British designer Burberry is the first luxury brand to be targeted in China in a backlash against western sanctions imposed over alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, following on from retailers including H&M and Nike that were boycotted by Chinese shoppers this week after they voiced concerns about cotton sourced from the Chinese region, one of the world’s top cotton producers.
- Burberry brand ambassador and actress Zhou Dongyu halted her contract with Burberry on Thursday, with her agency saying the trench coat maker had not “clearly and publicly stated its stance on cotton from Xinjiang,” according to a statement reported by Reuters.
- The brand’s trademark beige, black and red plaid was also removed Thursday from one of China’s best-performing video games, Tencent-owned Honor of Kings, days after the partnership between Burberry and the game was announced.
- Sources cited in the South China Morning Post said the decision was linked to Burberry’s membership of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a cotton sustainability project that last year suspended its links to Xinjiang over alleged human rights and labor abuses.
- Hitting back at the sanctions, China on Friday imposed its own sanctions against nine U.K. lawmakers that have spoken out against Xinjiang, including Nusrat Ghani, who has urged the U.K. government to act against “slave camps” in the region.
- Pressure has mounted on retailers in recent months to cut the use of Xinjiang cotton as growing evidence suggests up to a million people from the region’s majority Muslim Uyghur population have been detained in ‘re-education’ and labor camps, where they were allegedly forced to pick cotton and work for garment makers.
- Burberry has not responded to Forbes’ request for comment, but the company has banned use of Xinjiang cotton and in November told the U.K. government business committee: “We do not have any operations in Xinjiang, nor work with any suppliers based there.”
48%. That’s how much China’s luxury market grew in 2020, according to Bain, cementing the country as the world’s fastest-growing market for luxury goods and increasingly important for luxury brands. The country has been a lifeline for luxury brands that were shuttered in other global markets because of the pandemic, including Europe. While the global luxury market dropped by nearly a quarter in 2020, China doubled its share of the global luxury market, to 20%, according to Bain. China’s mounting pressure on brands to overturn their ban on Xinjiang cotton means luxury brands face being squeezed in a confrontation between Western governments, and China, over one of the biggest human rights issues in decades.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Whether other luxury brands that are part of the BCI will be targeted. Louis Vuitton owner LVMH–the world’s biggest luxury conglomerate owned by the world’s third richest person, Bernard Arnault–is also part of the BCI. The company has previously said it does not directly purchase raw materials and has not previously disclosed how much of the cotton used by its brands hails from China, according to Business of Fashion. Forbes has contacted LVMH for comment.
China's booming luxury market is a gleaming prize for the world's leading fashion houses but navigating political and social currents dictated by China's communist rulers, and its tightly police social media, have proved challenging for brands. D&G faced a consumer backlash in 2018 over a racially insensitive advertising campaign, while scores of brands including Versace have stumbled over red line issues around the status of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Those spats came amid an intensifying trade war between the U.S. and China during Donald Trump’s presidency, while protests over Beijing’s controversial national security law were ongoing in Hong Kong. Yet the latest row comes after the U.S., U.K., Canada and the European Union imposed sanctions on China this week, targeting senior officials in Xinjiang who they say are overseeing forced labor, sexual abuse and rape, and mass detention of Uyghur and ethnic minority groups in the region. China has denied this and accused the western nations of “disinformation’, while it has imposed its own sanctions on European and U.K. officials in retaliation.