Fashion brands could face legal action over forced labour allegations

Jessica Carvalho takes a closer look at high-street favourites that could potentially be sued for offences against human rights, and the ongoing Xinjiang cotton controversy. 

At a time where sustainability and ethics transcend protecting the planet and play a key part in brand integrity, fashion giants such as Uniqlo, Skechers, and Inditex (Zara’s parent brand) have been taken to court for concealing serious human rights violations. These brands were accused of actively profiting from forced labour, reportedly outsourcing and selling goods containing cotton from Xinjiang, North-West China. 

The region is infamously known for being home to 12 million Uyghur Muslims and is where the Chinese government implemented the ‘re-education through labour’ system, detaining Uyghur Muslims since 1957. This system was supposedly abolished in 2013, but it is now believed that these detainment facilities have been redeveloped and dubbed ‘job training centres’, aiming to change the political thinking and religious beliefs of detainees. Said facilities use Uyghur Muslims for forced labour, typically for the production of cotton. 

The case arises at a time where tensions between China and the West have been on the rise; the US, EU, Canada, and UK have issued sanctions to China, including a ban on imported goods suspected to contain cotton from Xinjiang. In addition, many brands such as M&S, Patagonia and Nike came forward criticising these ‘job training centres’ and prompting other brands to consider human rights before market access, stating they were in the process of finding a different cotton source. China launched a boycott on these brands in retaliation, removing them from social networks and e-commerce platforms which can prove detrimental, given the power of Chinese consumption. 

Certain platforms such as SupplyShift are trialling a sustainability tool alongside Responsibly Sourcing Network, which identifies the risk of forced labour within cotton supply chains. The YESS (Yarn Ethically and Sustainably Sourced) tool is used for identifying the origin of cotton and assigns it a “forced labour risk exposure” score, in hopes to address and help eradicate forced labour in cotton production. 

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