Fast fashion and the forgotten people

On the human consequences associated with buying habits.

Footage from China's CCTV provided by the Association Press. Uighur trainees work in a garment factory at the Hotan Vocational Education and Training Center in Hotan, Xinjiang, northwest China.

“Seeing is believing” goes the age-old adage. This July, when confronted with drone footage of shackled and blindfolded Uighur men being loaded onto trains, even the Chinese Ambassador to the UK had nowhere to hide except behind the statecraft formality of his words. Since 2017, in response to sporadically leaked reports and videos exposing the involuntary detention of Uighur men, women, children and Turkic speaking Muslim minorities, the Chinese government has asserted the public relations front of implementing an aggressive counter-extremism model.

Despite the suppression of foreign journalists investigating the region, a chilling string of testimonies by previous detainees has culminated in a vastly different revelation: a forced assimilation program, in which Uighurs with virtually no ideological convictions are arbitrarily detained on religious and ethnic grounds. Despite a distance of 10 000 km, Australians cannot evade their connection to this gruesome reality. 

In 2017, anthropologist Adrian Zenz exposed a network of involuntary labour camps across the region, revealing a practical purpose behind the ‘vocational centres’ that went beyond political and cultural indoctrination. Since then, it is estimated that 80 000 Uighur people and other minorities have been transferred to factories throughout China. Gulzira Auelkhan, who fled to Kazakhstan, is not alone in recalling that, “police check your phones and conduct body searches as you enter and leave the factory. Even while working, police observe.” 

In March this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a damning report that identified 83 companies that benefited from Uighur labour at one or more stages in their supply chain, particularly in textile production. Xinjiang produces a modest estimate of 80% of China’s cotton output, with China itself being the world’s biggest supplier of cotton products and sourcing to key garment manufacturing countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. GAP, Adidas, Muji, Zara and H&M were amongst the fast fashion brands cited in the report. A number of the companies have since responded to the accusations, often falling back on the reactive and elusive “we are reviewing our cotton and yarn supply sources.” Certain brands, such as Adidas, have offered more concrete assurance that they do not source goods from Xinjiang and have similarly instructed their suppliers to do the same. Prima facie, this seems a prompt and noble response to mounting pressure from human rights activists, but a deeper interrogation reveals a microcosm of the unscrupulous fast fashion industry.

Cast your minds back to the eco-friendly fashion trend that emerged a decade ago. In 2015, Adidas partnered with the NGO Parley, to promote the recycling of plastics in the sports apparel sector. Again, on the surface, a noble action. However, Adidas is one of the largest culprits of using sweatshop workers in the fast fashion industry. Zara’s “Join Life” collection, and H&M’s “CONSCIOUS” collection boast an ethical branch of fast fashion, using ‘organic cotton’ to satisfy the growing consumer consciousness in the wake of the environmental crisis. However, the brands fail to account for their exploitation of Indonesian and Bangladeshi child labour to spin, dye, print and sew this ‘organic cotton’ to produce the final product. 

Left: Zara’s ‘Join Life’ collection. Right: H&M’s ‘CONSCIOUS’ collection. The release of both collections was shrouded in eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical rhetoric.

These paradoxes remind us that shopping with an environmental consciousness and a social consciousness are not mutually exclusive. The ethics of fast fashion operations must go beyond using sustainable materials. In GAP’s 2019 Global Sustainability Report, they boasted a significant percentage increase in their use of recycled raw materials. However, investigations by ASPI and the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China have confirmed GAP to be implicated in supply chains using large-scale Uighur labour. The inconsistency is glaring, and speaks to the ‘slacktivism’ imbued in the fast fashion industry. Clothing is the second-highest product at risk of being produced by modern slaves, and whilst moving towards biodegradable materials is a step in the right direction, that is only one step within the fast fashion global supply chain. 

In 2018, G20 countries (including Australia) imported $127 billion worth of fashion garments identified as at-risk products of modern slavery. Amidst the helplessness often felt by young Westerners when peering out into the distant world, we find our power in choices. Lucrative relationships between fast fashion brands and Chinese corporations exploiting Uighur labour are no longer lucrative without avid consumers. It is a matter of elimination, a simple avoidance of the fast fashion brands refusing to act when UN human rights experts, independent journalists and government commissions consistently expose grave human rights abuses.

Dilys Williams, the director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, recalled a time when “you always knew somebody who was in the garment industry – a cousin or a neighbour. So you had a person related to what you were wearing, and you thought about them.” Though this is no longer the case for many of us, Uighur workers are still somebody’s cousin or neighbour. 10 000 kilometres away, somebody is thinking of them. We choose not to buy caged eggs, we choose reusable water bottles, and now we must choose to shop conscious of the dignity of the people living in the threads on our skin.  


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