Xinjiang Cotton Dispute: The Ban and The Boycott

Swedish clothing brand H&M issued a statement on March 24, saying that they would no longer use cotton sourced from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). “We do not work with any garment manufacturing factories located in XUAR, and we do not source products from this region.”

The statement triggered criticism by the Chinese government. As a result, the state media and internet users kicked off a wave of protest against international fashion brands. 

Here’s what you need to know about the Xinjiang cotton campaign. 

The H&M store at Taikoo Shing. (Photo: Josie Chan)

Why did it happen?

XUAR is one of the biggest cotton industries in the world, producing 20% of the world’s cotton and 84% of China’s cotton. However, unethical stories of Uyghurs factory workers have been claimed to be behind the scene. 

Last April, the non-profit organization Global Legal Action Network (Glan) and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) pointed out that Xinjiang’s cotton industry commits major human-right abuses including coercive labor and large-scale internment of the Uyghurs in April. Considering the human rights issue, the UK and US customs have taken countermeasures and banned the import of cotton produced in such scenarios. 

Later in September, the United States Congress passed The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to ensure American entities are not funding forced labor in the region. Meanwhile, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a non-profit organization supervising cotton farming standards and promoting sustainable cotton production, has stopped licensing BCI cotton in XUAR because of increasing difficulty in conducting credible due diligence in the area. 

Unethical stories of Uyghurs factory workers have been claimed to be behind the scene of Chinese cotton. (Photo from Pexels)

In December, BBC published an investigation based on news research showing that China was forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities including Uyghurs into manual labor in Xinjiang’s cotton fields. Several western countries,  including the UK, US, Canada, and European Union members imposed sanctions on officials in China over the situation in Xinjiang. 

China has repeatedly and strongly denied the allegations of abuse and has hit back with retaliatory sanctions on European officials, creating the controversy of The Xinjiang cotton campaign. A recent investigative article reveals that only 10% of the cotton production is done by human force, while the rest 90% is done by machinery. The article also points out that much of the pieces of evidence used as an example of forced labor by the western media are actually a result of misreads. 

Biggest boycott movement this year

As international brands expressing concerns over forced labor in Xinjiang triggered calls in China for consumer boycotts, all brands associated with the BCI groups got involved in the controversy, such as, H&M, NIKE, Adidas, NEW balance, UNIQLO, ZARA, Burberry, Converse, Calvin Klein, Puma, LACOSTE, and more. Products by these brands were withdrawn from major e-commerce platforms like Taobao and some of its stores were closed down across the country. 

Local celebrities such as Eason Chan and Angelababy, who are the spokesperson of mentioned brands, have cut ties with them and officially claimed they support Xinjiang cotton on their social media account.

Screenshot of Eason Chan on Weibo cutting tie with Adidas on March 25.

In addition, some brands immediately declared their stance to prevent the boycott from China. For example, MUJI clearly marked the clothing “made with Xinjiang cotton” on its official website, and Zara, which once expressed a boycott of Xinjiang cotton, also took down the past statement. 

Until Yesterday, H&M issued another statement stating that China is a very important market with no other no announcement on the change of policy. It said that “We are working together with our colleagues in China to do everything we can to manage the current challenges and find a way forward.” The boycott is still ongoing and more brands are getting affected.

MUJI is one of the brands that start to clearly mark their clothing “made with Xinjiang cotton” on its official website. (Photo: Josie Chan)

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