The group, which is backed by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), said it was contacting dozens of companies demanding supply chain transparency and the rejection of human rights abuses—regardless of potential business consequences in China.
The past week has seen companies vocal on forced labor in the Uyghur Region—among them H&M, Nike, and Adidas—face serious backlash in China, including consumer boycotts, and some fear the backlash is leading fashion brands to backslide.
As of last week, H&M’s 2020 statement on the Uyghur Region could no longer be accessed through the Human Rights section of its website, while Inditex’s forced labor statement was scrubbed entirely.
Hugo Boss went a step further and pledged to continue sourcing cotton from the Uyghur Region, although this statement—made on Chinese social media—was later repudiated by a company spokeswoman.
With retaliation from the Chinese government threatening progress made against forced labor in the Uyghur Region, the investor alliance is stepping in to urge companies to hold their ground.
Anita Dorett, program director for the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, which put together the request to the fashion brands and other big corporate names, said she was worried that some companies had moved to scrub language about policies on forced labour from their websites, or pledged to buy more cotton from Xinjiang, in fear of a backlash from Chinese social media and companies.
“Companies do not prioritise resources to digging into their supply chains and mapping them out. As investors, we want transparency and accountability,” Dorett said in an interview. She added that “This is their business. If they don’t know what’s happening, who will?”
Recent tensions over the Uyghur crisis between the West and China, which denies all allegations of forced labor, have extended well beyond the fashion industry.
The U.S., U.K., E.U., and Canada have all imposed sanctions on China over human rights abuses, straining diplomatic relations and creating additional challenges for brands operating in both markets.
The investor alliance said that reporting obligations in the E.U. and other Western markets could soon require brands by law to fully disclose their supply chains, making it to their benefit that they take immediate action on forced Uyghur labor.
Freedom United is a prominent voice against forced labor in the Uyghur Region, and has since last summer campaigned with ICCR as part of the steering committee of the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region.