Cotton sourcing awareness should be a top priority by brands to increase transparency. Globally there have been cumulative pressures on cotton supply chains to demonstrate or refute the usage of Xinjiang cotton since the expose of forced labor.
Uniqlo is one instance of the likely risks to brands as well as the apparel manufacturers within their supply chains.
The US authorities blocked a shipment of goods from Uniqlo over worries that its supply chain has a connection with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province, it is apparent that the ‘red flag’ is more than raised, says MeiLin Wan, VP of textile sales at Applied DNA Sciences.
Ultimately it points the finger to retailers and brands to be sure that the claims they make are reliable with what is going on in their cotton supply chains.
The questions like how do consumers know if a brand is taking all ethical and social responsibility measures to safeguard that the cotton being used is not from areas that utilize forced labor?
Cotton supply chain anomalies
2021 Know The Chain Report shows, forced labor hazards are predominantly high in cotton sourcing. Cotton farms work related to the harvesting of raw materials have a habit of being remote – meaning that workers are more unprotected to vulnerable conditions.
The nature of remote locations might result in fewer visits by labor inspectors and make it harder for workers to seek out services and report exploitation. Furthermore, due to the seasonal nature of the work, it is habitually carried out by migrant workers who may migrate to a cotton-producing region precisely for the cotton harvest.
84% of China’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang. Numerous recent accounts of forced labor hit majority media with recounts in various places globally. Though, Xinjiang stays to be an example of how brand and manufacturer picks can make a ripple effect that reaches internationally.
While US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to hostilely investigate and stop goods made by forced labor from entering US commerce.
In 2021 alone, the CBP targeted 1,255 shipments entering the US that contained more than $765m of goods alleged to be made by forced labor.
It held almost $84m of goods alleged of being made by forced labor in the 623 shipments that applied for entry and prevented the remainder of the targeted cargo from entering the USA. Although the number of goods alleged to have been sourced from Xinjiang is uncertain, these figures demonstrate the serious situation of forced labor.
More grievously Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has recently come under fire after erasing a 2020 claim regarding forced labor in Xinjiang, a move that officials believe was a submitting of the organization to retail member pressures. BCI has been silent about the most recent criticism.
It is definitely up to brands to know their supply chains; many are far detached from the source of their cotton.
As Leonardo Bonnani, CEO of Sourcemap, so appropriately stated, “Mass balance certification blends fair trade with child labor; regenerative agriculture with deforestation…and only a small fraction of the materials certified sustainable are audited (typically 1 to 2 percent). But mass balance certification doesn’t require any traceability for the non-certified portion of the raw materials, so it’s impossible to know whether the finished product was made sustainably or using forced labor.”
Bonnani told, “We believe that this has enabled brands and their supply chains to continue to use paper or transaction certificates to support their product claims. This begs the question: how can we trust that the information being relayed down to the consumer is indeed correct? Is there a more efficient way to trace cotton?”
The solution is increasing transparency
Traceability is about being able to know with certainty that the product itself, from source to shelf, has been verified. This means that the fiber, yarn, greige fabric, dyed fabric to the finished good can be and will be authenticated.
This delivers a direct line of sight from the raw material to the finished goods, and it places the responsibility on each of the participants in the supply chain to assure the quality and integrity of the product.
In recent years molecular taggants such as DNA-based tags have been used to verify cotton and other materials including coffee and wine. The advantage of tagging – as opposed to other chemical markers like isotopes – is that once the material is tagged the signature tag does not change, and is not altered by changes in water, textile chemistries, or the weather.
To efficiently ‘track and trace’ cotton through the lifecycle, as materials travel through the supply chain, companies can test these molecular tags to verify the identity of inputs in a finished good, tracking authenticity from origin to retail.
If brands can precisely verify their raw materials to the finished product, then they can say with assurance and scientific proof that they are keeping their social and ethical pledges.