Coalition Statement on the Better Cotton Initiative

Since backlash in China in late March 2021, the Better Cotton Initiative (‘BCI’) has deleted all public statements and references to its decisions to exit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (‘Uyghur Region’). In response to BCI’s continued silence, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region is issuing this statement setting out the Coalition’s position regarding BCI, which includes in its stated mission “to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it.”

In March 2020, BCI announced that it was suspending its licensing and assurance activities in the Uyghur Region for the then upcoming cotton season (2020-21) based on the recognition that the operating environment prevents credible assurance and licensing from being executed. In October 2020, BCI then announced that it had taken the decision to cease all field-level activities in the Uyghur Region, stating: “Sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China have contributed to an increasingly untenable operating environment, and BCI has, therefore, taken the decision to cease all field-level activities in the region effective immediately, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting” (quote taken from now deleted statement).

Although BCI was slow to take action, the Coalition welcomed these steps, which were taken due to the scale and severity of forced labour in the Uyghur Region, and the impossibility of BCI – as with brands and retailers – to take credible steps to conduct its own assurance process in line with implementing BCI’s own Standard and Decent Work principles to ensure an absence of forced labour.

Since the recent backlash in China, BCI has deleted all public statements on and references to the above decisions to exit the Uyghur Region. Further, BCI has failed to issue any clarifications in response to the media dissemination of a statement by BCI which obfuscates the drivers behind BCI’s decision to exit the Uyghur Region.

In failing to be transparent and public on BCI’s rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region, BCI is putting at risk any credibility it could have in its commitment to ensure that decent work is embedded across its global cotton sustainability programme. BCI’s own website states that “BCI does not operate in countries where forced labour is orchestrated by the government”.

By continuing to operate in China without being clear on its zero tolerance for forced labour and its rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region, BCI is allowing itself to be used by the Chinese government to claim that business can go on as usual and to deny the ongoing crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic forced labour, in the Uyghur Region.

Further, continued silence by BCI taints all brands and retailers that use BCI cotton as an ethical alternative in an industry widely tainted by forced labour, as well as the farmers who trust BCI to take a stand for ‘better cotton’ production everywhere.

The Coalition urges BCI to, without delay, republish all previous statements, and to issue a new statement which clarifies that BCI’s rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region was based on the ongoing and credible evidence by numerous sources of systematic forced labour in the Uyghur Region. The Coalition further urges BCI to continue to assess the enabling environment for its operations throughout China.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash