Faced with accusations that it was profiting from the forced labor of Uyghur people in the Chinese territory of Xinjiang, the H&M Group — the world’s second-largest clothing retailer — promised last year to stop buying cotton from the region.
But last month, H&M confronted a new outcry, this time from Chinese consumers who seized on the company’s renouncement of the cotton as an attack on China. Social media filled with angry demands for a boycott, urged on by the government. Global brands like H&M risked alienating a country of 1.4 billion people.
The furor underscored how international clothing brands relying on Chinese materials and factories now face the mother of all conundrums — a conflict vastly more complex than their now-familiar reputational crises over exploitative working conditions in poor countries.
If they fail to purge Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains, the apparel companies invite legal enforcement from Washington under an American ban on imports. Labor activists will charge them with complicity in the grotesque repression of the Uyghurs.
But forsaking Xinjiang cotton entails its own troubles — the wrath of Chinese consumers who denounce the attention on the Uyghurs as a Western plot to sabotage China’s development.
The global brands can protect their sales in North America and Europe, or preserve their markets in China. It is increasingly difficult to see how they can do both.
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