When the US government this week imposed import restrictions on some cotton made with forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China, the move had historical resonance. Cotton has always been associated with human rights abuse, from slavery on 19th-century US plantations to recent child labour in Uzbekistan. The industry often feels bad about it, but never quite bad enough to stamp it out.
This attempt to dissuade China from exploiting an estimated 1m Uighur Muslims held in detention barracks and “vocational education camps” for Xinjiang’s textile industry is a step in the right direction. But it is a small one, given the limited scope of the five US customs orders; it will take many more to make cotton clean.
One way to grasp the scale of the task is to examine a garment you are wearing, and ask where the fabric, or the thread in the fabric, originated. You probably do not know, and the retailer and the brand may not either. Since Xinjiang makes 20 per cent of the world’s cotton and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are significant producers, it could easily be tainted.
The opacity stems from how cotton is traded, threaded and woven globally. After it is picked from fields by low-paid humans or machines, it is cleaned at a cotton gin and sent in bales to mills. There, bales are blended into thread, often mixed from various sources. Before the cotton is woven and reaches textile factories in Bangladesh or Turkey, its origins are fading.
This would be complex enough, but bales are often sent thousands of miles from their home country or region. Most of the raw cotton grown in the US is now exported to countries such as Vietnam, China and Bangladesh to be turned into thread because the US has largely lost its textile industry. The borders between Xinjiang and the rest of China and Asia are porous.
This all takes place under heavy pressure, since consumers are used to buying clothes, sheets and towels very cheaply. Margins are tight and the temptation covertly to substitute cheaper cotton for the expensive kind at a mill or factory is immense. The Cotton Egypt Association estimated in 2017 that 90 per cent of fabric marketed as “Egyptian cotton” was something else.
Cotton need not be a lost cause. My Instagram feed is filled with advertisements from direct-to-consumer brands about their merino wool jumpers and Supima cotton shirts. The latter are made from US Pima cotton, known for its long fibres and soft texture, sold under the trademark Supima and grown on 500 farms in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Authenticity, traceability and transparency appeal to today’s engaged consumers, while forced labour does not. Many will pay more for such qualities in their clothes, as well as in organic food. This is an opportunity for Supima and other pricey cottons — they can offer not only better fabrics but a more ethical supply chain (“from seed to stitch” is one Supima slogan).
Technology is making traceability possible, even in the muddled-up world of cotton. One method, which has been refined over a decade by companies such as Applied DNA Sciences, is to spray a fine mist of synthetic DNA on to cotton fibre at the gin before it is baled. The molecular tag stays on it through weaving and cutting, so the raw material can be identified.
Supima’s marketing body has now gone further, using Oritain, a forensic science company from New Zealand, to identify the origin of cotton fibres — down to a country, region or even farm. It analyses trace elements in cotton from soil, waters and nutrients where it was grown, allowing brands to check they are getting what suppliers promise.
But even the cleverest technology must be applied after it is invented. To make a real difference, it has to be adopted by the mass of the industry as well as luxury brands for expensive cotton. Supima farmers have every incentive to want their produce marked and traced, but many in Xinjiang or Turkmenistan prefer to cover their tracks.
The most reliable way for any brand to guarantee that the cotton in its products is genuine and ethically sourced is to have a tight supply chain in which it knows — and regularly checks — every potential weak link. Taking such care is expensive, not just in technology, but in time and oversight. It also pushes up raw material costs by eliminating the world’s cheapest suppliers.
The consumer sits at the top of the cotton industry chain. Are we prepared to pay more, not only for sheets and towels with high thread counts of soft cotton, but for our T-shirts and jeans bought from fast-fashion brands? “People like us have become so greedy that we are not willing to pay the true value of clothes,” says Marc Lewkowitz, Supima’s chief executive.
It is easy for him to say, since he is in the business of marketing expensive cotton, but he has a point. Cotton’s mills, weavers and brands are not the only ones to have turned a blind eye for a very long time.