Making fashion free of forced labor

With grandparents who worked as a tailor and seamstress, it’s natural that Soraya Wancour feels an emotional connection to clothes. When the Belgian designer founded Studio AMA in Ghent in 2020, she wanted to make apparel that not only looked good but that people could feel proud to wear.

Wancour is one of a growing number of designers seeking to ensure that clothing is produced sustainably and without forced labor, emphasizing people as well as profit. For Wancour, knowing how, where and by whom her clothes are made — a transparent supply chain — is critical.

She recycles old or discarded fabric for her designs and partners with local workshops that employ people with disabilities or those who might otherwise have difficulty finding work. By coordinating with local producers, Wancour tries to limit the extent to which her clothing could be tainted by forced labor and other unethical practices that plague the global apparel supply chain.

The market craves sustainable “goods that have a transparent value chain, products with [a] story attached,” Wancour told ShareAmerica, adding that people want products they can relate to “with emotion.”

Too often, the fashion industry “is not valuing the people who make those clothes and it is not valuing the people that wear the clothes,” she said.

Woman standing in clothing studio (© Kevin Faingnaert)
Soraya Wancour in her clothing studio. (© Kevin Faingnaert)

A stark example of Wancour’s concerns can be found in the Xinjiang region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The region is a major producer of cotton. In a 2020 report, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that upward of 100,000 predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups may be working in forced conditions, producing textiles, thread, yarn, gloves and other items. Since 2017, the PRC has also detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and others in internment camps.

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region estimates that the proportion of cotton garments in the global market that are tainted by Uyghur forced labor is as high as one in five.

Images of cotton, thread and fabric with descriptions of steps by which Uyghur forced labor is used (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

On the global market, cotton fibers and products can change hands multiple times, making for an “opaque supply chain,” said Patricia Jurewicz, founder and chief executive officer of the Responsible Sourcing Network in Berkeley, California.

Governments and advocacy groups are taking steps to make supply chains more transparent. In 2021, the United States prohibited imports of all goods, including cotton products, traced to Xinjiang. The U.S. State Department encourages consumers to research the products they buy for links to forced labor or other exploitative labor practices and to let companies know their concerns.

The European Union, France and Germany also have enacted or proposed requirements for large companies to conduct due diligence analysis to protect human rights in their supply chains.

Fashion Revolution, a London-based nonprofit, launched the “Who Made My Fabric” campaign in 2021 to highlight human rights abuses in supply chains with roots in China and other countries. The nonprofit grades companies on the amount of information they disclose about their product sourcing.

Carry Somers, Fashion Revolution’s founder, says companies are increasing their disclosures as public awareness surrounding human rights abuses grows. “Brands and retailers have a clear responsibility to look at their supply chain to identify human rights risks and impacts,” Fashion Revolution says on its website. “Mapping and disclosing their supply chains is an imperative first step towards addressing these risks and impacts.”

Worker packaging spools of cotton (© Mark Schiefelbein)
Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minority groups are forced to work in fields and factories in China. Above, a worker in a cotton yarn manufacturing plant in China’s Xinjiang region in 2021. (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)