Nine months after reports of alleged forced labour used in Xinjiang for cotton production, Muji still proudly announces that they’re using cotton from the troubled region, despite being called out for this damaging association
About nine months ago, Xinjiang—a region in China’s northwest—was thrust into the fashion spotlight. Last November, reports in mainstream media emerged, stating that Xinjiang cotton-supply sources were considered to have violated human rights. According to one BBC report, “rights groups say Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour.” Reuters also wrote that these groups “named H&M, Ikea, Uniqlo and Muji among companies selling merchandise made with cotton from Xinjiang where the United Nations estimates at least a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in massive camps.”
H&M and Ikea responded by saying that their suppliers no longer deal with Xinjiang cotton. Both Uniqlo and Muji apparently did not answer media queries. Perhaps remaining silent was a better way to ride out the controversy. But Muji did not seem to want to play down their links to Xinjiang. Up till now, those clothes made of “Xinjiang cotton”—both knits and wovens—are unambiguously identified. While China is recognised as the world’s largest producer of cotton, it isn’t clear if there are marketing advantages in identifying the source of Muji’s fabrics, in particular this cotton. Muji’s French linens, possibly made from French flax and likely made into textile in China, isn’t identified by region.
It is generally thought that the cotton grown in Xinjiang is the finest in China, some even think the world. According to one BBC report, Xinjiang cotton accounts for more than 85 percent of Chinese production, making this land-locked area China’s largest producer of cotton. It constitutes about 20 percent of global supply. Brands offering cotton garments prefer using Xinjiang cotton as this is of the long staple variety (even longer than renown Supima cotton), which means the cloth that is woven from this yarn is extremely soft. Unsurprising, therefore, that brands such as Muji want not only to be associated with Xinjiang cotton, but consider the region a vital part of its branding.
Apart from identifying the provenance of their cotton on their hang tags, Muji has similarly availed the information on their shelf-front signage. On their website, the said cotton is also labelled as “Xinjiang cotton”. No other description regarding the fabric’s origin is stated, but earlier media reports quoted Muji’s caption: “Made of organic cotton delicately and wholly handpicked in Xinjiang…” Handpicking is a selling point because the cotton staple remains long (as opposed to machine harvesting, such as Texas cotton, which is generally considered not as superior), an important factor in the softness of the end product. Hand picking, as imaginable, is extremely labour intensive. Given Xinjiang’s socio-political situation, it is possible that there are difficult, unfavourable labour conditions.
We are unable to find the above description on Muji’s current version of their SG website. Interestingly, Muji Hong Kong’s webpages do not state where the brand’s cotton comes from. It is not certain why some labels need to be transparent when it comes to cotton and not other fabrics. Many labels use silk, for example, from China, but consumers are none the wiser with regards to the exact origin of the fabric. Where fashion’s snob appeal is concerned, country of manufacture seems to carry more weight than provenance of fabric or yarn.
As far as we are aware, Muji is not inclined to name or identity their sources, although cottons from countries rather than regions have been named, such as Turkey and India. So, it arouses the curious mind to see the troubled region of Xinjiang feature so prominently on their tags and and shelf signs, and online. At Muji’s flagship store this afternoon, we asked one young chap, who selected for himself a white collarless shirt in a cotton from that part of China, if it bothered him that he buys cotton from Xinjiang. He asked, “Where is that?” Have you heard of the Uyghurs? “What is that?” Is it important to you where the fabric of your shirt comes from? “As long as it is comfortable, it does’t matter.” Apathy may win, but not Xinjiang.
Photos: Zhao Xiangji