Fashion’s Supply Chain Is Still Full of Banned Chinese Cotton #859


A study published this week found traces of cotton from Xinjiang in nearly a fifth of the products it examined, highlighting the challenges brands face in policing their supply chains even as requirements to do so spread to raw materials from diamonds to leather and palm oil.

It’s been nearly two years since the US introduced a strict ban on products from China’s cotton-producing Xinjiang region over forced labour concerns. And yet cotton from the area is still everywhere, according to a study published this week.

Traces of the restricted raw material were found in nearly a fifth of products analysed by researchers using isotopic testing, which matches a fibre’s chemical fingerprint to the geography where it was grown — a kind of forensic CSI for fabric.

“Think of the products in your closet, or somewhere in the kitchen or shoe cabinet; one in five of those products could have Xinjiang cotton,” said Meilin Wan, vice president of textiles at Applied DNA Sciences, one of the firms behind the new study. “It’s the elephant in the room that there is so much of this cotton in the world’s supply chain.”

The findings highlight just how challenging it remains to effectively police fashion’s supply chains, even as governments step up the pressure on brands to do just that. While the US has flagged plans to ratchet up enforcement, Europe is moving ahead with its own ban on goods linked to forced labour. Meanwhile, by the end of the year sanctions against Russia and new EU deforestation rules will amp up scrutiny on supply chains for raw materials from diamonds to leather and palm oil.

If cotton is a testing ground, the industry has a tough road ahead.

The raw material has become a flashpoint in the controversy around Xinjiang, where the US government says China is committing genocide against Uighur Muslims. China denies the allegations, which have made cotton from the country (almost all of which is grown in Xinjiang) a liability for any company looking to do business with the massive US market.

Brands have scrambled to rejig supply chains and invest in traceability technologies to prove their products are free from links to the region and so avoid costly delays or costlier seizures at the border. But while imports of raw cotton from Xinjiang into the US have fallen, the volume making its way into the country in products hasn’t shifted much, said Shawn Bhimani, assistant professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University. Instead, supply chains have become more convoluted, making it harder to trace, he said.

US officials have stopped more than 1,400 shipments of apparel and footwear with a combined value of $56 million since the import ban was brought into force in June of 2022, according to the latest official data. More than half of those were shipped from countries other than China. Most of the cotton traced back to Xinjiang in this week’s study, which examined more than 800 items ranging from clothes and shoes to cotton swabs, had been blended with fibres from other regions.

What can brands do about all this? Continued investment in more sophisticated supply-chain management tools and compliance capabilities can help. So can closer relationships with suppliers and greater collaboration and transparency across the market.

Meanwhile, pressure is continuing to grow, with the the US planning to escalate its scrutiny of textile imports.

Read more – BOF