China has disappeared H&M from its internet, dividing the fashion industry group
A debate over what action to take against the Chinese government has sparked conflict within a leading coalition that guides much of global cotton production.
The Better Cotton Initiative, a collaboration between big brands like Nike Inc.
and Gap Inc.,
environmental groups, farmers and human rights organizations have worked for years to increase the access of the global garment industry to sustainably produced cotton.
But recent attacks by the Chinese government on the group and one of its core members, fast fashion giant H&M Hennes & Mauritz HM.B -0.65%
AB, have expressed concerns over whether BCI’s fashion brands can continue to sell clothing in China – a huge and rapidly growing consumer market – if the group challenges Beijing again.
In March, Beijing virtually wiped out H & M’s internet presence in the country after the company and BCI raised concerns over allegations of forced labor in China’s cotton-rich Xinjiang region.
Following online blocking of H&M and Chinese social media users calling for boycott of Nike and Adidas members AG
BCI removed a month-old statement from its website about concerns that cotton was produced by forced labor in Xinjiang.
Some members of non-governmental organizations said BCI’s suppression of the statement and silence during the backlash in China suggests the group has bowed to pressure at the request of retail members, people close to it say. organisation. They believe BCI’s reaction undermines the mission of the initiative to improve the lives of cotton farmers, the people said.
Some NGO members are urging the group to cease operations in China altogether and are pushing their representatives on its board of directors – the environmental group Pesticide Action Network and Solidaridad, an organization advocating responsible supply chains – to restore online statement relating to Xinjiang and rejecting it. against attacks by Chinese media, people said.
At the same time, some member retailers and nongovernmental organizations say BCI should instead engage quietly with Beijing, the people said.
A BCI spokesperson declined to comment.
Western companies with supply chains in Xinjiang are walking a fine line. Companies are trying to avoid Beijing’s wrath and at the same time take seriously claims by human rights groups and the US and UK governments that authorities are committing genocide against ethnic Uyghurs and using labor forced into the northwest region of China.
The Chinese government has called the allegations a lie, saying it is fighting terrorism and improving livelihoods in Xinjiang. He lashed out at those who raised concerns about the region. No industry is more caught up in the issue than fashion: Xinjiang accounts for four-fifths of China’s cotton production and one-fifth of world production.
The Better Cotton Initiative started as a World Wildlife Fund project in 2005 and became its own organization in 2009. The nonprofit group trains farmers and gives its seal of approval to those who meet standards. on the use of water, the use of chemicals and labor rights.
Members were encouraged to join. Farmers have learned to reduce expenses and improve the quality of cotton. Non-governmental organizations were able to put pressure on the fashion industry on environmental protection and labor rights. And brands, such as founding members Gap Inc., H&M and IKEA, could boast to their customers and shareholders that they were part of an initiative to help the planet.
“Brands were committed to their cotton being 100% sustainably sourced by 2025,” said Lise Melvin, CEO of BCI from 2006 to 2013. “They saw the Better Cotton initiative as a means of ‘reach this goal.
The group has set a goal of having 30% of global cotton production come from BCI-certified farmers by 2020. This ambition has made it difficult to ignore China, where BCI has opened an office in 2012.
Tensions with Beijing began after BCI paid increased attention to labor rights around the world last year. In October, the group stopped training and licensing farmers in Xinjiang, citing “sustained allegations of forced labor and other human rights violations.” A BCI committee on forced labor later mentioned, among other concerns, that farmers in Xinjiang could not speak candidly about their plight.
These actions did not cause ripples in China until March, when the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union sanctioned Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations. In the region. Chinese state-controlled media have criticized these sanctions and criticized BCI and the brands of its members, especially Sweden’s H&M. H&M has disappeared from Chinese e-commerce sites, while Chinese celebrities have dropped their sponsorships with the company.
In a recent earnings call, H&M said it wanted to remain a “responsible buyer” in China. He declined to quantify the cost of the reaction, saying only that the owners had closed a few H&M outlets in China. In total, 20 out of around 500 stores have been closed, the company said.
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In the days that followed as Chinese media and social media users began attacking BCI and its members in late March, the Chinese state-owned TV broadcaster broadcast an interview with BCI’s Shanghai bureau chief, who said that his office had found no evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang. The group deleted its October online statement on Xinjiang’s concerns without an explanation.
These actions, seen in China as a flip-flop, sparked provocation from a youth wing of the ruling Communist Party in a message posted on social media last month: “Your face must hurt!”
BCI has not publicly addressed the situation, saying a response could threaten the personal safety of its dozen employees in China, people close to the organization said. Although the BCI reversed its public statements, it maintained its position on stopping training and licensing of farmers in Xinjiang.
A person close to BCI said the group’s presence in China and the brands it represents gives it leverage to influence Beijing, even if it has to do so quietly, the person said. Nonprofits can only operate in China if they are invited by Beijing and follow its rules, the person added.
Ms Melvin, the former CEO, says the group is facing a Catch-22.
“How does anyone choose to avoid working in problem areas,” she said, “or work on them to improve them, even though there are risks in doing that?”
—Qianwei Zhang in Beijing contributed to this article.
Write to Stu Woo at [email protected]
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