Uyghurs, cotton, and ethics: how can fashion retailers respond?

By Ailsa Dormon

The concerns related to ethical credentials of cotton produced in China has recently put companies across the international fashion industry into the spotlight and under pressure to respond. While many would argue the best solution is to step away from a supply chain tainted by a lack of transparency and persistent allegations of human rights violations, specifically involving the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, organisations find themselves having to respond in such a way that allows them to stay true to their ethical commitments without closing out commercial opportunities. As such they find themselves caught between damaging their reputation in the burgeoning Chinese market – one which is critical to growth in a cut-throat, saturated sector – damaging their reputation with their Western customer base, or diluting their company values or purpose.

The Chinese consumer market has provided ever-expanding opportunities for fashion retailers to grow. However, with around 90% of China’s cotton coming from Xinjiang, and the long-standing obstacles to supply chain audits in the region looking unlikely to change, brands are having to carefully plan their next move.

Yet despite the seriousness of the concerns, a simple or easy solution may not exist, and might not be the best response if it did. In this instance, businesses have a range of options to consider around their response to Xinjiang cotton:

  • Renounce all Chinese cotton to lend certainty and retain customer loyalty in existing markets?
  • Work with only Chinese cotton suppliers who are able to provide a full, credible audit of their production techniques, employee wellbeing and chain of custody?
  • Continue to use Xinjiang cotton, lie low and wait for the international attention to die out, or for someone else to find a solution – whichever comes first?
  • Find an alternative to cotton to combat not only the social but also the environmental impact of cotton on the planet?
  • Collaborate with third parties to support the Uyghur community and work to end exploitation of workers in Xinjiang?

Each of these options comes with a number of benefits, but also a number of risks and downsides. Whilst renouncing all Chinese cotton to keep the favour of existing markets may seem like the quick choice for an organisation to resolve their involvement in the issue (although not without repercussions in China), how do businesses ensure that this does not have any further detrimental effect on the lives of those still picking cotton in Xinjiang? Will the production and use of alternatives to cotton really be more sustainable? How can brands give confidence their supply chains are free of forced labour when auditing in Xinjiang is restricted?

In this instance, it is nearly impossible to target standalone sustainability issues as separate entities. Instead, there will always be repercussions that need to be dealt with both in the short and long term – and the possibility of much greater impact and effectiveness by collaborating with partners along the supply chain.

Using Xinjiang cotton as an example, it is crucial that organisations already have a sustainable procurement strategy in place so that when topics such as this are brought to light, they are already able to highlight current and future efforts to use sustainable materials and respond to concerns of human rights violations. It is also important that the market understands and accepts that there will always be room for an organisation to improve and adapt – especially in the long-term. At Sancroft, current state analysis, strategy roadmaps and scenario modelling are a few of the tools used to develop an organisations transparent approach to both social and environmental impacts. Such an approach can help to reduce some of the pressures associated with topics surfaced in the media and enable organisations to own their narrative around their sustainability efforts.

If you want to discuss how your organisation can authentically engage with the challenges of ethical supply chains, get in touch with Ailsa Dormon, Consultant.

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