Fashion is moving further away from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The sustainability-minded Better Cotton Initiative said it is ceasing all its field-level activities in the Western province of China, where the Uyghur Muslim minority group is subject to what is broadly described as the largest internment of an ethnic minority since 1945.
More than one million Uyghurs are being held in facilities that human rights advocates and other critics describe as concentration camps but that Chinese government maintains are educational in nature.
“Sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China have contributed to an increasingly untenable operating environment, and BCI has, therefore, taken the decision to cease all field-level activities in the region effective immediately, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting,” the group said.
The BCI stopped licensing and assurance in the region in March.
The region accounts for 20 percent of the world’s cotton supply and has come under increasing scrutiny, as well as subject to official advisories from the U.S. government and the threat of additional import restrictions.
Auditors that ensure working conditions in factories, including the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, have also stopped operating in the region, maintaining that it has become hard to conduct a credible audit.
That, along with the BCI’s withdrawal, has made it increasingly hard for brands to work in the region and certify that their supply practices are living up to their marketing messages.
For the past eight years the sustainable cotton group has trained Uyghur and Han farmers in the region to use more sustainable cotton production production processes.
“We look forward to the day when we can again deliver the BCI mission by providing capacity building for all farmers,” commented Alan McClay, BCI CEO. “We will reevaluate our engagement in the XUAR when the operating environment permits.”
The BCI pointed to a recent sanctions order from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets that banned transactions with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and its majority-owned subsidiaries as contributing to the challenges.
“In the past, XPCC had been a BCI member and Implementing Partner, however, this relationship was terminated in January, prior to the U.S. sanctions,” the group said. “BCI has taken additional actions and due diligence to comply with the OFAC sanctions.”
Although field activities have stopped right away, the group said “Chinese companies from or affiliated with the province that are not blocked by current OFAC sanctions can remain BCI members and users of the Better Cotton Platform.”
Legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives could force brands to prove that the cotton in their goods doesn’t come from Xinjiang.
Apparel and retail trade groups, however, have argued that is difficult to prove given how cotton moves through the global economy. They have instead pushed for broader state-to-state engagement that would have Washington rallying allies and confronting Beijing over its practices in the region.
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