On Dec. 6, Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice published a report, in collaboration with Uyghur Rights Monitor and the Uyghur Center for Democracy and Human Rights, about the “substantial volume” of Uyghur forced labor-tainted apparel that is “flooding” into the European Union. The paper pulled no punches, linking powerhouse brands such as Adidas, H&M Group, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. and Zara owner Inditex to the persecution of Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region through state-sponsored labor transfer schemes.
By mid-January, the report would disappear, its original link displaying only an error message. On Tuesday, an updated version of “Tailoring Responsibility: Tracing Apparel Supply Chains from the Uyghur Region to Europe” reemerged on the university’s website with a correction and an apology. In assessing the supply chain of Anhui Huamao Group Co., a vertically integrated textile and apparel manufacturer with Xinjiang-based subsidiaries, the researchers had incorrectly identified one of these entities and, in so doing, erroneously named India’s Gemini Enterprises, Shahi Exports, SM Lulla Industries Worldwide and Sri Lanka’s Penguin Sportswear as customers.
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“The authors and publisher are grateful to have been alerted to this error and apologize for the incorrect inclusion of the listed entities in the original report,” the page where the report can be downloaded now reads. “The research team follow[s] robust protocols to ensure the accuracy of all reports, and the inclusion of these entities was an unfortunate mistake which the authors are pleased to correct.”
The “minor” error was spotted after a couple of the linked suppliers protested their inclusion during a routine request for corporate responses, which were included in an annex to the main report, said Caroline T. Dale, principal research consultant at Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice’s Forced Labor Lab. “Accuracy is our highest priority, and we have taken action to rectify this error,” she told Sourcing Journal.
Both Gemini and Shahi had provided statements denying relationships with any of the manufacturers mentioned. By request, Shahi’s response has been stricken from the updated annex.
As a result of the correction, the number of named downstream brands and retailers has fallen from 39 to 30. Some of Anhui Huamao’s mislabeled clients, such as H&M, Hugo Boss, Inditex and PVH Corp., still appear as customers of Beijing Guanghua Textile Co. and Xinjiang Zhongtai Group, two other manufacturers profiled in the report. Decathlon, Helly Hansen, Helmut Lang, Marks & Spencer and Massimo Dutti, however, now appear blameless, at least in this instance.
One of the exculpated suppliers, which requested anonymity because it feared further reputational damage, expressed disappointment in Sheffield Hallam’s handling of the matter. It complained of a “lack of transparency” in the university’s research methodology and a “lack of research ethics” from an institution many trust.
Indeed, the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice’s work on Uyghur forced labor is frequently cited in complaints to the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, better known as the CORE, which has opened investigations into the likes of Hugo Boss, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Ralph Lauren and Zara over their alleged ties to businesses profiting from modern slavery in China. Laura Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the school, has testified before U.S. Congress. She is now advising Robert P. Silvers, undersecretary of the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans at the Department of Homeland Security, on forced labor policy and enforcement.
“We are concerned with the way false information was published and the way other stakeholders have referenced this report, further spreading misinformation which has majorly influenced sourcing decisions across continents, causing damage to business and reputation,” the supplier said.
A spokesperson from Gemini said the company was surprised when it was named in the original report. “We again wish to reconfirm that our company has very strict due diligence procedures for our material supply chain with regard to ethical sourcing and forced labor,” the representative said.
While Dale would not say if the mistake would mar the university’s credibility, its detractors will inevitably see this as a problem. Levi’s has already denounced data tying it to Xinjiang in Sheffield Hallam’s 2021 report as “outdated and inaccurate.” The American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group that represents many of the allegedly offending brands and retailers, including H&M, Hugo Boss, Levi’s and PVH Corp., had more pointed words.
“We are happy to see SHU take action to correct their report, but the issue is this should never have happened in the first place.” Nate Herman, senior vice president of policy, told Sourcing Journal. “Any report published by an academic institution, in the recent past or present, should be subject to academic rigor and peer review prior to publication. Instead, this report was published in error and has resided in the public domain for over two months, where it has been cited in press articles and social media posts hundreds, if not thousands, of times. The incorrect publication of the report has irreparably harmed the reputation of four major suppliers and dozens of their customer brands, and possibly led to shipments incorrectly detained by U.S. Customs.”
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in the United States imposes a rebuttable presumption that all goods with a nexus to Xinjiang are the product of forced labor and therefore barred from entering the country.
“As we pursue our zero tolerance for forced labor, we must also have zero tolerance for publication of incorrect information,” Herman said. “Too much is at stake. We look forward to learning what other corrective actions will be taken.”
Dale noted that this is the first time the school has issued a retraction, and that it stands behind the rigor and accuracy of its research. She also said that it was “crucial” to emphasize that the overall findings and concerns outlined in the report remain unchanged.
“The report continues to shed light on the pressing issue of Uyghur forced labor in global supply chains, and demonstrates the persistent risks associated with apparel and textile imports to the EU,” she said. “Companies should conduct forensic due diligence on any products made of cotton, rayon/viscose or PVC, including synthetic leather, to identify exposure to companies operating in the Uyghur region, including those identified in this report.”
As supply chains become “increasingly opaque,” Dale added, it is “essential” that companies undertake their own due diligence initiatives to “continually evaluate and remediate risk.”