Last week, calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands went out across Chinese social media as human rights campaigns collided with cotton sourcing and political gamesmanship. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and how it may affect everything from your T-shirts to your trench coats.
What’s all this I’m hearing about fashion brands and China? Did someone make another dumb racist ad?
No, it’s much more complicated than an offensive and obvious cultural faux pas. The issue centers on the Xinjiang region of China and allegations of forced labor in the cotton industry — allegations denied by the Chinese government. Last summer, many Western brands issued statements expressing concerns about human rights in their supply chain. Some even cut ties with the region all together.
Now, months later, the chickens are coming home to roost: Chinese netizens are reacting with fury, charging the allegations are an offense to the state. Leading Chinese e-commerce platforms have kicked major international labels off their sites, and a slew of celebrities have denounced their former foreign employers.
growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to roil global retail, consumers have become more attuned to who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to put their values where their products are. One the other, China has become an evermore important sales hub to the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption there than in other key markets, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians are getting in on the act, imposing bans and sanctions. Fashion has become a diplomatic football.
This is a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives come up against global morality.
Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it is so important.
Xinjiang is a region in northwest China that happens to produce about a fifth of the world’s cotton. It is home to many ethnic groups, especially the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. Though it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which in theory means it has more legislative self-control, the central government has been increasingly involved in the area, saying it must exert its authority because of local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) who have been moving into the region. This has resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecutions and forced-labor camps.
OK, and what about the Uyghurs?
A predominantly Muslim Turkic group, the Uyghur population within Xinjiang numbers just over 12 million, according to official figures released by Chinese authorities. As many as one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers, obedient to the Chinese Communist Party via coercive labor programs.
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports that connected Uyghurs in forced detention to 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 owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of those brands reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang-based cotton suppliers.