Richard Yates, sales director at Linen Connect, warns: “It’s not surprising that a lot of this has passed people by in the year we’ve all had, but there is nothing short of a massive shockwave coming – it’s not just being unable to purchase cotton at the prices we are used to, but actually getting it here. “It’s understandable that laundries are cautious about purchasing new stock right now because they want to see the staycation market thrive, and then that we’ve dealt with Covid, so they get a good idea of how the hotels are doing and what work that will bring in.
But at some stage what’s happened with cotton is going to hit and it’s best that they are fully aware of it now.” Where to start? Perhaps at the end of March last year when the Better Cotton Initiative, the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, suspended its assurance activities in Xinjiang, China for the 2020-21 cotton season following concerns over alleged labour abuses in the region, planning an expert review of what was going on in Western China. The initiative promised to continue to support local farmers but would not licence Xinjiang’s cotton crop.
As this coincided with something overshadowing all world news, most of us were too busy at that time with the announcement of the first UK lockdown for Covid.
But for those producing cotton goods additional storm clouds were clearly already gathering. By October the situation was even more serious. BCI announced it was to immediately cease all field-level activities in the region, including capacity building and data monitoring and reporting, citing ‘Sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China as well as increasing risks of forced labour at the farm level have contributed to an untenable operating environment’. Since then, most of us have seen on TV news reports of what has been happening with the Uyghur community, from ‘re-education programmes’ through to forced dispersal to other parts of China where they are put in work camps while supposedly integrating into wider Chinese society.
As for the missing cotton and processing chemicals, the Chinese government isn’t, just like many others, above artificially inflating prices, and is well placed to stockpile commodities to keep them in short supply.
And Xinjiang is not all of China, even while supplying as much as 20 per cent of the world’s cotton. On top of this, Covid restrictions were also set to make things difficult here and elsewhere in cotton-producing countries. “It’s quite common for the cotton workers to live around the mill during the peak production periods and then go home to their families,” says Donaldson. “Strict travel bans introduced in India and China meant that many of those who had gone home then couldn’t get back to their work.”
The Indian press has reported on ‘a drastic rise’ in the price of cotton. Normally many farmers switch between cotton and maize harvests but with the price of maize dropping, many have switched to a second crop of cotton this year, with an increase in cotton import duties probably helping to make up their minds. This may feed into availability eventually but of course the growing of cotton is not the only issue.