Major Japanese clothing manufacturers and other companies face a dilemma over cotton from Xinjiang, which is considered one of the best cottons in the world.
In addition to its high global esteem, Xinjiang cotton is seen as a symbol of China’s repression of ethnic Uyghur, mostly Muslim, minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Cotton users are increasingly faced with a backlash from the international community.
In May, it was learned that the United States had blocked imports of shirts for Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo casual clothing chain, alleging they were made from cotton from Xinjiang. US Customs and Border Protection took action against Uniqlo in January on suspicion of violating a US ban on imports of goods from the Chinese region, where forced labor is believed to be practiced.
Uniqlo has denied the US claims, saying the shirts are made from cotton produced outside of China and sewn at its factory there. The clothing chain also said it had not confirmed any use of forced labor in the cotton production process it uses.
Under the new US rules, however, it is not enough for importers to prove that the cotton they use was not made in Xinjiang. They are required to provide proof that there has been no trade with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party in the region, at any stage of the marketing circuit after production.
“Now that supply chains are spread all over the world, it is almost impossible to prove the absolute absence of any deal with XPCC,” said an official at a Japanese trading house handling textiles.
In April, a French non-governmental organization supporting Uyghurs filed a lawsuit against Uniqlo’s unit in France, Inditex, the Spanish owner of the Zara clothing retail chain, and two other global clothing manufacturers, claiming that they were benefiting from forced labor in Xinjiang.
Tadashi Yanai, president and chairman of Fast Retailing, has been criticized after refusing to comment on the complaint, in order to remain “politically neutral”.
After French law enforcement authorities then opened an investigation into the four companies for alleged cover-up of crimes against humanity, Fast Retailing changed its stance, saying it would “fully cooperate with the investigation if it was asked of him “.
Ryohin Keikaku Co., the retailer and wholesaler of Muji-branded products, initially maintained a hands-off position on the Xinjiang cotton issue, noting that it had not confirmed “any serious violation of the law or otherwise. “.
In mid-April, the company admitted the use of cotton. However, President Satoru Matsuzaki said, “We will continue to use Xinjiang cotton confidently as we have not found any cases of serious violations. “
Mizuno Corp., a major sporting goods producer, announced in May its decision to stop using cotton from Xinjiang, while underwear maker Gunze Ltd. planned in June to end the use of cotton. Gunze will adopt an alternative cotton for certain types of socks, while claiming that he had “not discovered any violations such as forced labor” in the process of producing the Xinjiang cotton he uses.
Xinjiang cotton users face a Catch-22 dilemma. They are criticized by NGOs and US and European investors for their low human rights awareness if they continue to use cotton, but may be forced to leave the Chinese market if they stop using it.
In fact, a boycott campaign targeting a well-known international clothing manufacturer has spread to China. In April, sportswear maker Asics Corp. lost its sponsorship of a major marathon in China after a long silence on the cotton issue of Xinjiang.
Apparel and other businesses involved are under increasing pressure to make tough decisions and silence is not an option.
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