A row has erupted on Chinese social media platform Weibo after screenshots of a statement from H&M, which details its commitment to stop using cotton from the Xinjiang region due to alleged forced labour concerns, were widely shared. Many users have called for a boycott of the retailer and for H&M to “get out of the Chinese market”.
A short time later, actor Huang Xuan’s Weibo account posted a notice saying the actor, a menswear ambassador for H&M in the Greater China market, would terminate his relationship with the brand immediately. The statement read in part that Huang, “firmly opposed any attempt to discredit the country”.
A few hours after that, a search for H&M or “HM”, the commonly used name for the brand in China, on major e-commerce platforms, including Alibaba’s Tmall (where H&M has long had an official store), JD.com or Pinduoduo showed no results. It appears the brand has been blocked from these platforms, though there’s been no official announcement or public communication about the ban, so it’s unclear whether or not it’s a short term or permanent situation.
H&M responded to the controversy by posting a statement on its official Weibo account that read in part: “H&M Group has always managed our global supply chain in an open and transparent manner, ensuring that our suppliers worldwide comply with our sustainability commitments ... and do not represent any political position.”
This controversy comes within a week of a joint condemnation of China’s alleged crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uighur minority from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and European Union, which included sanctions on some government-affiliated individuals. Shortly after this announcement, China hit back with sanctions of its own against Western officials.
More than 80 percent of China’s cotton comes from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is home to about 11 million Uighurs.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly refuted allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton production. “We have iterated our stance on so-called forced labour many times and I can reiterate that Chinese nationals sign labour contracts with employers and obtain remuneration on the basis of equality, voluntariness and consensus in line with the Labour Law and the Labour Contract Law,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was quoted as saying by The Global Times newspaper.
Chinese netizens currently calling for a boycott contend that international sanctions are unjustified and based on biased reports in foreign media and from international human rights campaigners.
The H&M statement currently being circulated online in China appears to be a year old, and drafted in response to the decision taken by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a global non-profit aiming to improve conditions in the garment sector, in March to no longer license its “Better Cotton” from Xinjiang.
H&M uses BCI to source cotton and backed the decision to suspend licensing in the region, saying they would no longer source from there. Gap, Patagonia and Zara-owner Inditex have all stated that they do not source from factories in Xinjiang, but the majority could not confirm that their supply chain was free of cotton picked from the region, according to a Reuters report.
The US said in January of this year that it will bar entry of all cotton products from the region. This has put American companies, such as PVH, which owns brands including Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, in a bind as it could make some of its overseas manufactured products illegal to import into its home market. PVH has said it would cut ties with any factories or mills that produce fabric or use cotton from Xinjiang within a year.
H&M reports its full-year earnings on March 31. With store closures throughout many other markets interrupting its business, the China market has been a focal point for H&M, where it has more than 500 stores, but had seen sales fall 17 percent in the year to November 30. H&M Group brands & Other Stories and Arket are opening their first Chinese stores in 2021.
BoF reached out to H&M for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.