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Compliance in the Fashion Sector: It’s Time to Clean the Cotton Slate

New regulations require complete transparency in the global fashion supply chain. How can this be achieved? Spoiler alert: state-of-the-art technologies will help.

Xinjiang contributes to up to 20 % of the global cotton production – which is primarily harvested by enslaved Uighur people. This creates a delicate predicament for global fashion firms: to keep their reputation and comply with new regulations, they must fully clean the cotton slate. Technological innovations bring unwavering oversight and transparency into supply chains. This can be used to the industry’s advantage.

Xinjiang, China’s western frontier, is a land of isolation encircled by imposing mountain ranges and expansive desert landscapes. The region is imbued with a distinct culture shaped by its predominantly Muslim inhabitants. Its remoteness has enabled the Chinese government to obscure its “Strike Hard” campaign – a reign of terror inflicted upon local Muslim populations, labeled as genocide by the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands. Over 1.3 million Uighurs have been coerced into concentration camps, where they face torture, systematic mass rape, and forced labor. This  harrowing endeavor has been designed to “break their lineage, break their roots,” . The Chinese government reaps financial gains from this oppression: Xinjiang contributes to a staggering 20 % of global cotton production, primarily harvested by the enslaved Uighur people.

An unfashionable dilemma

Global fashion houses have grappled with the complexities of sourcing cotton from Xinjiang‘s forced labor camps. A 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) exposed top European fashion firms‘ reliance on cotton derived from Uighur enslavement. In response to the ensuing uproar, numerous companies publicly vowed to stop using Xinjiang cotton. Yet, this stirred a counter-reaction from Chinese consumers, incensed by the firms’ acknowledgment of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In the face of this backlash, many fashion companies reneged on their ethical commitments to Western audiences. For example, a openly declared its intent to continue purchasing Xinjiang cotton in light of the Chinese boycott. Brazenly hypocritical, this decision was made while maintaining to Western consumers that they never source cotton from the region.

Slavery chains
Slavery chains credit Hussain Badshah_Unsplash

The legal fabrics have been woven

Yet, the procurement of Xinjiang cotton has thrust fashion firms into a delicate predicament far beyond the public relations tightrope walked between Western and Chinese consumer sentiments. Governments are increasingly wielding long-standing laws and emerging regulations to clamp down on businesses that rely on Xinjiang cotton. Following the ASPI report, French prosecutors initiated an investigation into four multinational corporations suspected of profiting from crimes against humanity through the use of Uighur-sourced cotton. On a broader scale, the impending EU Supply Chain Law – slated for enforcement across all EU members in May 2025 – will mandate that medium-to-large textile companies adhere to strict human rights standards throughout their supply chains. This legislation signifies that willful ignorance concerning cotton sourcing will no longer be a viable option for fashion houses.

Is cotton rotten from the bottom?

The mounting ethical, legal, and PR challenges provide ample justification for firms to discontinue their reliance on Xinjiang cotton. Nevertheless, a study by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies revealed that even companies boasting “ethical” supply chains frequently accidentally use Xinjiang cotton. This is attributable to convoluted supply chains riddled with intermingling points where “ethical” and “unethical” cotton converge. Typically, cotton from both enslaved and legitimate sources is blended in Chinese processing factories before being used by manufacturers in countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. To avert escalating legal and PR repercussions, companies must undertake constant source verification at each stage of the supply chain.

Towards an untainted supply chain

As the entanglement of ethical, legal, and public relations quandaries intensifies for fashion companies, they need to start embracing dynamic compliance software solutions. Implementing a state-of-the-art system that ruthlessly scrutinizes every supplier ensures adherence to fluctuating regulations and fortifies ethical obligations. The repercussions of procuring tainted cotton are escalating relentlessly. To make sure their supply chain is and remains truly clean, the fashion sector must adopt technological innovations that bring unwavering oversight and transparency. Using the right compliance solutions protects a company’s reputation, preserves human rights – and ultimately crafts a more equitable and sustainable future for every stakeholder within the global textile supply network.


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Christine Winkler