The Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, Human Rights Watch said in a report1 released today. What that has to do with your skinny jeans and hip T-shirt? More than you think.
According to the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, the Chinese leadership is responsible for mass detention, torture, and cultural persecution, among other offences. I spoke to three experts who explained what is exactly going on. And they had some good news as well: there is something we as consumers can do against this horrible exploitation.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch: “Consumers could put pressure: where do we buy, how do we shop – and do we do it ethically?”
Xinjiang is an autonomous region in northwestern China. It’s home to about twenty million people. It has some degree of self-government, but in practice, the Beijing authorities are in control. There are several ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang, such as Uyghurs.
Uyghurs are mainly Muslims and they speak a language related to Turkish. They are disadvantaged compared to the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. For example, they are no longer allowed to speak their own language and Uyghurs who work for the government are not allowed to travel abroad.
Anouk Eigenraam, China-correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad: “Since the late 1980s, the Uyghurs have opposed these measures. Sometimes through peaceful protest, sometimes through violent attacks. But every form of revolt is being severely crushed by the Chinese government.”
As of 2018, word got out that Uyghurs are being placed in ‘re-education camps’, where they are taught the Chinese language and culture and the principles of the Communist Party. It is a tough regime, with little food, drink, and sleep.
According to witnesses, the detainees are only allowed to shower once a month, they receive forced injections with unknown substance and Uyghur women are subjected to rape. The occupants are released after a few months or years.
There is a strong suspicion that more than half a million Uyghurs are forced to work in the cotton fields and factories. That has been confirmed by various media and now also by Human Rights Watch.
The Uyghurs would also be closely observed and receive 'ideological training'. The Chinese government denies allocations of coercion.
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According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, clothing brands had long been receiving indications that the cotton from Xinjiang was at least produced under very dubious conditions.2 Still, they continued to buy cotton from the region.
It was only when a coalition of international organisations publicly held the brands to account, in the summer of 2020, that some of them took action. H&M, Adidas and Nike, among others, have pledged to no longer purchase cotton from Xinjiang. These brands, in turn, are now boycotted by Chinese consumers, celebrities and influencers.3
Other brands remain vague. For example, one brand had posted a statement that it found the reports “very worrying”, but that was removed from the website later on. And another clothing brand even spoke positively about the cooperation with Xinjiang. Not every brand is brave enough to incur the anger of the gigantic Chinese sales market...
First of all, the brands have been able to hide behind ignorance for a long time. The production chain is so complex and opaque, it appears to be not so easy to know exactly where your cotton comes from. And that’s what these companies used as an excuse for a long time.
José Koopman, production expert in the field of sustainability and textiles: “It is a lot of work to find out, but not impossible. The buyers of large companies have a lot of power. After all, many manufacturers want to work with these large companies, so they can make demands.
But they don't. They only want the cheapest supplier and walk away when it gets a few cents more expensive. Then you don't build relationships you can reliably do business with.”
Moreover, not only are journalists and human rights organisations unwelcome to have a look at the cotton production, buyers of major brands are not allowed to go there either. This is how you can bury your head in the sand for quite a long time.
Yes. One in five globally sold garments is (partly) made with cotton from this region, so there is a good chance indeed.
As a consumer, you do not know whether the cotton for your T-shirt comes from Xinjiang. So choose sustainable materials instead, such as GOTS organic cotton, says production expert Koopman.
“If we as consumers do not look critically at what we buy, it’s actually game over. It is our turn. We must create the demand for organic cotton that is being produced under fair working conditions. That's the way the economy works.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch: “There is a lot that consumers can do. Make sure you know where the cotton is from, and what the working conditions are. If you don’t find adequate answers, spend your dollars somewhere else.”
So, for example, buy the organic cotton collections at Shop Like You Give a Damn. They are not only vegan and more environmentally friendly, but also produced under better conditions. Check out the organic cotton options for women and for men here, but also give other items made from sustainable materials, such as Tencel/lyocell, hemp, bamboo, organic linen or recycled materials, a try!
1. 'China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims.' Human Rights Watch. 2021.
2. 'Coalition Brings Pressure to End Forced Uighur Labor.' E, Paton; A, Ramzy. 2020
3. 'At least 11 US and European brands are under fire and facing boycotts in China for criticizing alleged forced labor cotton practices in Xinjiang.' M, Meisenzahl. 2021