Cotton from the Xinjiang region of China is known for being some of the best in the world. Accounting for around 20% of the world’s cotton supply, it’s likely there’s some of it in all of our wardrobes. However, according to recent reports, it’s also a product of forced labour and what is essentially modern slavery. The issue is part of a wider problem concerning internment camps in Xinjiang, where it’s alleged that upwards of half a million Uyghur Muslims are being detained against their will and forced into seasonal cotton picking. China, however, denies these accusations, maintaining that the camps are “re-education” facilities being used to combat terrorism.
But while the detainment of Uyghurs is now common knowledge, few people realise how this relates to the fashion industry and the clothes we buy. And although multiple fashion brands, including H&M and Nike, have expressed concern over Xinjiang cotton, it’s resulted in serious backlash from China. So it perhaps came as no surprise when, at the end of March, an article published in the New York Times revealed that companies including Inditex (which owns Zara) and Uniqlo have either quietly removed their policies against forced labour from their websites, or are even proudly declaring their use of Xinjiang cotton.
Crucially, many of the brands implicated in the controversy are those that are popular with millennial and Gen-Z women, the biggest segment of consumers. Not only are they affordable, they’re also able to keep up with trends. But how will this generation, defined on the one hand by fast fashion but on the other by campaigning for social justice, react once they realise their go-to brands are implicated in human rights abuses? Will it change shopping habits and behaviours, or will it be swept under the rug?
For most young women today, clothes shopping involves some element of compromise and, naturally, price often takes precedent. “I’m a young person and I don’t have loads of money,” says Isobel Brooks, a 25-year-old from Kent who works in marketing. “I care about ethics and sustainability, but price is always important.” Like many others, Brooks shops predominantly at places like H&M, Zara and other brands who are caught up in the Xinjiang controversy. She adds: “I was aware of what’s going on in Xinjiang, but I had no idea it affected the fashion industry.”
When weighing up price and ethics, many agree that marketing adds to the confusion. 24-year-old Amelia Miller, who works in finance in London, says: “I know it’s silly because they’re all as bad, but in my head I put brands into a hierarchy. I see places like Zara as superior to the Boohoos and Sheins, even though it’s mostly just down to marketing.” Miller also suggests that a lack of desire from consumers to source information contributes to the perpetuation of the problem. She adds: “For most people, price is the most important factor and unless this information is spelled out clearly, they won’t go to the effort of sourcing it themselves. They’d rather have it out of sight, out of mind. It’s a combination of companies not wanting people to know and customers who could source that information, but don’t want to hear the truth.”
Turning a blind eye is no longer an option though if ethical standards are to be upheld, and this is something that Sarah Jordan, founder of Y.O.U. underwear, believes is non-negotiable. “I totally get it when people say they’re confused by marketing and greenwashing,” she says. “But you can find information if you really want to. It’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves.” Using only organic cotton, Y.O.U. underwear engages in ethical manufacturing, is fair-trade, sustainable and anti-slavery certified. Jordan adds: “Before I started the company, I didn’t really know about all the nasty things happening in fashion. When I discovered the cotton issue in China a few years ago, we decided we wouldn’t source from there because there just wasn’t enough transparency. With our current manufacturer, we know we have full transparency.”
Similarly, Shop Like You Give a Damn is another business trying to bring ethically made fashion to the fore. Based in the Netherlands, it was co-founded in 2018 by Kim van Langelaar and Stephan Stegeman and as an “online vegan, fair and sustainable department store”. Stegeman says: “After launching, we realised that people were being exploited on a daily basis. There’s a real lack of transparency in the industry so we’ve been actively seeking out information and even then, it’s super hard to find. It’s really important to do your research so you can educate your audience. Us small brands need to come together to communicate the horrors of things happening in places like Xinjiang.”
Credit photo: Getty Images
But despite the grim reality of human exploitation in the industry, younger generations are already showing signs of making more conscious decisions. Looking at recent data, van Langelaar found their biggest customer base are aged 25-34, while Y.O.U. underwear’s is 18-34. “Our customers are younger than I anticipated because of the pricing issue,” Jordan adds. “But it shows there’s an increasing trend towards supporting ethics, sustainability and brands who truly care about people.”
Another way that young women are shopping more consciously is through second-hand sites like Depop and eBay, where they can buy pieces from high street and fast fashions brands without the ethical dilemma of buying directly from the brand itself. Today, one in three young women consider garments worn once or twice to be “old”, so re-selling and buying clothes second-hand has become both the norm and a necessity.
“I buy the majority of my clothes from Depop and Vinted now” says Katie Rutter, a 20-year-old student at Durham University. “I’ve become more conscious since leaving school and I won’t buy from brands like Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing anymore.” Rutter says it was news about Boohoo underpaying its workers that forced her to change her shopping habits, with the information about Xinjiang only cementing her stance. She says: “It will definitely deter me from buying from places like Zara. Although the information isn’t always clear, doing nothing isn’t an option. As privileged societies we have a duty to say something and do what’s right.”
It’s this tendency in young people towards activism and campaigning for social justice – both in real life and online – that has the potential to spread awareness and trigger positive changes. But there’s work to be done. “Social issues will trend on Instagram” Miller adds. “There are certain people I rely on to draw my attention to those, but I don’t think many people are aware of the Xinjiang cotton problem because I’m not seeing anyone post about it.”
However, there’s hope yet. Jordan says: “We’re counting on people under 25 because that’s the generation that genuinely seems to care more.” And the evidence is there. She adds: “Often our customers visit our website 10 to 15 times before making a purchase. It’s not quick, impulsive buying. They’re looking into our products, where they’re made and what we do. I think it’s increasingly important to people what they put their money into. They want to stand for something.”
Written by Robyn Schaffer