HONG KONG: Swedish fashion retailer H&M has quietly returned to Alibaba’s Tmall online sales platform, 16 months after the Chinese e-commerce group banned it over the brand raising concerns about human rights abuses in far-western Xinjiang province.
It was not clear when or why the ban was lifted although Chinese media first reported last week that the retailer’s online shop had reopened on the popular platform. H&M and Alibaba both declined to comment on Tuesday.
H&M found itself in hot water last year when some internet users dug up a company statement in which it expressed concerns about forced labour and other alleged abuses in Xinjiang and said it would not source cotton from the Chinese region, which is home to predominantly Muslim Uyghur people.
China denies all claims of rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
H&M, the world’s second-biggest clothing retailer, was yanked from Tmall and other popular online sales platforms in the wake of the controversy. It has yet to reappear on other popular platforms, including JD.com and Pinduoduo.
Chinese consumers and high-profile celebrities boycotted other international fashion and sportswear brands, including Burberry, Nike and Adidas, after they also refused to use Xinjiang-produced cotton in their garments.
But only H&M was scrubbed from China’s major e-commerce platforms, and searches for its physical stores on China’s Baidu and Gaode mapping apps have also been blocked.
In June, Washington started enforcing a ban that presumes all US-bound imports traced to Xinjiang, from cotton and tomatoes to floor tile and solar panel materials, were made using forced labour and brands them as “high priority” for seizure.
Two years ago, China was H&M’s fourth-largest market and the source of more than US$1 billion in annual revenue. But the world’s second-largest economy fell out of the Swedish retailer’s top 10 markets in just half a year after the Chinese boycott.
The brand’s bricks-and-mortar outlets have also drastically declined in number. Coupled with weak sales due to China’s frequent Covid-19 lockdowns, H&M has cut its store count to less than 380 from over 500 before the Xinjiang controversy.
In June, H&M closed its first and largest flagship store in mainland China due to poor sales. The outlet was located in a busy commercial district of Shanghai, which went into lockdown for two months as virus cases spiked earlier this year. It opened in 2007.
“Overall, looking at China, we’re still in a complex situation and not obviously on the levels that we would have wished for,” said H&M’s chief executive officer Helena Helmersson in a conference call with analysts in June, adding that the company was “in dialogue with different stakeholders and looking at the physical stores versus digital sales channels”.
On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, tens of thousands of users vowed to keep boycotting H&M.
“I will report this online store,” one user said, while another added that “I won’t buy any items even if it is back online.”