As the fashion industry is shifting towards a more sustainable footing, thanks to pressure from consumers, organic cotton is becoming an increasingly popular choice. At l’amour est bleu, organic cotton is one of our favourite fabrics to use as well. So we decided to do a mini-series of articles about the environmental and social issues of cotton. With this article, we are looking at tier 4 of the fashion supply chain while focusing on what’s currently going on in China and India.
Retailers typically only know the first tier in their supply chain. The production of raw materials like cotton, typically referred to as tier 4, represents the most distant stage of the complex and chaotic, globally outsourced and sub-contracted facilities that make up a fashion supply chain. Issues of forced labour, human trafficking and other forms of forced labour are longstanding in the fashion supply chain.
The annual Modern Slavery Index ranks the risk of forced labour around the world based on the strength of countries’ laws against modern slavery, their implementation and enforcement, and the number and severity of violations. China. India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia have hit their worst global ranking since 2017.
Cotton Farming Leading to Death in India
Cheap trend-lead retailers have driven down prices at their suppliers, depriving cotton farmers further down the supply chain of stable livelihood. Sadly, cotton farming in India has become a fashion tragedy. Retailers colonise developing countries with cheap labour, exploit people, and disrespect the dignity of workers, especially women and girls. Indian cotton farmers are committing suicide at an alarming rate, often due to financial pressures.
In 2002, pharmaceutical company Bayer introduced genetically modified (GM) cotton in India. Now it accounts for 90% of cotton planting in the county. Since its introduction, NGOs and environmental activists have linked GM cotton to growing fertiliser use, worsening farmer debt and even increasing the number of farmer suicides. Farmers are suffering from poor health as heavy fertilisers poison local water supplies.
More than 28 farmers and farm labourers die by suicide in India every day, according to the 2021 State of India’s Environment report. The report highlighted the numbers:
- 5,957 farmers in 17 states and 4,324 farm labourers in 24 states in 2019.
- 5,763 farmers in 20 states and 4,586 agricultural workers in 21 states in 2018.
Now, farmers in India are facing another problem as three new contentious agricultural laws will impact over 25% of the world’s cotton production this year. They have been protesting since late November last year, some 250 million labourers across India went on strike In January, the proposed legislation was put on hold as farms were called to the negotiating table, however, the fight still continues.
The proposed Farm Laws are part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “deregulation” agenda to remove the government-set floor pricing (known as the Minimum Support Price) for crops and drive market efficiencies. Farmers fear the removal of guaranteed prices will result in lower returns, driving them to impoverishment and forcing them to sell their land to the large corporations that dominate India’s retail economy.
Indian farmers are demanding “fair prices,” just like garment workers are demanding “fair wages.”
Photo via Pexels
Forced Labour in China’s Cotton Farm
Meanwhile, widespread reports of forced labour violating the rights of Uighur Muslims and other minorities in China have culminated in the introduction of new policies from governments on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rights groups say Xinhiang’s half a million Uighur minority (also spelt as “Uyghur”) have been detained at camps where allegations of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged. China has denied these claims saying the camps are “re-education” facilities aimed at lifting Uighurs out of poverty. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has disproved the allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton production. The Chinese authorities have so far refused to allow diplomats or independent investigators to look into allegations of human rights abuse.
More than 80% of China’s cotton comes from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is home to around 11 million Uighurs. The horrific fact is that China is the second-largest producer of organic cotton and most of that is from the Uighur regions. Gap, Patagonia and Zara-owner Inditex have all stated that they do not source from factories in Xinjiang. But majority could not confirm that their supply chain was free of cotton picked from the region.
Earlier this year, H&M decided to stop using cotton from the Xinjiang region due to the forced labour concerns. When H&M’s statement was widely shared on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, many users expressed anger towards the brand and called for a boycott of the brand saying “get out of the Chinese market”. A few hours later, H&M’s products were gone from numbers of major e-commerce platforms including Alibaba’s Tmall, JD.com and Pindoudou. There has been no official announcement or public communication about the ban, it is still unclear whether or not it’s a short term or permanent situation.
In January, the US has banned the entry of all cotton products from the region. This has put American companies such as PVH (which owns brands including Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) in a bind as it could make some of its overseas manufactured products illegal to import into its home market. PVH said it is going to be cutting ties with all factories or mills that produce fabric or use cotton from Xinjiang.
Forced labour and other human rights abuse are not only happening in China and India. It could be happening right in your neighbourhood. The fashion industry needs to take a more enlightened approach to these issues, fast. Tracing the policing of the provenance of materials down to a provincial level will require great traceability the fashion industry is unaccustomed to. Without traceability, it’s impossible to know.
Organisations such as Labour Behind The Label, Fashion Revolution and Remake have long campaigned against all types of illegal practices and raising awareness among the consumers. You can support these organisations and help them do more good. But most importantly, all of these organisations can tell us is that we can use our purchasing power to pressure brands to improve their traceability, transparency and operate their business in ethical manners. Check out these organisations to learn more about what you can do to make a positive impact!
You can also support the farmers in India by signing these petitions here:
our organic cotton products
All our organic cotton garments are made from 100% GOTS organic cotton. The GOTS seal is the world’s leading standard for the processing of materials made from biological natural fibres. It defines environmental and social criteria at a high level that must be adhered to along the entire textile production chain. With GOTS-certified fabrics, you can be sure that the entire production – from the fibre to the fabric – takes place under environmentally friendly and socially fair conditions.
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