Weekender: Xinjiang cotton forces fashion to choose its focus — East or West?

A cotton plant is pictured. Courtesy Pexels

A recent controversy has erupted over brands who use Xinjiang cotton, exposing fashion’s role in U.S.-China tensions as well as its broader problems with human rights abuses. For background, the Xinjiang region of China is responsible for about a fifth of global cotton production. In fact, it contributes to a whopping 1.5 billion garments imported annually by American brands. Xinjiang is also notably home to the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group which has largely been oppressed by China and has allegedly been forced to work in labor camps.

The heart of this conflict lies in concerns raised by many human rights groups about the region’s cotton production. Several brands such as Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Ralph Lauren and the PVH Corporation (the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) responded to the human rights allegations by echoing these concerns. The debate over Xinjiang cotton began as early as 2016, but H&M and other brands reiterated their worries more recently in the fall of 2020. Interestingly though, it only really began to draw widespread responses from China over the past month.

Many Chinese citizens boycotted retailers that accused China of sourcing cotton through forced Uyghur labor, and called on others to do the same through blogging and social media sites like Weibo. For products of brands like Nike or H&M that they owned, Chinese consumers covered their logos with masking tape or even threw them away entirely. Chinese influencers, who had previously partnered with Western brands and who are integral to their appeal to Chinese consumers, similarly denounced the brands.

Beyond individuals, Chinese e-commerce platforms and digital maps removed H&M products and stores, some shops banned people wearing certain Western brands from entering and restaurants have offered free drinks to those wearing domestic brands. Chinese state television blurred out Western brand names on clothing worn by reality show contestants just last week, and video game companies like Tencent removed character outfits featuring Burberry designs.

In response, some brands walked back on their previous comments. H&M issued a new statement trying to “regain the trust and confidence” of Chinese consumers, while Inditex removed previous commitments to avoid Xinjiang cotton from its website. Muji even announced a new apparel line promoting Xinjiang cotton. These moves have since received their own backlash from American and European media, revealing the predicament of these brands: they will likely alienate Western or Chinese consumers no matter what they do. If they appease China, human rights organizations will condemn them, but if they do not, they risk losing the increasingly large market which China presents.

Already in March, the U.S., Canada, U.K. and EU each announced sanctions against China over its abuse of the Uyghur population. The U.S. banned cotton imports from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps even earlier in December, despite the difficulty of monitoring and enforcing this rule. Such difficulty is only compounded by experts’ predictions that China will be responsible for the largest amount of global luxury consumption by 2025, showing the huge incentive of brands to maintain favor with China instead of complying with Western attitudes and regulations. 

In fact, it is also unclear how brands could fully satisfy human rights organizations and prevent the use of Xinjiang cotton altogether. Supply chains are incredibly complex, and shifting production to other Asian countries does not guarantee that they will not use Xinjiang cotton exported from China. This problem is not unique to Xinjiang cotton — the fashion industry struggles with monitoring and stopping human rights abuses of sweatshop labor and environmental harm in almost all locations where production is outsourced to be cheaper. 

Even the Better Cotton Initiative — a group specifically created to increase transparency in cotton production globally — has gotten caught up in the controversy. It reversed previous statements expressing concern over Xinjiang human rights abuses to instead claim that no evidence of such abuses has been found, proving the cotton industry expert Eddie Jernigan’s statement that, “BCI was never set up to try to tell the [Chinese] government what to do.” Monitoring potential abuses by private companies is one thing, whereas investigating a state-sponsored program is another entirely.

The particular case of Xinjiang cotton thus reveals deeper issues that Western brands have with outsourcing, as abuses come to light and outsourcing locations rise as economic powers in their own right. China’s desire to exert nationalism and soft power within the world of fashion was evident at its fashion weeks during the past month. At Beijing Fashion Week, Designer Zhou Li received a bouquet of cotton instead of traditional flowers at the end of her show. “Xinjiang cotton is my sweetheart, my love, which is to say I’m very grateful it has brought me such happiness,” she said after the show. Models also remarked on their national pride and trust in China’s denial of forced-labor allegations. Many other designers incorporated traditional Chinese designs, mythology and dyeing and weaving practices into their collections as well. 

Meanwhile, at Shanghai fashion week, which just ended on Tuesday, designers impressively integrated physical and virtual formats, something that other fashion weeks have struggled with due to the pandemic. European brands like Versace traveled to stage their own events too, with Dior actually using the location to show its pre-fall 2021 collection for the very first time. Whereas more international designers have gone to European and American fashion weeks to make a name for themselves in the past, Western labels are now actively courting audiences at shows based in Asia. 

A more unexpected type of fashion show where the turning tables of East and West have been on display lies in the world of sports. The Chinese basketball star Guo Ailun has not played since March 26 because he sponsors Jordan shoes, owned by Nike. On the other hand, the prices of shoes from the Chinese sportswear brands Li Ning and Anta Sports shot up last week due to the increasing support for local brands, reaching about thirty times their original prices. On a global level, the International Olympics Committee has hired the Hengyuanxiang Group, which uses Xinjiang cotton, to make staff uniforms for the upcoming games in Tokyo. From the Chinese Basketball Association season to the Olympic games, even sportswear is a political performance.

Ultimately, this all speaks to China’s increasing power in fashion as a crucial consumer market, a rising leader for integrating technology into industry events and a production powerhouse. Referring to Better Cotton Initiative’s messy role in the Xinjiang conflict, a previous senior official at the International Labour Organization commented that, “A decade ago when people talked about China being the next power, I couldn’t really see what it would look like … Now, I can see what China as a power looks like … it looks like this.” Chinese officials themselves issued a parallel statement to H&M which harkened back to China’s historical “century of humiliation” by Western powers and declared the “era of bullying” to be over.

Perhaps the reason why China has only now voiced such aggressive responses to the claims of forced Uyghur cotton production is because of the opportune moment that both its fashion weeks and the regional Olympics within Asia this year offer to showcase its potential as a new fashion capital. The controversy over Xinjiang cotton may only be a precursor of further dynamic changes to come in the fashion industry and beyond.


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