Why H&M, Nike and others are boycotted in China

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Last week, calls for the cancellation of H&M and other Western brands surfaced on Chinese social media as human rights campaigns clashed with cotton supplies and political backlash. Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and how it can affect everything from your t-shirts to your trench coats.

What am I hearing about fashion brands and China? Has anyone made another stupid and 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 have even cut ties with the region.

Now, months later, the chickens are heading home to roost: Chinese netizens are reacting with fury, blaming the allegations of offending the state. Major Chinese e-commerce platforms have kicked major international labels off their sites, and many celebrities have denounced their former foreign employers.

Why is this a big deal?

The question has growing political and economic implications. On the one hand, as the pandemic continues to disrupt global retail, consumers have become more mindful of who makes their clothes and how they are treated, putting pressure on brands to place their values ​​where their products are. On the other hand, China has become an increasingly important sales hub for the fashion industry, given its scale and the fact that there is less disruption than in other markets. keys, like Europe. Then, too, international politicians get in on the act, imposing bans and penalties. Fashion has become diplomatic football.

It’s a perfect case study of what happens when market imperatives collide with global morality.

Tell me more about Xinjiang and why it’s so important.

Xinjiang is a region in northwest China that produces about one-fifth of the world’s cotton. It is home to many ethnic groups, including the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. Although it is officially the largest of China’s five autonomous regions, which in theory means it has more legislative self-control, the central government is increasingly involved in the region, claiming that he must exercise his authority because of local conflicts with the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) who have settled in the region. This resulted in draconian restrictions, surveillance, criminal prosecutions and forced labor camps.

OK, and what about the Uyghurs?

A predominantly Muslim Turkish group, Xinjiang’s Uyghur population numbers just over 12 million, according to official figures released by Chinese authorities. As many as a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been retrained to become model workers, obeying the Chinese Communist Party through coercive work programs.

So has it been going on for a while?

At least since 2016. But after The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others published reports that linked 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 PVH Corporation, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, many of these brands have reassessed their relationships with Xinjiang-based cotton suppliers.

In January, the Trump administration banned all cotton imports from the region, as well as products made from the material, and declared what was happening “genocide.” At the time, the Workers Rights Consortium estimated that Xinjiang material was involved in more than 1.5 billion garments imported each year by American brands and retailers.

It’s a lot! How do I know if I am wearing Xinjiang cotton clothing?

You don’t. The supply chain is so complicated and outsourcing so common that it is often difficult for brands themselves to know exactly where and how each component of their clothing is made.

So if this has been a problem for over a year, why is everyone in China freaking out now?

It’s not immediately clear. One theory is that it is because of the rise of tightrope politics between China and the West. On March 22, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United States announced sanctions against Chinese officials in a growing row over the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Shortly after, screenshots of a statement issued in September 2020 by H&M citing “deep concerns” over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang and confirming that the retailer had stopped buying cotton from producers in the region, began to circulate on Chinese social networks. The fallout was fast and furious. Boycott calls were made and H&M products quickly disappeared from China’s most popular e-commerce platforms, Tmall and Alibaba Group’s JD.com. The furor was stoked by comments on the Sina Weibo microblogging site from groups like the Communist Youth League, an influential Communist Party organization.

Within hours other big western brands like Nike and Burberry started to grow for the same reason.

And it’s not just consumers who are outraged: influencers and celebrities have also severed ties with brands. Even video games are bouncing virtual “looks” created by Burberry from their platforms.

Backtrack: What do influencers have to do with all this?

Influencers in China wield even more power over consumer behavior than in the West, which means they play a crucial role in legitimizing brands and driving sales. When Tao Liang, otherwise known as Mr. Bags, did a collaboration with Givenchy, for example, the bags sold out in 12 minutes; a necklace-bracelet set he made with Qeelin reportedly sold out in a second (there were 100). That’s why H&M worked with Victoria Song, Nike with Wang Yibo and Burberry with Zhou Dongyu.

But Chinese influencers and celebrities are also sensitive to pleasing the central government and publicly asserting their national values, often choosing their country performatively over contracts.

In 2019, for example, Yang Mi, the Chinese actress and Versace ambassador, publicly disavowed the brand when she made the mistake of creating a t-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries, appearing to dismiss the “OneChina”. central government policy and sovereignty. Shortly after, Coach was targeted after making a similar mistake, creating a tee that named Hong Kong and Taiwan separately; Chinese top model Liu Wen immediately distanced herself from the brand.

And what about video games?

Tencent removed two Burberry-designed “skins” – outfits worn by video game characters the brand had introduced to much fanfare – from its popular Honor of Kings title in response to news that the brand had stopped buying cotton produced in the Xinjiang region. The looks had been available for less than a week.

So it affects both fast fashion and high-end. How much of the fashion world is involved?

Potentially most. So far, Adidas, Nike, Converse and Burberry have all been swept away by the crisis. Even before the ban, other companies like Patagonia, PVH, Marks & Spencer and Gap had announced that they were not sourcing materials from Xinjiang and had taken a formal stand against human rights abuses.

This week, however, several brands, including VF Corp., Inditex (which owns Zara) and PVH all quietly removed their policies against forced labor from their websites.

It looks squirrel. Is this likely to get worse?

Brands seem worried that the answer is yes, since, apparently fearing to offend the Chinese government, some companies have proactively announced that they will continue to buy cotton from Xinjiang. Last week, Hugo Boss, the German company whose suits are a de facto uniform for the financial world, released a statement on Weibo saying, “We will continue to buy and support Xinjiang cotton” (even if the fall last, the company had announced that it was no longer sourcing from the area). But on March 30, a spokeswoman told The New York Times that the post was unauthorized and had since been deleted.. Muji, the Japanese brand, also proudly touts its use of Xinjiang cotton on its Chinese sites, as does Uniqlo.

Wait… I’m playing possum, but why would a company publicly pledge allegiance to Xinjiang cotton?

It’s about the Benjamins, mate. According to a Bain & Company report released last December, China is expected to be the world’s largest luxury market by 2025. Last year, it was the only part of the world to show year-on-year growth, with the market luxury reaching 44 billion euros. ($52.2 billion).

Is anyone gonna be okay?

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 of Chinese clothing groups and textile companies with ties to Xinjiang rallied this week as the backlash gathered pace. And more than 20 Chinese brands have publicly made statements touting their support for Chinese cotton.

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