In the summer of 2019, an executive at Patagonia got a phone call from a trusted auditor working in China. A planned trip to visit some cotton farms in the region of Xinjiang wasn’t going to happen. Soon other barriers were thrown up. Information from suppliers in the region ran dry.
“We saw this escalation of secrecy,” said Matt Dwyer, the Patagonia executive who oversees the privately held outdoor apparel maker’s supply chains. He spent a year trying to figure out what was going on as media reports detailed widespread repression and forced labor of Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
“When you peel the onion, it starts to reek pretty quick,” Mr. Dwyer said. By July 2020, Patagonia had decided to break the two-decades-long ties with its Chinese partners and build relationships with new cotton farmers, ginneries and spinners in other countries.
China’s repression of the Uyghur people is in the spotlight this week after hacked police documents detailed systemic abuse in Xinjiang. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, is also visiting the region on a trip that faces severe limitations. Her movements have been confined to what Chinese officials describe as a “closed-loop bubble” to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, dashing any hope of an assessment of the repression of the Uyghurs and prompting the United States to call it a mistake.