Brands that have signed up to the Better Cotton Initiative are also thought to be in the firing line over its stance on Xinjiang cotton

Brands that have signed up to the Better Cotton Initiative are also thought to be in the firing line over its stance on Xinjiang cotton

The backlash by Chinese consumers against Western fashion and footwear brands over their stance on forced labour in cotton-hub Xinjiang appears to be worsening, with calls for boycotts extending to more companies and domestic firms pledging their support for the raw material.   

Earlier this week social media users directed their anger at Swedish fashion giant H&M after it said it would not source cotton from Xinjiang and was ending its relationship with a Chinese yarn producer over "forced labour" accusations involving minorities in the region. 

According to Reuters, H&M's official store on Alibaba's Tmall e-commerce platform cannot be accessed. And the official People's Daily reported that searches for H&M products on platforms, Taobao and Pinduoduo no longer yield any results. 

More than 40 Chinese celebrities are also said to have signalled that they are ending their contracts with brands that have previously made statements about forced labour in Xinjiang, including Adidas, Nike, Uniqlo, Converse, CK, Puma, New Balance, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste and Burberry. 

Brands that have signed up to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) are also thought to be in the firing line after the BCI last year halted its activities in Xinjiang blaming "an increasingly untenable operating environment."

Media reports now say that Fila China and Anta are in the process of leaving the BCI, and are joining the likes of Meters Bonwe and Semir who have taken to Weibo to announce their support of cotton sourced from China, including Xinjiang. Chinese consumers have also vowed to support local brands such as Li Ning.

Xinjiang is China's largest cotton-producing area, accounting for more than 80% of domestic cotton output. But there is increasing concern among brands and retailers that its production is linked to Uighur forced labour in internment and re-education camps.

The China Cotton Association said it firmly opposes any restrictions on China's Xinjiang textile and clothing supply chain and related products by Western countries, led by the United States, and "strongly urges them to stop their wrong practices."

It added that statements from international clothing brands banning cotton products from Xinjiang, "aroused the attention of the whole society, severely damaged the reputation of Xinjiang and even China's cotton textile industry."

The statement continued: "We call on international textile and apparel brands to proceed from the common interests of the industry, respect the Chinese market, respect Chinese consumers, and maintain caution and restraint in response to unprovoked accusations on Xinjiang.

"The opening and development of China's cotton textile industry will not end because of the suppression of anti-China and anti-Xinjiang forces."

The China Cotton Association also warned: "Crude suppression from Western governments will not only directly harm the most vulnerable groups in the industrial chain-millions of cotton farmers and textile workers in Xinjiang, but will also seriously harm the interests of textile and apparel consumers, retailers, distributors and importers in various countries. 

"It will ultimately harm the stable and prosperous development of the world's textile and apparel supply chain and industrial chain."

The criticism comes hot on the heels of fresh sanctions by Britain, the EU, Canada and the US on Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang – a move applauded by footwear, apparel and textile industry bodies.

And earlier this year US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a withhold release order (WRO) authorising it to detain cotton products – including apparel and textiles – at US ports of entry if they're suspected of exploiting Xinjiang forced labour at any point in their supply chain, including the production or harvesting of the raw material.  

Companies are now caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there is increasing pressure from Western consumers, regulators, investors and politicians to demonstrate clear and transparent corporate social responsibility practices. On the other, the Chinese market is one of the biggest and fastest-growing in the world, and any loss of sales here would be particularly painful at a time when other countries are struggling to rebound from the pandemic.