How brands are responding to China’s Xinjiang boycotts: deleting past statements or all-out flip-flops

March 26, 2021, 11:31 AM UTC

Some of the world’s largest apparel companies are facing an unprecedented reckoning in China as state media outlets and social media campaigns call for consumer boycotts in protest of the brands previously saying they were concerned about reports that China uses forced labor to produce cotton in its Xinjiang province. Now, some companies are deleting those statements or telling different stories about their products depending on whether the audience is Western or Chinese.

H&M, the Swedish-based retailer and world’s largest fashion company, was the first company ensnared on Wednesday when the Communist Youth League, a division of the Chinese Communist Party, shared a months-old statement from H&M on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. H&M’s statement from September 2020 said it would no longer use Xinjiang cotton in its products and that it was “deeply concerned” about reports that China employed forced labor practices among the Uyghur minority population in Xinjiang. (Beijing denies all reports of forced labor in Xinjiang; a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry called the allegation “nothing but malicious lies” on Thursday.)

In a viral Weibo post, the Communist Youth League accused H&M of “spreading rumors” and said it was “wishful thinking” for H&M to continue doing business in China. Media outlets like the state-owned People’s Daily soon piled on with criticism, and by Thursday e-commerce platforms had pulled H&M products from their platforms and Chinese celebrities had cut ties with the brand. H&M store locations have even reportedly vanished from map apps in China.

In response, H&M’s original statement on forced labor in Xinjiang was reportedly scrubbed for a time from its website before being re-posted on Friday. It also issued a new statement about the controversy in Chinese.

“H&M Group respects Chinese consumers as always,” H&M’s new statement said on Weibo. “We are committed to long-term investment and development in China.”

Similar boycott calls soon hit other major fashion brands like Nike, Zara, Burberry, Adidas, and Gap as Internet users and media outlets dug up their previous statements regarding reports of forced labor in Xinjiang.

Amid the controversy, the Spanish retailer Zara’s parent company Inditex reportedly pulled its statement calling forced labor reports in Xinjiang “highly concerning.”

At least one company, meanwhile, has issued a statement that contradicts its previous actions regarding Xinjiang.

In September 2020, the German retailer Hugo Boss told NBC News that its suppliers are required to prove that they don’t source cotton from Xinjiang.

But on Wednesday, Hugo Boss appeared to reverse its position, telling its Chinese customers that it uses Xinjiang cotton in its clothing products and doesn’t plan to stop.

“For many years, we have respected the One China principle, resolutely defending national sovereign and territorial integrity,” Hugo Boss said in a statement on Chinese social media. “Xinjiang’s long-stapled cotton is one of the best in the world… We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton.”

Fila, a retailer that is headquartered in Italy but whose brand in China is controlled by Chinese retailer Anta, has issued two separate stances on the matterone from its representatives in Italy and another from its Chinese entity.

In a statement to Fortune this week, the Italian Fila said that it was reviewing its supply chain after seeing reports of forced labor in Xinjiang in 2020.

“We have performed a review of our direct suppliers and their subcontractors, promoted awareness of the issue of forced labor in China with our global licensees and our direct suppliers,” Fila said.

On Wednesday, Fila China said in a statement on Weibo that it was pulling out of the Better Cotton Initiative, a sustainability non-profit organization that last year stopped approving products sourced from Xinjiang due to human rights concerns.

“FILA China has always purchased and used cotton produced in China, including from the Xinjiang region,” the statement said.

Fila did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment, while Hugo Boss and H&M directed Fortune to previous statements regarding their polices on forced labor in Xinjiang.

Brands’ efforts to scrub previous statements about Xinjiang and appease Chinese consumers underscores what’s at stake: China’s enormous market. Brands are being squeezed by a global investor community focused on environmental, social, and governance matters and a Chinese government that rejects allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang as part of a Western-led smear campaign. That pressure has long existed, but Chinese consumers are now demanding that companies pick a side and brands are trying to split the difference.