The Shirt On Your Back: Of What Is It Made? From Where Does It Come?

A textile factory in the Xinjiang region. Photo Credit: Que Hure/Visual China Group, via Getty Images.

Your shirt is cotton. It is most likely that the raw material or the shirt’s finished fabric comes from the Xinjiang region of China.

And that means there is a good chance that forced labor made the raw or finished product. The laborers are the Uyghur people. They are a Muslim minority in China.

For years, big global brands such as H&M, Nike, Burberry, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger have used cotton from the region. They are part of the problem. Now they are acting. They are moving the factories that create the final garments. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh are the new locations.

A garment factory in Vietnam. Many brands are shifting production from Chinese factories to plants in Vietnam and other countries. Photo Credit: Kham/Reuters.

The labor problem is everywhere. But it is most evident in Xinjiang. The companies work with advocates for workers. Many suspect conditions in the factories are terrible. The truth about what is happening is hard to find out.

The Xinjiang cotton goes through many hands from the field to the factory. It is hard to tell from where it comes.

Companies and countries condemn China’s treatment of the Uyghur people. The Chinese government does not like it.The Communist Party is urging the Chinese people to boycott the products made by these big global companies. China is a big country. If the people who live there do not buy Nike, Nike is in big trouble.

Governments in North America and Europe are trying to stop the sales of these products from China. If Nike cannot sell products from China, Nike is in big trouble.

Must Nike choose between China and the rest of the world?

Some experts say yes. The companies do not like that answer. The apparel market is big. Many companies make money from the industry. Everyone will find a way to meet the demand for fashion trends.

There is history here. The apparel industry was always built on the backs of low paid and exploited workers. Americans enslaved Africans to pick cotton. Immigrants toiled to sew garments in “sweatshops.”

Manufacturers have always looked for cheap labor. How can change occur? Any reform will hurt some and benefit others. If people stop buying goods made in Asia, clothes will be more expensive. Asian workers will suffer.

People can say they will not support what could be ‘slave labor.’ In the end, no position is likely to change the world. But every person can make a judgment.

Source: The New York Times April 6, 2021


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