Two Japanese apparel giants have sworn off sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region amid fresh evidence of Beijing’s alleged crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.
Sanyo Shokai said it will no longer use cotton from the region for its umbrella of brands beginning with its collections for next spring and summer. “We have decided that we cannot continue to use it because we suspect a human-rights problem,” the company said in a statement. TSI Holdings, which maintains the Japanese license for brands such as Jill Stuart, New Balance Golf and Stüssy, will also eschew Xinjiang cotton in its fall and winter lines onward “until the human-rights issues are resolved,” it said.
Up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others are believed to be held captive in internment camps and prisons or compelled to pick cotton. They might be dispatched to factory jobs, both within and outside of Xinjiang, as part of a labor-transfer scheme that one leaked high-level document said “not only reduces Uyghur population density in Xinjiang, but also is an important method to influence, fuse and assimilate Uyghur minorities.” Beijing has adamantly defended these programs as efforts to “alleviate poverty through labor” and curb extremism.
Last week, footage from a citizen journalist named Guanguan offered a rare look at Xinjiang’s so-called reeducation centers. Many were surrounded by watchtowers, surveillance cameras and high fences topped by barbed wire. “The Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs is beyond imagination,” Guanguan said at the end of the video. “One who does not wish to be enslaved cannot bear the sight of others being enslaved. Down with the [Chinese Communist Party], may it be dissolved sooner rather than later so as to end its anti-humanity evildoings.”
Other brands in Japan have already started shunning Xinjiang cotton, which accounts for 85 percent of China’s supply and one-fifth of the world’s. Sportswear brand Mizuno and apparel companies World and Cox dropped cotton from the region in May. Underwear maker Gunze said in June that it will be replacing the cotton in some of its socks with a non-Xinjiang alternative, though it has “discovered no violations such as forced labor” in the production of the Xinjiang cotton it employs.
Fast Retailing-owned Uniqlo, whose shipment of men’s shirts was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this year for violating a Withhold Release Order on cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, says it doesn’t manufacture any of its products in Xinjiang, though chairman and CEO Tadashi Yanai has previously cited a desire for his business to remain “politically neutral.” Asics, which said in a social media post in March that it would continue to source Xinjiang cotton, later recanted, saying that the “statement in question was unauthorized and is not our official corporate position on this matter.” The brand also confirmed that the Australian Olympic team uniform it provided for the Tokyo 2020 Games did not contain Xinjiang cotton and was not manufactured in the region, but it did not elaborate on its position on the issue.
Muji owner Ryohin Keikaku, on the other hand, has tilted in a different direction by publicizing its continued adoption of cotton from Xinjiang. In an April statement on its website, the company said it has “not identified any material violations of laws & regulations [of] our Code of Conduct.” Roughly half of the company’s revenue outside of Japan comes from China, where Muji operates nearly 300 stores. In comparison, its share of the U.S. market, where it has 18 doors, barely registers.
On its online store in China, Muji has flagged products with the words “Xinjiang cotton,” a move that has appealed to Chinese consumers on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo. The same users are quick to show their ire to retailers such as Adidas, H&M and Nike, which have rejected Xinjiang cotton over forced-labor concerns. A boycott of several Western brands, first organized in March, has continued to rock many of their bottom lines, demonstrating the perils of falling afoul of China’s 1.4-billion-people-strong market and forcing brands that are still on the sidelines to choose between their business interests and complying with a growing raft of Western sanctions, including a U.S. ban on all cotton and cotton-containing products from Xinjiang and Canada’s first enforcement of its own forced-labor law.
Another casualty of the consumer firestorm has been the Better Cotton Initiative, which angered the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s after it suspended all field-level activity in Xinjiang last October, pointing to “sustained allegations of forced labor and other human-rights abuses.” A BCI forced labor task force report later described truncated freedoms that prevented Xinjiang farmers from speaking freely about their circumstances, causing further outrage from authorities. The squabble led China to drop BCI in favor of its own domestic “sustainable” cotton standard, whose inaugural batch is being harvested. So far, 21 companies are part of the initiative, compared with BCI’s 2,100.
“In Xinjiang, we have felt a sense of urgency to speed up setting up our own standard and building [a] homegrown cotton brand,” Liu Wenming, a local agricultural official in southern Xinjiang’s Shaya county, which accounts for 90 percent of China’s long-staple cotton yield, told the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet, in October. “China is the world’s largest cotton producer and consumer, yet we face constraints and have been bullied by Western forces partly due to the lack of a unified and globally influential standard.”
In less contentious news, 57 Chinese textile firms have announced a bid to achieve joint carbon neutrality through what they have called the Climate Stewardship 2030 Accelerating Plan. The companies, which include Chenfeng Group, K-Boxing, Peacebird, Sateri, Weiqiao Pioneering Group and Wensli Group, will begin rolling out training programs that address climate change sometime next year. In 2022, the initiative will list its goals for reaching carbon neutrality. By 2022, it plans to make public its members’ specific roadmaps.
At a United Nations General Assembly meeting last September, President Xi Jinping pledged to have China’s carbon emissions peak before 2030 and for the country to hit carbon neutrality before 2060.
“We hope Chinese textile firms will carry out more innovation and practices in promoting the sector’s high-quality and sustainable development, and enhance the sector’s participation level and discourse power in the context of the green economy,” Sun Ruizhe, president of the China National Textile and Apparel Council, said in a statement.