries were made a sacrificial lamb, and over the next half-century, garment workers’ rights eroded, and Americans got used to spending less and less on clothing made by workers whose pay became worse and worse.

The pipeline of low-cost Asian-made clothing had been long established by the time China opened its economy and revved up as a garment producer. Workers’ rights had never been on the minds of the architects of these policies, and remained an afterthought.

In March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Chinese counterpart, Director Yang Jiechi, for a conversation that quickly devolved into a war of words. Yang made a thinly veiled allusion to the history of slavery in the US and suggested that with a record like that, the US had no right to lecture China. “It’s important that we manage our respective affairs well instead of deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world,” he told Blinken. (This line of attack is frequently taken by Chinese troll armies, networks likened to Russian troll farms mobilized online to attack anyone posting concerns about the Uyghurs.)

Wang’s throwdown was cynical and self-serving. But it highlighted the irony of the US position. The US had emerged as a global leader in the fight against China’s oppression of the Uyghurs: It is the first government to call it a genocide, the first to ban imports of Xinjiang cotton — steps that Canada, the UK, Australia, and the EU also appear to be on their way to taking. In taking a hard stand, however, on China’s actions as a genocidal power using slave labor to harvest cotton for a voracious global market, the United States was looking at itself in the not-so-distant past.

Self-reflection (or lack of it) aside, there are enormous complexities involved in trying to force the global tentacles of Western multinationals out of a forced labor industry.

According to Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, an estimated 1.5 billion garments made with Xinjiang cotton streamed into the US market each year before the ban took hold, and there are significant obstacles to knowing how much the ban has reduced that number. “Most consumers do not want to wear clothing made with forced labor,” Nova told me. “That’s a given. And if they knew that a particular product was made with forced labor, very few people would buy it. Of course, that’s where transparency comes in.”

Rights groups have expressed frustration recently that, although the US has placed restrictions on Xinjiang cotton, it is nearly impossible to see how they are being enforced. US Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency responsible, discloses the total number and dollar value of shipments detained quarterly, but that’s it. There are some exceptions — as when the news broke about blocked Uniqlo goods — but most such detentions never reach the press. The public has no way of knowing how many of them involve Xinjiang cotton, let alone which brands are implicated.

Ana Hinojosa, the agency’s executive director for trade remedy law enforcement, acknowledges that in the reporting, Xinjiang cotton detentions and others “are all lumped in together, mainly because it would be very difficult for us to continually update these moving numbers.”

The federal agency “is not required to make that any of that public,” confirms Esmeralda López, legal and policy director of the International Labor Rights Forum, but, she adds, “we think that it’s necessary to ensure effective enforcement.”

It matters, said Nova, because corporations are “waiting to see whether there’s going to be aggressive enforcement before they decide whether to really exit the region.”

Garment supply chains are incredibly complex. So far, Eileen Fisher, ASOS, Marks and Spencer Group, OVS, Reformation, WE Fashion, and others have all publicly committed to follow the steps laid out in the call to action put forward by the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. These steps demand that companies engage in intensive research into their own supply chains. Without this kind of work, watchdog groups say, it’s nearly impossible to suss out Xinjiang cotton from the rest.

Cotton picked in Xinjiang may be mixed with cotton from other regions as it is spun into yarn. That yarn may be knit or woven into fabric far from Xinjiang, cut and sewn into a garment still farther afield — likely in Vietnam or Bangladesh. Brands like to point out this complexity to disavow knowledge of what occurs in their supply chains.

But rights groups argue that companies do have choices. “I don’t think that we need to accept those limits,” said Allison Gill, forced labor program director/senior cotton campaign coordinator at Global Labor Justice — International Labor Rights Forum. “A company can tell us that a product was produced in a facility that also processes sesame and nuts. They can tell us all kinds of things if they want to.” According to Gill, “Xinjiang is the central case that we will use for years to show what an absolute failure voluntary standards have been [in] the auditing approach to supply chain. I mean, all of these companies that were operating there, they were all audited, they all passed their audits.”

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In Xinjiang, there are known unknowns. “If you have clear due diligence policies, and if you’re saying, ‘We don’t use forced labor goods,’ and you can’t have factory auditors go in and actually check factories,” said Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, “then you need to leave.”

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region is calling on brands to make public commitments to disengage from the region, but many brands have said they’d rather exit quietly because they fear losing Chinese market share if they pull out of Xinjiang openly. They’re afraid the Chinese government and nationalist consumers there will interpret any criticism of its conduct in Xinjiang as an open threat and retaliate.

That’s not an unrealistic fear. Days after Sweden joined in the coordinated sanctions on senior officials involved in human rights violations in Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Youth League launched an online attack on the Swedish retailer H&M, zeroing in on a year-old statement on H&M’s website expressing concern over human rights violations in the Uyghur region. The next day, H&M vanished from the Chinese internet. Major e-commerce platforms including Alibaba’s Taobao dropped its goods, and one ride-hailing app, Didi Chuxing, did not recognize its stores as locations. The party newspaper also leveled criticisms at Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance, and Zara for past statements on Xinjiang, some from as long ago as two years. Celebrities including pop singer Wang Yibo announced they were breaking endorsement contracts.

