German luxury fashion house Hugo Boss has told its Chinese customers that it will continue to “purchase and support” Xinjiang cotton, despite its website saying it has never used it.

Update: Hugo Boss statement on Xinjiang cotton was ‘unauthorised,’ brand says

This week, western fashion brands such as Adidas, Nike, H&M have come under fire from mainland netizens and state media for previously expressing concern about reports of forced Uighur labour in the autonomous region.

Hugo Boss. File photo: Stéphanie Moisan, via Flickr CC 2.0.

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Thursday, a verified Hugo Boss account said that it used high-quality raw materials from major production areas in China: “For many years, we have respected the One China principle, resolutely defending national sovereign and territorial integrity, We have established long-term collaborations with many outstanding Chinese enterprises, and will continue to keep [the partnership.] Xinjiang’s long-stapled cotton is one of the best in the world. We believe top quality raw materials will definitely show its value. We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton.”

See also: Singer Eason Chan cuts ties with Adidas after brands reject Xinjiang ‘forced labour’

However, in an emailed response to HKFP, the brand linked to a statement on its website saying it has never used Xinjiang cotton: “So far, HUGO BOSS has not procured any goods originating in the Xinjiang region from direct suppliers.”

Hugo Boss did not respond to HKFP’s questions as to whether it is sending different messages to Chinese and Western customers.

Last September, Hugo Boss told NBC News that its supplier Lu Thai had “reassured” it that Xinjiang cotton had never been used in its clothing. It came as Esprit axed its relationship with Lu Thai following forced labour allegations.

‘Coercive labour transfer programme’

Adidas, Nike and H&M are among the brands under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which promotes sustainable cotton production. It has seen a backlash in China after it said last October that it would suspend approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-2021 season amid human rights concerns. Meanwhile, several e-commerce platforms dropped foreign brands from their stores this week amid boycott calls.

A 2020 report by Washington-based think tank the Center for Global Policy — which referenced Chinese government documents — said that in 2018 three regions within Xinjiang sent at least 570,000 people to pick cotton under a state-backed coercive labour transfer programme.

File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

China’s boycott calls came days after the European Union sanctioned several Chinese officials over the alleged rights abuses.

In 1997, Hugo Boss acknowledged its links to the German Nazi regime. As a family-run business, it manufactured Nazi uniforms in the 1930s, including those worn by Hitler Youth and the SS.

Additional reporting: Kelly Ho.

Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.