Boycotting Xinjiang cotton: What does it mean for environmental and labor justice in Central Asia?

Workers pick cotton in Uzbekistan. Image via Wikipedia. Creative Commons license CC0 1.0

In recent years, the international community has boycotted cotton sourced from Xinjiang, a vast region in northwestern China, due to concerns over human rights violations. Under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has subjected Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities to arbitrary detention and forced labor. Some global cotton buyers, in response, have turned to other regions to fulfill cotton demands.

The boycotting of Xinjiang cotton has created something of a ripple effect in other parts of the world, where cotton harvesting is associated with environmental challenges and human rights abuses. One of the most glaring examples of this is Uzbekistan, where cotton production contributed to one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in the world, the drying out of the Aral Sea, as well as decades of forced labor practices.

The Xinjiang cotton industry under scrutiny

Situated in northwestern China and bordering Central Asia, Xinjiang is home to approximately 12 million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group that is predominantly Muslim. The region began to see large-scale cotton production in the 1950s when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) placed its economy under the control of a paramilitary institution known as the Production and Construction Corps (or bingtuan 兵团). 

Researchers and human rights organizations have found that the Bingtuan forced members of local communities and prisoners — potentially more than half a million people — to work in mining, construction, manufacturing, and cotton harvesting under harsh conditions. Today, Xinjiang is pivotal in China’s cotton production, accounting for over 85 percent of the country’s output and 20 percent of the global supply. The Bingtuan is still responsible for around one-third of Xinjiang’s cotton production.

The cotton industry in Xinjiang has historically relied on manual picking. Despite the Chinese government’s claims of significant progress in machine harvesting, 60 percent of cotton harvesting in southern Xinjiang, remains a manual effort, according to Chinese state media and government statistics. In recent years, human rights organizations and international news media have uncovered evidence of systematic forced labor programs that coerced Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities to work in cotton fields and factories

According to Chinese state media, the cotton textile industry in Xinjiang employs close to a million workers, although Beijing denies allegations of forced labor. These labor programs are part of Beijing’s broader strategy to maintain political stability in Xinjiang, international organizations say. The US government first banned Xinjiang cotton imports before subsequently passing a law to ban nearly all imports from the region in 2021. Brands like Nike, H&M, and Burberry have also publicly severed ties with Xinjiang cotton suppliers — moves that drew condemnation and boycotts from Chinese consumers.

This widespread international backlash has not only affected Xinjiang but also led to scrutiny of the cotton supply chain worldwide, as nations and companies reevaluated their dependencies on China.

Shifting tides of cotton sourcing

In recent years, many industries including textile and clothing have shifted operations from China to countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Turkey, in order to avoid increased labor costs in China and the West's heightened regulatory scrutiny for Chinese products. However, paradoxically, in some cases, this increased demand for a more just cotton supply chain is exacerbating local environmental issues and worsening labor rights conditions.

Cotton is one of the most resource and labor-intensive agricultural commodities in land, water, and labor. In developing countries and regions, the cotton industry has long grappled with labor abuses and environmental issues, such as the depletion of water, soil contamination, and overuse of pesticides.

In Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s top cotton producer, an estimated 60 percent of agricultural water is wasted yearly due to mismanagement and obsolete technologies. The country is also known for labor exploitation in cotton production. Since 2011 Uzbekistan’s cotton products faced global boycotts because of the use of child and forced labor. Over 330 international brands and retailers supported this boycott. International pressure forced the Uzbek government to commit to agricultural reforms and eradicating forced child labor during the cotton harvest, which resulted in the lifting of the boycott in 2022.

However, experts believe that the labor risks are still very high. In an interview with Global Voices, Umida Niyazova, director of Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization based in Germany said:

Uzbekistan is still not willing to change its anti-market rules of regulation of its cotton industry. The central government and local authorities are still operating on a quota basis, whereas every region of the country has to produce a certain amount of cotton and assigns land to farmers specifically to grow only cotton.

The persistence of this quota system and the associated administrative pressures became evident during a video conference wherein the Deputy Advisor to the  President of Uzbekistan Shukhrat Ganiev directly threatened farmers: “I don’t care what you do but you must deliver 11 thousand tons of cotton. Don’t play with it, don’t play — otherwise, it will end very badly for you and for the regional governor.”  

The lifting of the boycott on Uzbek cotton in 2022 coincided with sanctions being imposed on cotton from Xinjiang. Uzbek officials looked to take advantage of this situation, even as many textile brands were wary of partnering with Uzbekistan in light of its unresolved environmental and human rights violations. Brands’ hesitation to move their production chain from Xinjiang to Uzbekistan didn’t stop the Uzbek president from announcing his ambitious plans to turn his country into a textile hub and increase the production of yarn up to 100 percent by 2027. In order to stimulate this strategy, the Uzbek government intends to create textile production zones and release them from taxation until 2027. 

Due to a combination of political, geographic, and social factors, Uzbekistan is especially vulnerable to the climate crisis, with environmental watchdogs ranking it 96th out of 181 countries in 2020 for climate risk. To mitigate this, Uzbekistan signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement in 2015, as well as the United Nation’s Europe Protocol on Water and Health, which aims to protect human health and well-being through better water management. However, despite the pledges made by the Uzbek government, the lack of progress in agricultural reforms and tight control over farmers makes experts skeptical about the progress

China was and still remains one of the key foreign investors in Uzbekistan. Since 2017, the scale of China’s investments in the country increased fivefold and amounts to USD 11.1 billion, according to Uzbek Minister for Trade and Investments, Laziz Kudratov. One of the key areas of China’s investment is textiles and agriculture. Though partnership with China is hailed by the Uzbek government, human rights defenders are concerned about transparency in observing labor rights and care for the environment. In an interview with Global Voices, Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights said.

When we talk about Chinese-owned textile factories or cotton clusters, we need to forget about any sort of advocacy. When we carried out our campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton, Western companies were signing up for this, but Chinese companies didn’t care. They continued to buy Uzbek cotton and they didn’t care about human rights violations or environmental justice. It would be much better if Western companies came to Uzbekistan, because they follow very strict regulations when it comes to labor or environment. We don’t see this happening with Chinese companies.

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