Do You Know Who Made Your Plain White Tee?

Fashion Month is basically a weeks-long celebration of glamour and creativity, as models showcase the collections of designers (increasingly virtually, especially this year) at shows around the world. But what’s not on display is the undeniable fact that genocide is now part of fashion’s global supply chain: The forced labor of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region of China impacts 85 percent of the country’s cotton production. And 20 percent of the world’s cotton comes from China.

In case you aren’t caught up on this massive human rights crisis, let me explain: Since 2017, the Chinese government has rounded up over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim people in detention camps in the Xinjiang region, making it the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since World War II. Harrowing reports of forced sterilization of women, brutal violence, and the imprisonment of Uyghur and other Turkic peoples have dominated headlines in recent months, with House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi describing it as “an outrage to the collective conscious of the world.”

The forced labor of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region of China impacts 85 percent of the country’s cotton production.

Just this past July, U.S. Customs and Border Control seized a 13-ton beauty shipment of human hair weaves suspected to be from the region, which likely came from the heads of Uyghur prisoners. It’s a gruesome image brought further to life by a Uyghur model, Merdan Ghappar, who spent 18 days shackled in a labor camp where he filmed himself handcuffed to a bed in a dirty prison cell. Detainees are forced to pledge their loyalty to the Communist Party and renounce Islam, while their children sit in state-run orphanages hoping to see their parents again. For those of us who’ve been horrified by the Trump administration’s systematic attacks on immigrant families and the images of kids in cages at the U.S./Mexico border, the parallels are striking.

So what does any of this have to do with fashion? A central element of the government’s strategy to dominate the Uyghur people is a vast system of forced labor, affecting factories and farms across the region and throughout China, both inside and beyond the internment camps. Cotton is the main export, making its way into one in every five T-shirts, sneakers, and dresses sold at very big, very familiar brands like Zara and Nike.

Thanks to sustained pressure from human and labor rights groups—and increased media attention—the tide is shifting. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which now moves to the U.S. Senate. The bill aims to end the use of Uyghur forced labor in corporate supply chains by banning all imports with content from the Uyghur region—unless the brand importing the product can prove it was not made with forced labor. Some Western brands have turned to auditors to vet their suppliers.

But in an environment as repressive and secretive as the Chinese government, such audits merely serve to give a false impression of due diligence. Indeed, many major auditing firms admit as much, now saying they won’t continue labor compliance audits in the region. The U.S. has already banned goods from the region, “produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor, forced labor, or/and indentured labor,” per existing law, but it’s full of loopholes. In short, there is no guarantee that your comfy sweats weren’t made by a woman with a shaved scalp who can no longer have children because she prays to the wrong god.

But in an environment as repressive and secretive as the Chinese government, such audits merely serve to give a false impression of due diligence.

That’s why 280 human and labor rights organizations have launched a campaign, End Uyghur Forced Labour, calling on global corporations to fully divest from the Xinjiang region and end their participation in the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. Groups like the Campaign for Uyghurs and the AFL-CIO have issued a call to action for apparel brands to stop sourcing from the region and cut ties in the next 12 months with suppliers who use forced labor. The Model Alliance has joined the call by making a direct appeal to designers showing at Fashion Week to speak to the underlying conditions of their source material, and pledge not to profit off the oppression of a whole people.

Consumers have a role to play, too. Go ahead and shop your favorite looks, but ask questions and contact companies about how and where they source their cotton. Sign on to Freedom United’s petition to Zara, Nike, and Uniqlo. Many companies may cite auditors’ reports to claim that their clothes are free from forced labor, but unless they commit to source their cotton outside of the Xinjiang region, they can’t really be sure.

And most importantly, at least on an individual level, put your money where your mouth is. If you’re marching for Black Lives to end the legacy of slavery in this country, you don’t want to be doing it in a shirt made by modern-day enslaved people in China.

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