Should Forced Labor ‘Trump’ Sustainability? Recover Doesn’t Think So

With projects such as the Autosort for Circular Textiles Demonstrator (ACT UK) and the Footwear Collective cropping up in recent months, it’s no secret that the fashion industry is searching for ways to adopt more circular practices in hopes of reducing dependence on virgin inputs and mitigating environmental impact.

But should those efforts take precedence over ensuring those inputs comply with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA)?

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Bryan Timm, chief strategy officer of Recover, made clear that the recycled textile manufacturer believes it should be exempt from UFLPA regulation.

“Unfortunately, forced labor trumps sustainability,” Timm said. “When we first started working with the UFLPA Act and working with Customs, my assumption was, ‘Hey, we’re a sustainable company, we’re doing a great thing for the environment, isn’t this beneficial? And isn’t this more important than the Forced Labor Act?’”

The answer—according to the government—Timm said, is no.

“Forced labor has trumped sustainability when it comes to the UFLPA,” he continued. “The UFLPA has declared anything that comes from Xinjiang Province—which is 20 percent of the world’s cotton—is made with forced labor. When you use that term, ‘forced labor,’ you go all the way back to the Customs regulation from the 1930s.”

That regulation he’s referring to—Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930—“prohibits the importation of merchandise mined, produced or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any foreign country by forced labor,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“So as a recycler, the challenge is that unless you’re recycling your own waste—like Artistic Milliners does where they’re recycling their own cotton waste—unless you’re doing that, you’re relying on outside parties for your waste—like Recover does,” Timms said.

The reason Recover relies on outside supply chains, he said, is because the company has the capacity to produce 50,000 metric tons a year of recycled cotton—10 tons is the equivalent of one million T-shirts. Thus, Recover needs to get its product from “a very wide source of suppliers” to fill its supply chain.

“Unless you’re in control of your supply of textile waste, and you know that it came from a UFLPA compliant facility, it creates many, many challenges,” Timm said.

Such as the challenge of recycled cotton, as it applies to the UFLPA.

“A year-plus ago, we started off with our discussions with CBP; those discussions that said initially, it’s like, this is obvious, this is a sustainable product,” Timm said. “Why would you not want this to be—you know, this is a good thing for the planet—why would you not approve this? That very quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen as quickly as we thought.”

Recover engaged the White House, the Hill and the Senate Finance Committee. The highlights of these conversations included that “the law was passed without regard to recycled cotton” and that “they understood the complexities that the recycled industry faces.”

“Another big point is that we had separate meetings with the Democrat side and the Republication side,” Timm continued. “The issue is 100 percent bipartisan. Nobody wants to step forward and try to change the UFLPA and look soft on China.”

At the end of the day, the only way to accelerate the adoption of recycled cotton and other circular materials is by designing with circularity in mind.

“If you want to reset, the Holy Grail is designing into circularity,” Timm said. “The Holy Grail is what can we do to recycle what you are wearing. You have to design things with circularity in mind.”