Everyone loves human rights … right? Recent years have seen human rights consciousness hit an all-time high, with firms starting to take responsibility for their means and methods of production. But what happens when the bucks stop?

The primary concern for any firm is survival. If you can survive, then the next goal is growth. Earning a profit paves the way to new technology, new equipment, and new investors — the list of benefits to making a profit is almost endless, so it is easy to see how profit maximisation is a top priority.

Of course, making a profit is not the only objective that a firm can have. There are strong arguments for sustainability, accessible pricing, high quality and good variety, to name a few. But where do we draw the line at how far firms should be willing to go to achieve these, often competing, objectives?

The Cost of Low Prices

Around 75 per cent of the world is worried about rising prices and inflation, so there’s no doubt that we want low prices. The real question is if we knew why some firms can afford such low prices, would we still want to buy from them?

Cotton has long been crucial to the fashion industry, and a quick trip to your wardrobe will confirm that most of your clothes will contain at least a little cotton. Around 75 per cent of the world’s clothes contain cotton, and whilst polyester has replaced it as the clothes fibre of choice, cotton still accounts for approximately 25 per cent of global fibre production.

China provides the world with around 20 per cent of its cotton supply, and of this 84 per cent originates from a particular region — Xinjiang. But, when you ask individual firms where exactly they have sourced their cotton from, the answer becomes a little less clear. Unfortunately, only 15 per cent of firms can confidently claim they know the exact origin of their cotton.

But why does this matter? In recent years, the circumstances in which Xinjiang cotton is produced have been raised as a cause for concern. UN representatives have been amongst those to highlight the possibility of severe human rights abuses, including the use of forced labour of ethnic minority groups in the production of cotton in Xinjiang.

China’s Uyghur, Kazakh, and Uzbek Muslims are amongst hundreds of thousands to millions of Muslims who are suspected to have been detained in alleged ‘re-education’ camps since 2017. Reports of shocking human rights abuses in these camps have included forced labour, forced sterilisation, and methods of torture.

Empty Ethics

Naturally, firms have been quick to move towards condemning these rights abuses with promises to take action in the way they source their cotton. But despite their initial goodwill, many of their promises remain empty and unfulfilled.

Damning new evidence suggests that of the companies who allegedly ceased using Xinjiang cotton, many still use it in the production of their clothes, whether they know it or not. Big names, such as Hugo Boss, Puma, and Adidas were among those exposed through particle testing to have merchandise containing Xinjiang cotton.

Other firms have made equally fickle attempts at being rights conscious. Inditex (the parent company for retailers such as Zara), released a statement at the time condemning forced labour — which they have since taken down:

‘We are aware of a number of such reports alleging social and labour malpractice in various supply chains among Uyghurs in Xinjiang … which are highly concerning.’

The retraction of the above statement came amidst H&M being heavily boycotted by Chinese influencers and the government. This saw H&M being removed from online maps, taxi destinations and online shopping groups, including Alibaba and JD, as well as being criticised and dropped by Chinese influencers.

Despite H&M’s outwardly ethical stance, the company has been keen to lure back Chinese consumers, saying in 2021:

‘China is a very important market to us and our long-term commitment to the country remains strong.’

This is unsurprising given that in 2020, China was H&M’s 4th largest market.

Getting Real

The reality of facing an economic backlash has made companies less willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of ‘doing the right thing.’ So what can we do as consumers when faced with brands that are not able to commit themselves to support human rights causes?

The logical answer is to stop buying from big fashion brands that prioritise profit over individual rights. Choosing ethically-minded small businesses that do not align themselves with forced labour seems like the only appropriate choice. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Despite increasing awareness of human rights infringements within the fashion industry, consumers remain stubborn to the idea of changing their spending habits.

A 2021 survey concluded that irrespective of age, over 50 per cent of consumers base their purchasing habits on the price of a product. Meanwhile, only 25 per cent think that a brand’s values are the most important factor in deciding whether to spend money or not.

The reality is that fast fashion has enabled many of us to access the latest trends which historically used to be the domain of the very wealthy. Having experienced a movement that makes fashion accessible to all, it seems counterintuitive to revert back to a state that will once again exclude most groups from purchasing fashionable items. It may sound shallow, but this is arguably the real challenge that ethical consumption poses.

Just as big companies prioritise profits and economic benefits, consumers exhibit the exact same behaviour but on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, as much as everyone would love to say that they support human rights, in reality, once the bucks stop, economic vanity prevails and our concern dries up.

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