“Normally in our work, it’s easier to get the brands to say they’re doing the right thing than it is to get them to do it. That has flipped to a degree on this issue,” said Nova. “If their position is that their level of access to China’s consumer market is more important to them than not being directly complicit in the worst human rights crimes that are taking place in the world today, their consumers have a right to know that.”

Then there are those, he argues, that have simply done nothing. “We’ve seen nothing whatsoever from Target, nothing whatsoever from Walmart. Nothing except rhetoric from Amazon, among many others,” Nova says. (Neither Target nor Walmart replied to Vox’s requests for comment; Amazon issued a statement that read, in part, “Amazon expects all products sold in the Amazon Stores to be manufactured and produced in accordance with our Supply Chain Standards. Whenever we find or receive proof of forced labor, we take action and remove the violating product and may suspend privileges to sell.”)

One promising new tool in supply chain transparency is technology developed by a company called Oritain, which can analyze a cotton fiber and determine its point of origin. Cotton from different locations bears different molecular blueprints: Distance from the sea will affect its sulfur content, for instance, while altitude will impact its hydrogen. However, Grant Cochrane, Oritain’s CEO, cautioned, “We’re not a standalone service. We work with other systems: really solid traceability systems.”

Even if the US cotton ban is made airtight, to work optimally, “It’s very important that a cotton ban … be a global effort,” said Johnson Yeung, urgent appeal coordinator and campaigner at the Clean Clothes Campaign. Yeung points to Muji, the Japanese retailer, which has said it has stopped sending Xinjiang cotton products to the US but will continue to sell them in countries without the ban. In Hong Kong, where Yeung is based, Muji actively advertises the presence of Xinjiang cotton in its products — a practice it jettisoned in Western markets after an uproar in the human rights community — attempting to brand “Xinjiang” as an upscale, luxury marker.

In the meantime, for Uyghurs in the diaspora, an act as simple as clothes shopping has become fraught. Zumretay Arkin is the program and advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, part of the coalition asking brands to leave the Uyghur region. “I’m not an angel,” said Arkin. “I used to shop fast fashion.” Now, though, when Arkin sees cotton clothes in stores, “I just freeze there, thinking, ‘Maybe one of my relatives made this piece.’”

Arkin’s grandmother was a retired seamstress who used to sew clothing for Arkin using colorful printed cloth, sometimes cutting up her old dresses and veils to use as materials. Arkin brought these handmade garments along as a treasured memory when she immigrated to Canada at age 10. When Arkin’s grandmother passed away in 2017, Arkin could not go back for the funeral. The risk of detention was too great. Today, long dresses like the ones Arkin’s grandmother both wore and repurposed for Arkin’s wardrobe have been criminalized in Xinjiang. Uyghur women are stopped on the street to have long dresses shortened with scissors on the spot.

Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Uyghurs, also finds it fraught to shop for clothes these days. In retaliation for Abbas’s activist work in the US, she alleges, authorities in Xinjiang detained her sister, a retired medical doctor, in September 2018. (Radio Free Asia has confirmed her detention.) “I’m afraid of going out and buying some of the things in the store now. Because I don’t know where my sister is,” or whether she is being forced to make products, Abbas said. Although China’s government has framed its labor transfers with the dystopian euphemism of “job training” programs, Abbas notes that “Uyghurs being held and sent to those factories to work, they are professors, writers, doctors, successful business people, elites — they’re professionals in the different fields.”

Abbas lives with her husband, who is also Uyghur, in Herndon, Virginia. His parents, both over 70, have been missing since 2017. So have four siblings and their spouses, along with 14 nieces and nephews. The Abbas family is far from exceptional in this, she said. “Me and my husband are the example of every single Uyghur in the diaspora.”

The United States’ link to the Uyghur internment camps isn’t just a matter of parallel histories.

US corporations have played a central role in creating the situation in Xinjiang today, and consumers have been their unwitting accomplices. “When you pour money into a region where there’s rampant forced labor, you’re both supporting and profiting from forced labor,” said Nova.

“Forced labor is a spectrum,” Gill said. “People in forced labor very often have agency, they are often making very hard choices. But genocide — genocide is different.”

“We hear a lot of different arguments for basically ignoring these atrocities, one being, well, the US needs to clean up their own act first,” said Julie Millsap, director of public affairs and advocacy at the Campaign for Uyghurs. “It’s not that simple. This is also our issue. We don’t get to say that while we’re improving things … in the States that we’re going to outsource human rights abuses.”

Sofi Thanhauser is the author of Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, forthcoming from Pantheon Books on January 25, 2022. She teaches in the writing department at Pratt Institute.