The reaction was swift and furious. In late March, two days after a coalition of western countries imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the alleged use of forced labour in the cotton-rich north-west territory of Xinjiang, Chinese state-backed media outlets and social media users began to call for an immediate and widespread boycott of H&M. Within hours, H&M products and stores were scrubbed from major Chinese ecommerce sites and taxi-hailing apps, and some bricks-and-mortar locations were reportedly shut by landlords.

The Swedish fast-fashion retailer had come under fire for a statement published on its website last year — recently removed — saying that it was “deeply concerned” by reports of “forced labour” in Xinjiang and would no longer source cotton from the area responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s cotton supply. (A spokesperson for H&M declined to comment.)

The furore quickly enveloped other overseas brands which had expressed concerns over reports that Muslim Uyghurs have been detained in camps and coerced into labour, including Nike, Adidas, Calvin Klein and Burberry (who lost actress Zhou Dongyu as a brand ambassador and saw its branding removed from a popular video game). The Trump administration banned all imports of Xinjiang cotton and products derived from it in January, describing what was happening in the region as “genocide”. Beijing has denied the allegations.

Once again, fashion has found itself caught in the political crosshairs between western and Chinese governments, forced to choose between the demands of human rights groups, western consumers and their own employees on the one hand, and the impulse to please China and its consumers in the world’s second-largest economy on the other.

The impulse to please Chinese consumers appears to have won out. Within 48 hours, many brands — including H&M, Zara owner Inditex, The North Face owner VF Corp, and PVH Corp, owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein — removed statements from their websites that referenced Xinjiang and forced labour. Hugo Boss went so far as to post on its Weibo account that it would “continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton”, but later retracted the message. (The German suit-maker has since released a statement saying it “does not tolerate forced labour, coercive labour or any type of modern slavery”.) Other luxury companies with significant exposure to China, including LVMH and Kering, have remained silent, and did not respond to FT requests for comment.

A Nike store in Shanghai

“It’s capitalism meets forced labour, and the brands are choosing unfettered capitalism,” observes Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute, a US non-profit that provides education and resources around sustainability and corporate greenwashing.

She, like others in the industry, is concerned what the fallout from Xinjiang will mean for fashion’s notoriously complex and opaque supply chains. Few brands can say with certainty where their materials are sourced and their garments manufactured; some produce goods in hundreds of factories across the globe and often those factories subcontract their work to other factories the brands are unaware of.

A series of tragedies and controversies — most famously the collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh in 2013 — has put pressure on companies to better know and regulate their supply chains, and pass that information on to consumers. (Though it’s still unclear how much human rights controversies impact sales; one textile expert observed that consumers only really care about animal abuse.) Some have begun to adopt new blockchain technologies, such as Fibretrace, which allow companies to trace every step of their supply chain down to the fibre and pass that information along to consumers.

But Xinjiang has underlined the risk of such disclosures; it is the companies that haven’t been transparent about their cotton sourcing that have benefited on this occasion. Brands that have been moving towards greater transparency might now hesitate before sharing that information with consumers.

Brandie Sasser, the vice-president of strategic engagement at Transparentum, a US non-profit that investigates environmental and human rights violations in fashion supply chains, says this is already happening. While she has seen a slew of brands move away from Xinjiang cotton since the Trump ban, “companies have been much more nervous about what they put out publicly [since the online backlash began],” she says. “We’re seeing some early trends of companies being less willing to put things in writing with us. They are worried that if you’re doing the right thing and being transparent, it’s much easier to make a case against you.”

To Bédat, the episode is further proof that international supply chain abuses need to be further regulated by governments, and disclosures about material origins and suppliers need to be mandatory. “Any moves for transparency and sustainability thus far have been volunteer-driven. The industry has said, we’ve got this, we don’t need to be regulated. This is a pretty clear example that voluntary disclosures aren’t working.”

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Letter in response to this article:

Ensure supply chains are not just spinning a yarn / From Vivek Ramachandran, Chief Executive Officer, Serai, Hong Kong