A woman walks by an H&M store in Shanghai, China Wednesday, March 24, 2021. The Swedish fast-fashion brand has attracted boycott from its Chinese customers after indicating forced labor existing in Xinjiang.

SHANGHAI — H&M has suddenly been blocked from all major Chinese e-commerce platforms including Tmall, Taobao, JD.com and Pinduoduo over its stance to remove Xinjiang cotton out of its supply chain.

Searching for the brand on any of the platforms shows no results. It’s not known if this is a temporary or permanent ban of the Swedish retailer. The brand’s physical stores do not appear to have been impacted thus far.

H&M had originally revealed its decision last year to disavow Xinjiang cotton, but this controversy seems to have been prompted by a Weibo post from the Communist Youth League, part of China’s ruling party, on Wednesday, which said: “Spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton, while also wanting to make money in China? Wishful thinking!” The post included H&M’s response to the decision taken by the Better Cotton Initiative in March to no longer license its cotton from Xinjiang, in both English and Chinese.

H&M China’s brand ambassadors Huang Xuan and Song Qian revealed online that they were no longer working with the brand, stating they were “firmly opposed to any attempt to discredit the country” — although a source told WWD that Huang’s ambassadorship in fact had ended some time ago.

H&M’s decision to stop using cotton from China’s Xinjiang region was rooted over concerns over allegations of mass forced labor camps in the region. At the start of the year, the U.S. government stated that Beijing’s repression of Uighur and other Muslims in the region constituted “genocide.” Other fashion labels that have publicly distanced themselves from Xinjiang cotton include Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp.; Fast Retailing, parent of Uniqlo; Nike; Gap, and Zara owner Inditex. Official e-commerce storefronts for brands under these companies seem to be operating and appear in search results per usual.

While these companies addressed the issue some time ago, the sudden targeting seems to be in retaliation to the ratcheting up of tensions over the issue in recent days. The U.S., Canada, the U.K. and the European Union, coordinated this week for the first time to condemn the country’s alleged human rights violations toward Xinjiang’s Uighur minority and launched sanctions on some Chinese government-affiliated individuals. The Chinese government responded in kind, issuing its own counter-sanctions against Western officials.

Xinjiang has few apparel factories but it is key in cotton production, accounting for 20 percent of global supply. While much of that is used for goods sold in China, cotton is mixed and distributed globally, putting brands in a difficult position. They are asked to prove that the cotton in the goods they bring into the U.S. was not grown in Xinjiang, while also trying not to anger China.

In response, H&M put out a statement on Weibo that said: “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 such as the “OECD Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct” and do not represent any political position.

“The H&M Group does not source cotton directly from any supplier. We are committed to long-term investment and development in China, currently working with over 350 manufacturers in China to provide sustainable apparel products to Chinese and global consumers.”

China has a long track record of punishing companies and public figures for opposing political views, particularly over the issues of Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

While fashion brands have previously run into trouble in the country over geopolitics, this incident represents a harsher level of punishment than seen before. Versace, Coach and Givenchy have been targeted by Chinese authorities in previous years for failing to explicitly refer to Hong Kong and Macau as part of China.

In 2019, a Versace T-shirt that listed store locations across the world became the subject of ire. It printed Beijing and Shanghai, followed by the country name, China, but formatted Macau and Hong Kong differently, which angry netizens interpreted as suggesting the regions are separate entities. Macau and Hong Kong are former colonies that are now governed as Chinese special administrative regions.

Related:

Did Xinjiang Cotton Crisis Up Stakes for Traceability?

‘Made in China’ Book Spotlights Forced Uighur Labor 

Fashion’s Forced Labor Test in Xinjiang

U.S. Bans Xinjiang Cotton to Combat Slave Labor

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