Cotton from Xinjiang is the latest bone of contention between many western brands (especially those in fast fashion) and many Chinese consumers.
After several top brands including H&M, Nike, and Adidas stopped using cotton from the Xinjiang province of China, notorious for allegations of human rights violations, many Chinese consumers have started to ditch these and other major international brands taking a stand against policies of the Chinese government. They find such responses from the companies offensive to their patriotic Chinese identity and wish to offer a clear choice to the brands—stop criticising China, or get shunned in the massive Chinese market.
They are doing this, say many such consumers, because they are patriotic—and not buying into the propaganda of their government.
With globalisation under a shadow, business resilience—much more than opening economies—in vogue, and a pandemic that refuses to go away, there has been a resurgence of patriotism around the world.
That is not all. As world politics changes, questions of control, colonisation, and decolonisation have risen strongly, alongside protests to enforce racial justice. Countries like China, with a deep sense of national grievance against past western oppression, and other countries that have faced colonial rule, but are now stronger, often than their erstwhile rulers, like India, are going through a process of reimagining patriotism.
One of the core elements of this process of reimagining and decolonisation is affirmation of context. Simply put, who decides the universality of norms, especially moral? What are the foundations of ‘global’ ethics?
This is not an easy process. It raises difficult, and unresolved, questions about the notion of a global community of nations. But in this essay, my focus is on the consumer side, the supply and demand side, if you will, of this issue.
The early pushbacks to ‘global’ brands from national regions came via resistance to social media companies taking sides, making value judgements about incidents, or policies, and even interfering with elections, in a particular geography. As the Internet ‘splinters’ (what has come to be described as ‘splinternet’), more are seeking to restrict American social media companies, or make them conform in some way or the other to national rules, or, at an extreme stage, enforcing bans. China never allowed American social media companies in the first place, and its size has enabled the growth of homemade social media giants. Companies like Koo (a Twitter equivalent in India) are now trying something similar. In Australia, new rules have enforced revenue sharing between Facebook and local news publishers—a model many countries now want to adopt.
As many Chinese customers root for home-grown brands, alternatives, if you will, to their favourite international labels, Chinese versions of H&M, and Nike, and Adidas, are soaring to success on the back of the country’s sheer number of buyers.
In India, patriotism in purchasing, has been driven by a deep revitalisation of the country’s indigenous sciences and craftsmanship. It has, among other brands, fuelled the hyper success of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) which has seen record profits year-on-year in recent times. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the prime influencer in urging people to consider buying khadi products over the years, and now his ‘vocal for local’ slogan promoting more local purchases has struck a chord.
But there is a fundamental difference between Chinese patriotic buying and Indian patriotic buying—a difference that is likely to become starker over time. First, Indian customers were never as enamoured by western brands as the Chinese. China was, and is, one of the biggest consumers—if not the biggest consumer—of Western brands in clothing, technology, and luxury. A lot of the Chinese rejection of many brands is a political response among civil society to the criticism that actions of the Chinese government face around the world. Many of the biggest Chinese brands in the past (for instance in technological platforms and others) grew on the refusal of the government to allow competition from the West to enter the country.
But this is not the cycle in India. Despite the onslaught of western clothing, including luxury brands, for instance, the market for Indian wear and Indian luxury items, like traditional jewellery, has never dimmed. Long before the patriotism fervour in the market, India’s biggest jewellery brand was, and is, Tanishq, a company run by the Indian conglomerate, the Tata group. The coming of many a western brand has done nothing to diminish the success of Tanishq or many other top traditional Indian jewellery brands like Malabar Gold & Diamonds, and Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri and others.
Even the success of khadi is not born of a political response, or by blocking off competition. In fact, the KVIC story is all the more special because there is no dearth of competition in India in the fast- moving consumer goods (FMCG) space where khadi operates.
As I have written before, this phase of globalisation would be far more about considering the value of the local, rather than a blanket embrace of the global. And therefore, the patriotism economy is here to stay. It could take two paths—the Chinese stance, or the Indian way.
Views are personal. The author is a multiple award-winning author of nine books. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.