On a balmy day in March, a container ship called the One Munchen docked in Savannah, Georgia. On board was a shipment of button-down shirts made of “peached cotton,” a fuzzy fabric meant to feel as soft as the skin of the fruit. Embroidered on their pockets was the Hugo Boss logo.
Now on sale for $82, the shirts feature a slim fit, an embroidered placket, and a promise: Hugo Boss had not sourced its cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, where forced labor is rampant. But these button-downs — along with dozens of other clothing shipments brought into the United States within the last year by Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, and other clothing brands — were produced by a large Chinese company called Esquel Group. And that’s a red flag.
Forced labor is so pervasive in China’s far west region of Xinjiang — and government control over information is so absolute — that it is nearly impossible to establish if forced labor is being used in supply chains there. But here’s what is known:
- Esquel Group gins and spins cotton in Xinjiang.
- In July 2020, the US government placed trade restrictions on one of its Xinjiang subsidiaries, Changji Esquel Textile Co., citing concerns over forced labor.
- In January 2021, US regulators banned all Xinjiang cotton from entering the US, again citing forced labor.
Since the cotton ban, a different Esquel subsidiary located in Guangdong — hundreds of miles away from Xinjiang — has continued exporting its clothes to brands in the US. But procurement records and company statements reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that Esquel’s Guangdong branch works together with its Xinjiang-based cotton spinning factories. When asked repeatedly, neither Hugo Boss nor Tommy Hilfiger nor Ralph Lauren would say where the cotton in their Esquel shipments comes from.
Esquel’s own public statements make clear that its Xinjiang cotton production is deeply intertwined with its worldwide clothing operation. The company describes itself as “vertically integrated,” meaning that it owns factories for each stage of the cotton supply chain: Esquel’s gins separate cotton fibers from seeds, and those fibers are later spun into yarn in Esquel’s spinning mills. Esquel’s Guangdong factories knit and weave cotton yarn to make cloth, then use this to manufacture clothing that can be exported to the rest of the world via the Hong Kong–based Esquel Enterprises. The company owns at least two cotton ginning companies in Xinjiang, where the bulk of China’s cotton is grown — but makes no public reference to owning any cotton ginning facilities outside the region.
Since the US ban against all Xinjiang cotton began last January, at least 16 Esquel shipments have arrived in the US for Hugo Boss, trade records show, the latest one in mid-December. One shipment has arrived addressed to PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, containing Tommy Hilfiger–branded goods; four for Ralph Lauren; and one for Polo, a Ralph Lauren subsidiary. Guangdong Esquel, along with other Esquel companies, is still listed as a supplier in Hugo Boss’s most recently published supplier list. PVH had included Guangdong Esquel on its supplier list, as well as Esquel subsidiaries in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, but in late December — after BuzzFeed News reached out for comment — PVH released an updated version of its list, and no Esquel subsidiaries were on it. No Esquel companies appear in Ralph Lauren’s latest list, which was published in November.
Hugo Boss said in a statement that it had contacted Esquel, and the company had replied that “all our specifications and standards, including the observance of human rights and fair working conditions, have been and are being complied with.” Hugo Boss also said its own audits at Esquel production facilities revealed no evidence of the use of forced labor.
PVH and Ralph Lauren did not respond to requests for comment.
In response to a list of questions, Esquel said it had never used and would never use coerced or forced labor. It added that it follows all national import and export laws, and that it does not sell products banned in specific jurisdictions…Read more>>