xinjiang chinese flag

U.S. Customs and Border Protection slammed the door on goods made of cotton from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, saying it would stop shipments at the border to combat “slave labor” in the area. 

The move became effective Wednesday and follows a series of escalating warnings and steps indicating officials were taking a harder line on goods from the region, where many people from the Uyghur Muslim minority are in what human rights advocates describe as concentration camps, but that the Chinese government claims are educational in nature.

Many goods from the area were already being banned under a December order restricting imports from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps — a dominate player in the area that the U.S. government describes as “an economic and paramilitary organization subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Customs based its ban covering all cotton imports on “information that reasonably indicates the use of detainee or prison labor and situations of forced labor” and pointed to “debt bondage, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions” in Xinjiang.

Fashion and retail lobbying groups and brands have expressed outrage and concern about the region, where factory watchdogs have said they can no longer operate, but have pushed for a multilateral approach in which the U.S. joins other countries to pressure Beijing for reforms. 

Activists, pointing to the largest internment of an ethnic minority since 1945, forced sterilization and other systemic abuses, have pushed for strong action immediately.

“CBP’s action is a high-decibel wake-up call to any apparel brand that continues to deny the prevalence and problem of forced-labor produced cotton from the Uyghur Region,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, which is part of the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition. “This ban will redefine how the apparel industry — from Amazon, to Nike, to Zara — sources its materials and labor. Any global apparel brand that is not either out of Xinjiang already, or plotting a very swift exit, is courting legal and reputational disaster. The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton are over.” 

There is little apparel production in Xinjiang, but the far western region accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s cotton supply. Much of that goes into goods that are sold in the Chinese market — and are therefore unaffected by the ban — but cotton is widely traded and mixed. Apparel and retail trade groups have argued it can be hard to prove the negative and trace back the origin of raw materials that far up the supply chain.

But now fashion is going to have to figure it out, making key just how the ban will be implemented and what proof will need to be offered at the border.

Customs noted that, “Importers are responsible for ensuring the products they are attempting to import do not exploit forced labor at any point in their supply chain, including the production or harvesting of the raw material.”

Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of the agency, said: “CBP will not tolerate the Chinese government’s exploitation of modern slavery to import goods into the United States below fair market value. Imports made on the cheap by using forced labor hurt American businesses that respect human rights and also expose unsuspecting consumers to unethical purchases.”

The fashion industry has sought to move away from sourcing in the region and is working to develop technologies that will make it easier to trace the origin of cotton. 

A statement Wednesday from the American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and the United States Fashion Industry Association said: “The companies we represent remain outraged by the reports of forced labor in the XUAR — and reports that Uyghurs are being trafficked to other regions — and have long made eradicating forced labor in our supply chains a top operational and public policy priority.

“Today’s announcement matches our members’ accelerated commitment in this region,” the statement said. “The industry is pioneering and implementing new technologies and innovative approaches to decipher where supply chains are susceptible to forced labor, particularly as it relates to XUAR. We look forward to working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to make sure enforcement is smart, transparent, targeted and effective.”

Stephen Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA, added that: “One of things we’re hoping for is that the Biden administration can deploy a whole-world approach, where [President-elect Joe Biden’s] enlisting the support of our allies so all these supply chain polices are consistent. We don’t want a situation where we’re stopping [goods made of cotton from Xinjiang from] coming into the U.S., but it’s leaking into other areas of the world. This isn’t a time for a go it alone approach.”

And the world is starting to move. 

Britain on Tuesday took a series of steps to ensure companies there aren’t complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang, including financial penalties for businesses that do not comply with that country’s Modern Slavery Act. 

U.K. Trade Secretary Liz Truss said: “These new measures demonstrate that we will not turn a blind eye nor tolerate complicity in the human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang. 

“Forced labor, anywhere in the world, is unacceptable,” she said. “This government wants to work with businesses to support responsible practices, and ensure British consumers are not unwittingly buying products that support the cruelty we are witnessing against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.”

More from WWD: 

Fashion Looks to Washington With Horror and Hope

Retail Returns Hit $428 Billion in 2020

What to Watch When Everything Is Moving