Calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands were rife on Chinese social media last week as human rights campaigns clashed with cotton procurement and political game art. Here’s what’s going on and how it can affect everything from your t-shirts to your trench coats.
What’s all I hear about fashion brands and China? Has anyone made another stupid racist ad?
No, it’s a lot more complicated than an offensive and overt cultural gaffe. The topic focuses on the Xinjiang region of China and allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry – allegations that have been denied by the Chinese government. Last summer, many Western brands made statements expressing concerns about human rights in their supply chain. Some even cut all ties to the region.
Now, months later, the chickens are coming home to settle down: Chinese internet users react with anger and accuse the allegations of being a criminal offense against the state. Leading Chinese e-commerce platforms have thrown major international labels off their websites, and a number of celebrities have denounced their former overseas employers.
Why is this such a big deal?
The problem has growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to plague global retailers, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, and pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. On the other hand, due to its size and the fact that there are fewer disruptions there than in other key markets such as Europe, China has become an increasingly important distribution center for the fashion industry. Even then, international politicians intervene and impose bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.
This is a perfect case study of what happens when market bids clash with global morals.
Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it is so important.
Xinjiang is a region in northwest China where about a fifth of the world’s cotton is produced. It is home to many ethnic groups, particularly the Uighurs, a Muslim minority. Although it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which theoretically means it has more legislative self-regulation, the central government is increasingly involved in the area, stating that it must exercise its authority over local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic Majority) who moved to the region. This has resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecution and forced labor camps.
OK, what about the Uyghurs?
The Uyghur population in Xinjiang is a predominantly Muslim Turkish group and, according to official information from the Chinese authorities, numbers just over 12 million. Up to a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers who obeyed the Chinese Communist Party through forced labor programs.
So it’s been like that for a while?
At least since 2016. According to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports imprisoned Uyghurs in the supply chains of many of the world’s best-known fashion retailers, including Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and the PVH Corporation, which includes Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of these brands have reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang cotton suppliers.
In January the Trump administration banned all imports of cotton from the region as well as products made from the material and declared the incident a “genocide”. At the time, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that Xinjiang materials were involved in more than 1.5 billion pieces of clothing imported annually by American brands and retailers.
That is much! How do I know if I am wearing a Xinjiang cotton garment?
You do not do that. The supply chain is so complex and subcontracting so frequent that it is often difficult for brands to know exactly where and how each component of their garments is made.
If this has been a problem for over a year, why is everyone in China freaking out now?
It is not immediately apparent. One theory suggests that this is due to the rise in political brinkmanship between China and the West. On March 22, the UK, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced an escalating series of sanctions against Chinese officials for treating Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Not long after, screenshots were posted on Chinese social media of a statement H&M released in September 2020, citing “deep concern” about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang and confirming that the retailer had stopped selling cotton from growers in the country Region to buy. The rainfall was quick and furious. There were calls for a boycott, and H&M products were soon missing from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Alibaba Group’s Tmall and JD.com. The excitement was fueled by comments from groups such as the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization, on the microblogging website Sina Weibo.
Within hours, other major western brands like Nike and Burberry started the trend for the same reason.
And it’s not just consumers who are in the arms: Influencers and celebrities have also severed ties with the brands. Even video games spawn virtual “looks” that Burberry created from their platforms.
Backtrack: What do influencers have to do with it?
Influencers in China have even more power over consumer behavior than in the West, which means they play a vital role in legitimizing brands and driving sales. For example, when Tao Liang, also known as Mr. Bags, worked with Givenchy, the bags were sold out within 12 minutes. A necklace and bracelet set he made with Qeelin reportedly sold out in a second (100 made). That’s why H&M worked with Victoria Song, Nike with Wang Yibo and Burberry with Zhou Dongyu.
However, Chinese influencers and celebrities are also sensitive to pleasing the central government and publicly affirming their national values by often selecting their country in a performative manner over contracts.
In 2019, for example, Yang Mi, the Chinese actress and Versace ambassador, publicly rejected the brand when she made the mistake of creating a t-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries and the “One China “Seemed to be fired. Politics and the sovereignty of the central government. Not long after, Coach was targeted after making a similar mistake and creating a t-shirt called Hong Kong and Taiwan. Liu Wen, the Chinese supermodel, immediately distanced herself from the brand.
And what about the video games?
Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins” – outfits of video game characters the brand had enthusiastically launched – from its popular Honor of Kings title in response to news that the brand had stopped purchasing cotton produced in the Xinjiang area . The looks had been available for less than a week.
So that applies to both fast fashion and the high end. How much of the fashion world is involved?
Maybe most of it. So far, Adidas, Nike, Converse and Burberry have been affected by the crisis. Even before the ban, other companies such as Patagonia, PVH, Marks & Spencer and The Gap announced that they would not source any material from Xinjiang and officially spoke out against human rights violations.
However, this week several brands including VF Corp., Inditex (owned by Zara) and PVH have silently removed their policies against forced labor from their websites.
That seems like a squirrel. Is that likely to escalate?
Brands seem concerned that the answer is yes, as some companies have proactively announced they will continue to buy cotton from Xinjiang, apparently in fear of offending the Chinese government. Hugo Boss, the German company whose suit is a de facto uniform for the financial world, posted a statement on Weibo: “We will continue to buy and support Xinjiang cotton” (although the company announced last fall that it would no longer be sourcing to be made from the region). Muji, the Japanese brand, like Uniqlo, proudly advertises the use of Xinjiang cotton on their Chinese websites.
Wait … I play possum, but why should a company publicly pledge its loyalty to Xinjiang cotton?
It’s about the Benjamins, buddy. China is projected to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025, according to a report by Bain & Company released last December. Last year it was the only part of the world that saw year-on-year growth. The luxury market reached 44 billion euros ($ 52.2 billion).
Will anyone come out of this well?
One group of winners could be the Chinese fashion industry, which has long played second fiddle to Western brands, to the frustration of many companies there. Shares in Chinese apparel and textile companies linked to Xinjiang rose this week as the backlash gained momentum. And more than 20 Chinese brands made public statements announcing their support for Chinese cotton.