Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M Group today (31 March) emphasised its long-term commitment to China, after coming under fire from Chinese consumers over its stance on forced labour in cotton-hub Xinjiang.

The retailer was the first to be singled out after publicly expressing concerns about Uyghur forced labour in September 2020, and for saying it would end its relationship with Huafu Fashion, a yarn supplier with operations in Xinjiang over the issue. 

Major Chinese e-retailers Tmall, JD.com, Taobao and Pinduoduo then removed all H&M products from their online stores, and telecom giant Huawei has banned H&M's app from its downloads.

The retailer now says: "We are working together with our colleagues in China to do everything we can to manage the current challenges and find a way forward.

"China is a very important market to us and our long-term commitment to the country remains strong. Having been present there for more than thirty years, we have witnessed remarkable progress within the Chinese textile industry. Being at the forefront of innovation and technology, China will clearly continue to play an important role in further developing the entire industry. 

"We are proud our suppliers are being part of that development and we want to continue contributing to driving progress together with our partners and stakeholders in the country. 

"We want to be a responsible buyer, in China and elsewhere, and are now building forward-looking strategies and actively working on next steps with regards to material sourcing. Together with all relevant stakeholders, we want to collaborate to be part of the solution and jointly build a more sustainable fashion industry.

"As a global company, we comply with local laws and regulatory frameworks in all the markets where we operate. Our company values are built on trust, respect, integrity, and dialogue. We wish to focus on our core business and on what we do best – bringing fashion and design to our customers all around the world.

"We are dedicated to regaining the trust and confidence of our customers, colleagues, and business partners in China. By working together with stakeholders and partners, we believe we can take steps in our joint efforts to develop the fashion industry, as well as serve our customers and act in a respectful way."

Like many retailers, H&M Group faces increasing pressure from Western consumers, regulators, investors and politicians to demonstrate clear and transparent corporate social responsibility practices. 

However, 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.

"This situation causes a dilemma especially for brands such as H&M that have taken a stronger stance in terms of ethics, as they either stand by their comments and their revenue will suffer in the short term; or retract their statement to benefit sales in a strategically important country, creating negative perceptions of their ethical standards among Western consumers," notes Emily Salter, retail analyst at data and analytics company GlobalData.

Several brands and retailers including VF Corp, Inditex and PVH have quietly removed their own policies against forced labour from their websites. While other brands such as Muji, Fila and Asics say they will continue to use cotton from Xinjiang.

Hugo Boss had been reported as saying it would use Xinjiang cotton, but tells just-style the statement on the Chinese social media channel Weibo was an unauthorised post that has now been removed. The company's position remains that it has not procured any goods originating in the Xinjiang region from direct suppliers.

"In general, Hugo Boss does not tolerate discrimination based on race, gender or nationality in any form. This is part of our global standards. We believe in positive and constructive relationships with all partners, nations and people worldwide. Wherever we stand in for our standards and values we do this in the best believe, to ensure that our products are manufactured according to what we have defined as binding criteria for our business. Our standards are defined in the Hugo Boss Code of Conduct and Human Rights Policy in more detail, which are also publicly available on our Group website."

Companies are being urged not to trade their human rights principles for commercial gain: Fashion firms urged to resist China boycott threats.