Will brands think twice about cancel culture after H&M cotton debacle?

Andy Boreham
I'm hoping the recent H&M debacle in China will force brands to act more responsibly instead of so quickly appeasing baizuo who want blood at any cost, usually lacking credibility.
Andy Boreham

The West’s so-called “cancel culture” — the idea that people and brands can literally be “canceled” from society based on past or present stances — went into overdrive last year, probably because of lockdowns and too much spare time. But maybe brands will think twice about being so quick to appease angry netizens after Chinese consumers’ swift reaction to Swedish brand H&M.

What is cancel culture?

In case the term “cancel culture” is a new one for you, I’ll give you a quick rundown. 

To sum it up in simple terms, most examples of cancel culture begin online, with building momentum behind punishing usually well-known people for their actions or opinions, usually in the past but also today.

Examples of individuals canceled last year include Jimmy Fallon, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and Ellen Degeneres, a 62-year-old daytime talk show host who was previously extremely popular and thought of as a kind and caring person. That was before evidence came to light of the “toxic” work environment at her show, and many staff alleging she had made their lives a living hell. 

Because of Ellen’s “cancelation” online, advertisers started withdrawing support from her show, and it’s even been reported that she ran into trouble booking guests. Many industry analysts believe her show, which has run successfully for two decades, will be canceled for real by the end of the year.

Identity politics

In the past few years, instead of being used to target “bad” people (think Harvey Weinstein), cancel culture is being utilized more and more as a weapon against those with differing points of view, usually lying somewhere in the realms of identity politics. 

The West has become extremely sensitive about minorities of every kind, which includes gender, racial and sexual minorities. Now anyone who voices an opinion running contrary with the fast changing boundaries accepted by proponents of cancel culture — they’re affectionately called 白左 (baizuo) online in China, which literally means “white liberal” — risks losing their job and their livelihood. 

J.K. Rowling dared to suggest that gender is a scientific reality, which annoyed those who believe there are dozens — maybe even hundreds — of genders. “Rowling’s tweet reveals itself as a shocking dismissal of transgender identity,” one report read. 

Lana Del Rey, a female singer, was “canceled.” After being accused of writing songs that don’t empower women, she fought back with a list of other popular singers who she argued made similar music to hers that she argued weren’t being accused of the same thing. The problem? Most of the singers she listed were black. Verdict: Racist. Punishment: Cancelation. 

Cancel culture and brands

Cancel culture normally affected individuals, including celebrities, business people, professors and so on, but more and more netizens with too much time on their hands are moving to also “cancel” brands.

Many brands have spent months studying cancel culture in the West, and preemptively moved to appease baizuo netizens before they could even become targets, releasing campaigns aimed at quelling the thirst for blood in the name of identity politics.

Some companies who released such campaigns include Gillette, Coca-Cola and Nike. 

Cancel culture and China

The recent H&M Xinjiang cotton debacle might force brands to think twice before reacting to threats of cancelation from angry netizens carrying pitchforks. 

Last September, the Better Cotton Initiative released a statement saying that they no longer support purchasing cotton from northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region because of allegations of forced labor. 

Soon after, H&M, who said they only purchase from areas connected with the BCI, said they will no longer buy cotton from Xinjiang. The problem? Allegations of forced labor have largely come from Westerners who have little or no connection with the region, and largely rely on conjecture and emotion, without any evidence whatsoever.

Unfortunately for H&M, their months-old announcement came to light recently in China — the response from Chinese consumers was swift. Soon other companies who released similar statements, including Nike, felt the wrath of consumers, too. 

The truth of the matter is that even BCI’s own Shanghai office, which has experience on the ground, denies allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry. 

“The BCI Shanghai representative office solemnly reiterates that the China project team strictly abides by BCI’s audit principles,” they said in a statement. “Since 2012, the Xinjiang project site has performed second-party credibility audits and third-party verification over the years, and has never found a single case related to incidents of forced labor.”

Cancel caution?

I’m hoping that this H&M situation in China will force brands to act more responsibly instead of so quickly appeasing the angry minority of baizuo online who want blood at any cost, usually lacking credibility and banking solely on emotion. 

Now, brands need to ask the question: Would we rather be “canceled” online by blue ticks on Twitter, or lose vast swathes of consumers by peddling misinformation?

Choose wisely.

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