Beyond Xinjiang cotton: China's clothing industry has new task of standard-setting
An H&M store in Beijing, August 19, 2020. /CFP

An H&M store in Beijing, August 19, 2020. /CFP

Other than the cliché attack on China, the recent accusation of "forced labor" on Xinjiang cotton unveiled the status quo of China's clothing industry – growing in the world's most profitable market but having little say in standard-setting. 

When several global brands, including Swedish retailer H&M, took the moral high ground in announcing an end to the purchasing of Xinjiang cotton, they quoted statements released by Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) last year. 

Ironically, BCI has deleted the statements from its website without explanation but the attack on Xinjiang that was based on them keeps getting wide attention. 

Who is BCI? 

According to the BCI website, it is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world. In the 2018-19 cotton season, its members accounted for 22 percent of global cotton production. 

Founded in 2005, the organization claimed to "work out a practical solution that would secure the sustainable future of the industry." 

BCI developed a standard that claimed to give an "assurance of responsible farming," saying it could be applied in small farms in developing countries and also large industrialized operations such as Brazil and China. 

Unsurprisingly, only members, who pay the membership fee, could print the standard on their brand tags. 

As of November 2020, the NGO with headquarters in Geneva and London had over 2,096 members across the cotton sector, including 1,811 suppliers and manufacturers and 217 retailers, covering most major brands, such as H&M, a leader of the so-called fast fashion industry, a sector that is widely criticized for serious pollution. 

Fast fashion is spewing out 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon each year – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Where is China's say in the market? 

China is lagging behind the West in setting up standards, so NGOs like BCI took the lead, Hung Huang, a fashion magazine publisher with self-owned designer brands, wrote in a Weibo post on Wednesday. 

Most of China's clothing manufacturers started their businesses by being OEM (original entrusted manufacturers) for global brands. In the profit structure of the fashion industry, brands and retailers each take 45 percent of the profits, while OEM factories, which bear the environmental costs, get just 10 percent at most, she said. 

Even so, these brands, especially fast fashion brands, will continue to argue for lower OEM prices and keep moving to factories in less developed countries in Southeast Asia from China, according to her post. 

Moreover, almost all leading fashion media that prosper in China come from the West and have close links with Western brands, which explains why they keep silent in the Xinjiang cotton disputes, she said. 

China must set up its industry standards instead of being manipulated by others, she concluded in the post. 

At least in the cotton industry, the country set up its own registered standard named "Cotton China" in 2009, according to a statement the China Cotton Association released on Thursday. 

Although the "Cotton China" standard has been used only by about 30 enterprises, compared with the BCI's more than 2,000 members, the association said it would launch an alliance with shareholders on the supply chain to promote domestic cotton. 

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