The complexity of importing cotton-made clothing into the US just stepped up a notch after the Department of Homeland Security added another 26 Chinese suppliers to its Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Entity List.

It means there are now 65 entities whose goods are blocked from being imported into the US market under the UFLPA.

What makes it so challenging is while US brands and retailers have been making concerted efforts to shift their supply bases away from China, the DHS is on the lookout for finished goods coming from any location that is suspected of containing inputs from blacklisted suppliers.

The bugbear is, of course, cotton coming from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that has for some time now been linked to concerns over forced labour.

But at least 76% of Chinese cotton products contain Xinjiang cotton. The region accounts for about a fifth (20%) of the world’s cotton production. Against that backdrop the chances that the average consumer has some percentage of Xinjiang cotton in their wardrobe, is pretty high, particularly since much of the cotton is mixed and then exported to other regions before finished garments are then shipped into the US.

So while US clothing brands and retailers may think they are purchasing a batch of t-shirts from supplier A in Pakistan, the real issue is where supplier A was getting their cotton fabric from. And where was the cotton fabric supplier getting their cotton fibre from? Until now, ignorance has been bliss. But under the DHS’s latest crackdown, this approach could be costly for fashion sellers, in terms of time, money and reputation.

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Brands have to be significantly more aware of what is going on at every stage of their supply chains, right down to the point of fibre sourcing.

It is why the launch of platforms designed to boost supply chain visibility – such as Supply Trace which launched earlier this month – are likely to come as welcome news.

The free-to-use tool shows brands, via detailed graphics, where the forced labour risks in their supply chains lie and offers a solution to allow them to be addressed.

The platform’s lead developer told Just Style, in an interview, until now brands have been made aware they need to crack down on forced labour in their supply chains but haven’t necessarily had the tools at their disposal to be able to do so. With increased visibility thanks to machine learning, the problem of forced labour – which the ILO says stood at 27.6m in 2021 or equivalent to 3.5 people per 100 – can finally be addressed.

Whether it is enough to tackle the problem or whether it is the end solution is something that remains to be seen. What is clear is the tools are coming, and they are coming through thick and fast. With technology like machine learning, they will continue to improve and are likely to become a reliable third eye for supply chain leaders of fashion firms. But ultimately brands and retailers have to not only embrace these tools but advocate for their improvement, development and scaling.

For that to happen, collaborative action and acceptance at all levels, by all stakeholders is essential.

It is the only way to shift the needle and move closer to the goal of a responsible global fashion industry.

Just Style’s top news stories last week…

Certa CEO: Temu at ‘serious risk’ of US UFLPA entity list inclusion
The CEO of supply chain risk and compliance management software firm Certa suggests online fashion marketplace Temu could be added to the US’ Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) entity list if it doesn’t “significantly mature” its compliance operations on forced labour, however Temu argues it is committed to full compliance with all laws and regulations.

Supply chain pressure major ‘concern’ for apparel amid Red Sea crisis
Supply chain pressure is a major concern in apparel during the first quarter (Q1) of 2024 due to the ongoing Red Sea Crisis, compounded by geopolitical flashpoints in the Panama Canal and the South China Sea.

Explainer: Time to introduce Digital Product Passports in fashion?
As the requirement for textile products sold in the EU to have Digital Product Passports (DPPs) approaches, one expert tells Just Style that it is ‘time for action’.

Explainer: US fashion sector reels as tariffs on China imports stay in place
The US apparel and retail sectors are in uproar after the Biden Administration announced it is keeping Section 301 Tariffs related to Chinese imports in place on a raft of products including textiles following a four-year review.

Esprit puts German subsidiaries into administration on financial challenges
Esprit has filed for bankruptcy with a German court for its European subsidiaries, citing poor finances on the back of increased costs following the Covid-19 pandemic and international conflicts.

Cambodia to phase out ‘unsafe’ garment worker trucks by 2027
A senior National Social Security Fund (NSSF) official has revealed plans to replace flatbed trucks commonly used to transport factory workers with safer, purpose-built passenger vehicles like buses by 2027.

S. Oliver launches product tracing function in online shop
German fashion firm S. Oliver has launched a new transparency scheme sharing information about who made its garments, where and in what conditions.

Consumer loyalty to green brands drives change in apparel, retail
Resale and circularity are on the rise in retail and apparel as consumers become more conscious about both the environment and the cost of goods.