On Thursday, China, backed by the Chinese government itself, started retaliating against the Western boycott of cotton produced in the ‘Uyghur labor camps’ of Xinjiang, calling for its own boycott against international fashion companies. The boycott primarily affected Swedish retail giant H&M on Thursday, but is now also being launched against the parent companies of Nike, Adidas and Uniqlo, which decided to stop using cotton sourced in Xinjiang in their apparel, in light of the recent accusations of human rights violations by the Chinese authorities.
China’s boycott of H&M was initiated after the international organization Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) decided to terminate the licenses of all the companies that operate in the Xinjiang region, as reported by various media outlets. China soon extended its H&M boycott to the other firms affiliated with the BCI.
Chinese consumers, often in favor of the Chinese government, have expressed their own discontent via local social media, and started burning their H&M clothes after the Chinese Communist Youth League accused multinationals of “continuing to profit off off China and its economy” despite the boycott, via Chinese social media platform Weibo on Thursday.
As tensions rise in the Xinjiang cotton crisis, international fashion firms are taking positions, which aren’t always received well by the international public, that seems to have several openly conflicting interests at the moment. The strategy of Spanish fashion giant Inditex Group, parent company of fashion chains such as Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius and Oysho, did not go unnoticed. It is now being accused of turning a blind eye and submitting to the Chinese regime and its ‘crimes against humanity’.
Inditex removes a statement condemning the violation of Uyghur rights
Spanish apparel giant Inditex finds itself torn, like the rest of the international companies present in China, between the interests of Beijing and the interests of a number of Western powers. Companies have stressed all they want to do is guarantee the human rights of the Uyghurs. Inditex put up a statement on its website earlier, mentioning “a zero tolerance policy when it comes to forced labor practices.”After taking down an explanatory statement that expressly mentioned the Uyghurs and the Chinese region of Xinjiang from the same corporate page, the Spanish multinational is now being heavily criticized by different media outlets and organizations that defend the Uyghur rights.
US media outlet NPR, responsible for the scoop, reported that Inditex decided to take down the statement in question this same week. The Spanish retail giant did leave a trace of it in the cached version of its webpage, to which the NPR had access, but left the page containing the statement as 'not found' in the latest updates of Inditex’s corporate page. However, the website still mentions its 'zero tolerance policy towards any form of forced labor' in its section on labor rights, without making any direct mention of the Uyghurs or the Xinjiang region, to which it did refer directly in the withdrawn statement.
The statement, now removed from the corporate website, read: "At Inditex we take a zero-tolerance approach toward forced labor of any kind and have stringent policies and actions in place to ensure that it does not take place anywhere in our apparel and textiles supply chain." At the same time, the Spanish company emphasized being aware of the existence of “various of these types of reports that allege negligence of social and labor rights in various parts of the supply chain, related to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang (China) and in other regions, which is very concerning.” The Spanish multinational concludes the statement with: “After an internal investigation, we can now confirm that Inditex does not have any commercial relationship with any factory in Xinjiang.”
A clear text, but removed already, so we cannot confirm if it is Inditex's attempt to distance itself from the controversy or if the company is now in fact willing to make use of Xinjiang cotton as a raw material for its collections. The latter would be in line with the strategy adopted by companies such as Japan’s Muji or the fashion firm Hugo Boss, which have already publicly defended the quality of Xinjiang cotton and the added value that its use represents for their products.
A trial by fire for international companies
After Inditex removed the statement from its website, the international organization for the defense of the Uyghurs, The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, immediately censored Inditex’s stance. They accuse the Spanish company of colluding with the Beijing regime and prioritizing its economic interests over human rights.
“The Chinese government is threatening clothing brands that have publicly taken a stand against the forced labor of the Uyghurs” with commercial consequences, explained a representative of the pro Uighur rights Coalition to American fashion platform Women’s Wear Daily (WWD). “As reported by media, one brand, Inditex [owner of Zara], has responded by removing its policy on forced labor from its own website.” “Inditex’s behavior, like that of the numerous other brands that have remained silent on the issue of Uyghur forced labor, such as Amazon, Target and Walmart, emboldens the Chinese government in its crimes against humanity in the Uyghur Region.”
“Placing human rights over profits carries a price ” the organization continued in its statement, as there are “millions of consumers worldwide who do not want to be made complicit in Uyghur forced labor” and “are going to be watching to see how companies react to this bullying.” “Will they reaffirm their opposition to forced labor and crimes against humanity or will they follow in Inditex’s footsteps and cave to pressure? This is a moral test for the world’s apparel brands. We will see who passes and who fails,” said the coalition in its statement to WWD.
Photo credit: Zara, official website.
This article was previously published on FashionUnited.ES, translated and edited into English by Veerle Versteeg.