Xinjiang cotton: Why is China boycotting H&M?

Xinjiang cotton produces one of the most famous fabrics in the world.

At China Fashion Week, designer Zhou Li brought ruffles and minimalist designs to the runway and a patriotic prop with political overtimes: a bouquet of cotton.

"I think Xinjiang cotton is my sweetheart, my lover. This time I want to really thank it. It has brought me so much joy."

The significance of Xinjiang cotton taps into a controversy that has embroiled some of the West’s biggest fashion brands - such as Burberry, Adidas, Nike, and - perhaps most notably - H&M.

They have been hit by a boycott in China after making comments on alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which have resurfaced on Chinese social media.

Xinjiang – the farwestern region – produces around 20% of the world's cotton.

Some Western companies have expressed concern over reports of coercive labor programs in the province to meet seasonal cotton picking needs.

China strongly denies the claims.

It says all labor in Xinjiang is consensual and contract-based.

H&M said it did not source products from Xinjiang and it was, quote, “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor.”

The statement was made in 2020.

It was not immediately clear why it’s back in the public eye.

Patriotic campaigns targeting foreign brands are common in China where news and social media are tightly controlled by the Communist Party-controlled government.

At least one Chinese online retailer appeared to drop H&M’s products.

Consumers have vented their anger at the Swedish fashion giant.

[Student Ms. Li, saying] "I think these kinds of comments are really stupid. Because I believe our Chinese Communist Party. They wouldn't do such a thing, because all of our ethnic groups here are very much united and we don't need this kind of news or whatever."

The backlash has put the brands in an awkward position.

China is H&M’s fourth-biggest market with sales of around $1.13 billion in the 12 months through November 2020.

It said on its website that its commitment to China remained strong and it was dedicated to regaining trust and confidence.