The business with bloody cotton

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Germany

Publishing organisation: NDR, zenith Magazine

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-05-05

Language: German, English

Authors: Manuel Daubenberger, Florian Guckelsberger


Manuel Daubenberger is an investigative reporter and filmmaker. Since 2014 he is working on a freelance basis for multiple media outlets, mainly the German public television ARD. He coordinated the international media cooperation Cum-Ex-Files researching widescale tax fraud. His documentaries have won multiple awards, including the Prix Europa.

Florian Guckelsberger is an award-winning investigative reporter based out of Berlin, Germany. Florian mainly works for public radio (Deutschlandfunk) and public television (ARD). His reporting from Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Somalia and many more countries was published in a wide range of magazines and newspapers such as Der Spiegel or Die Zeit.

Project description:

In this report, Manuel Daubenberger and I were able to proof that cotton from farms in Xinjiang, China is still being used in product of German clothing brands such as Adidas, Puma and Hugo Boss – even though they publicly denied using this cotton, which is prone to forced labor. In order to deliver this proof, we partnered with a chemical laboratory and traced the isotopes that are unique to the Chinese region of Xinjiang and found them succesfully in cotton product of the companies named above.

Impact reached:

Our report was published both with NDR, German public television, and zenith, an independent magazine focusing on the wider Muslim world. To date, an estimated audience of around five million was exposed to the news, that major German clothing brands such as Adidas, Hugo Boss and Puma still use cotton from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, despite their repeated claims not do so. Cotton, which we illustrated in our reporting, that is closely tied to forced labor working conditions.

The CEO of all three companies faced scrutiny from shareholders and investors at their annual conferences, citing reputational and financial risk. Our findings were internationally recognized, as the Guardian reported them. Since then, a number of major news outlets – such as Bloomberg in the US – started their own investigations, employing the method of isotope analysis, which we pioneered with regard to cotton for our investigation.

Also, several NGO consulted with us, to learn more about our research, as they are preparing legal cases against a number of clothing companies worldwide. More and more countries introduce legislation against the use of products that are the fruit of forced labor, isotope analysis and supply chain analysis might prove crucial tools to link the product of big clothing brands with sources in Xinjiang, China.

Additionally, we are now coordinating international efforts to help fellow journalists in more than half a dozen countries to prepare their own reports, using isotope analysis and supply chain analysis. We have compiled a handbook with best practices and aiming for a joint publication later this year. An effort, we hope, has the potential to unravel the claims of an entire industry, that has for years denied the use of cotton that is likely the fruit of forced labor.

Techniques/technologies used:

Our research pioneers the use of a technique that allows for the tracing of cotton fibers found in clothing of Western brands back to its geographic origins. Employing the scientifically proven method of isotope analysis for cotton fibers took us over a year and is a first in journalism.

This method allowed us to back up our findings – using more traditional investigative methods such as the use of trade databases – that were already linking the products of German clothing brands such as Adidas and Hugo Boss with China’s Xinjiang region, despite their repeated denials.

Additionally, by analyzing massive amounts of satellite imagery, we could prove that high quality long stable cotton is still picked by hand in southern Xinjiang. A harvesting method that is labor intensive and thus prone to the use of forced labor.

This highly specific analysis of large swath of farming land is a first both in science and journalism and allowed us to prove Chinese state media wrong, that had previously claimed, almost all cotton is harvested by machines nowadays.

Context about the project:

The situation for most Ethnic minority people Xinjiang is dire. It is our hope that the methods pioneered in our report will contribute towards more accountability and help shine a light on Western brands that profit on the back of modern-day slaves, that are working on the fields and in the factories of Xinjiang.

It comes as no surprise, that access to Xinjiang is and remains limited – to say the least. Numerous attempts to gain access ultimately proved futile. In our reporting we were thus forced to circumvent these limitations. We flew to Turkey and the U.K. and travelled Germany extensively to meet people, that could provide insights into a tightly sealed system, that is the forced labor complex of Xinjiang, China.

The general lack of physical access to Xinjiang forced us to become creative and explore new avenues. This is how we came up with a multi-layered system to investigate the allegations. Firstly, large scale satellite imagery analysis helped prove, that much long-staple cotton is still being picked by hand, not by machine. Secondly, records found in data bases were linking Chinese companies and German clothing brands. Thirdly, isotope analysis showed a direct link between products in German stores and the chemical fingerprint of Xinjiang cotton, that we managed to obtain.

These finding were discussed and verified by dozens of interviews. We managed to talk to people that have been forced to pick cotton and others that had to sew clothing while imprisoned. We interviewed a Chinese whistleblower who had helped build the surveillance state that is nowadays Xinjiang and thus holds unique insights into this very system. We spoke to an auditor with decades of experience in the Xinjiang and learned how Chinese companies and their Western clients avoid scrutiny – and the length to which they would go in order to trick auditors.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Currently, our report serves as a blueprint for other journalists in many more countries around the world to investigate the claims of clothing brands in their respective countries. After this publication, we plan to publicize the exact isotope fingerprint of all our Xinjiang cotton samples, thus allowing journalists and laboratories from all over the world to use the data in their own research.

We feel that the use of remote sensing technology like satellite imagery, the use of trade data bases and especially isotope analysis will prove useful in order to investigate allegation in regions, that are notoriously hard to access. They also tend to provide forensic evidence, that is of value in court cases as they satisfy the need for basically scientific levels of certainty.

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