Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo, embroiled in controversy last year for refusing to stop buying cotton from China’s slave fields in Xinjiang province, on Monday refused to close its stores in Russia as other fashion houses have done.
“Clothing is a necessity of life. The people of Russia have the same right to live as we do,” said Tadashi Yanai, president of Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing, which operates 49 stores in Russia.
Yanai said he personally opposes the Russian invasion.
“There should never be war. Every country should oppose it. This time all of Europe clearly opposes the war and has shown its support for Ukraine. Any attempt to divide the world will, on the contrary, strengthen unity,” he stated.
Several major apparel companies have suspended operations in Russia to protest the invasion, notably including Swedish fashion group H&M, which paused all Russia sales last Wednesday. H&M has 170 stores in Russia, making it the company’s sixth-largest market worldwide.
Spanish brand Zara closed its 502 stores in Russia on Saturday and suspended online sales as well. Zara’s parent company Inditex did not specifically reference the invasion of Ukraine when announcing its decision, saying only that it “cannot guarantee the continuity of operations and business conditions in the Russian Federation.”
Yanai, who is generally ranked as Japan’s richest man, responded to a 2021 scandal over his company’s alleged use of Chinese forced labor by saying Japanese firms should remain politically neutral because they have “no choice but to make money in markets across the world.”
“I want to be neutral between the U.S. and China. The U.S. approach is to force companies to show their allegiance. I wanted to show that I won’t play that game,” he said, winning applause from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Uniqlo used to conspicuously boast that its products proudly used cotton from Xinjiang, the Chinese province where members of the oppressed Uyghur Muslim minority are forced into concentration camps and used as slave labor. At the end of 2019, even as other fashion houses were scrambling to certify their products were not tainted with forced labor, Uniqlo horrified human rights advocates by boasting that its shirts were “made from Xinjiang cotton, famous for its superb quality.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection confiscated a shipment of Uniqlo shirts at the Port of Los Angeles in January 2021 on suspicion they were made with cotton harvested with forced labor in Xinjiang. Uniqlo insisted the shirts were not made with Xinjiang cotton, but the U.S. government said the company could not provide sufficient documentation to prove the supply chain was not tainted with forced labor.
Fortune on Monday noted the Japanese government “has followed the line of the U.S. and much of Europe in imposing a raft of sanctions” against Russia for invading Ukraine, but Japanese companies are “split.”
“The country’s biggest carmakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. said they’re halting vehicle shipments to Russia, while a business lobby warned trading giants Mitsubishi Corp and Mitsui & Co. not to rush into exiting from a Russian oil and gas project. Japan Tobacco Inc., which has a 37% stake of the Russian market, continues to operate in Russia and says it is ‘fully committed’ to complying with national and international sanctions,” Fortune said.