German clothing brand Hugo Boss has told HKFP that an official statement on its verified Weibo account saying it will continue to “purchase and support” Xinjiang cotton was “unauthorised.”

Hugo Boss.
Hugo Boss. Photo: Wikicommons.

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.

“Xinjiang’s long-stapled cotton is one of the best in the world,” the statement on China’s Twitter-like platform read on Thursday. “We believe top quality raw materials will definitely show its value. We will continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton.” However, the brand was simultaneously hosting 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.”

It is unclear why and how an unauthorised message appeared on the Weibo account. By Friday, it had been removed and replaced with a link to the fashion house’s website statement.

State-backed coercive labour

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.

uighur xinjiang
A verified drone shot from 2019 of Uighur prisoners being transferred by train. File photo: Weibo.

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.

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