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China Is Forcing Fashion to Mute Itself Over Dirty Cotton

Brands suffered when they spoke out over labor concerns. Now China is launching a rival cotton certification program.

Cotton stores in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Cotton stores in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Photographer: Cai Zengle/VCG/Getty Images

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When a fashion industry sustainability group called out China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, the idea was to nudge Beijing toward human-rights reforms while cleaning up a troubled corner of the $60 billion global cotton business. Western brands have learned the hard way that things don’t work that way in China.

In the 12 months since the Better Cotton Initiative, whose members range from Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing Co. to Nike Inc. to Walmart Inc., published a statement on allegations of forced labor in the cotton-growing Xinjiang region, several brands have suffered major setbacks in China, one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of the fabric.