Vermont’s Burton Snowboards faces questions about its presence in a Chinese province

Published: 1/22/2022 11:24:23 PM
Modified: 1/22/2022 11:23:07 PM

Craig Smith, CEO of Burton China, faced a withering interview posted this week about the Burlington-based snowboard maker’s presence in China’s Xinjiang region.

“If there are any types of human rights violations in Xinjiang, I don’t know,” Smith told the BBC in a Wednesday broadcast. “It’s not my expertise by any means.”

However, the State Department has warned American businesses against operating in the province, “given the entities complicit in forced labor and other human rights abuses there and throughout China.”

Companies with investments, ventures or supply chains in Xinjiang “could run a high risk of violating U.S. law,” the State Department warned.

Smith’s comments also did not appear to sit well with his own company.

Burton CEO John Lacy said in a statement emailed to VTDigger that Smith “did not reflect our commitment to global citizenship to which we hold every employee accountable.”

“Burton has industry-leading supply chain and sourcing standards, and does not partner or work with anyone who does not follow fair labor practices, including prohibiting the use of forced labor of any kind,” Lacy said. “Our team in China maintains these same commitments.”

The U.S. is among several countries that have accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have published reports accusing China of crimes against humanity and possibly genocide against the Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang, which is located in China’s northwestern region. Up to 1 million Uyghurs have been sent to reeducation camps, according to news reports, and there’s evidence they’ve been pressed into forced labor.

Burton China is the company’s joint venture operation in China, and Burton has a store in Altay, Xinjiang.

Smith told the BBC he does not see a problem with the company having that store.

“We can either divorce ourselves from Xinjiang and say we’re not going to do anything out there, or we can try to understand what’s going on in Xinjiang better,” Smith told the BBC.

Many businesses have spent the past 30 years arguing that their mere presence inside China, engaging with the Chinese government, would bring openness, said Sophie Richardson, the Human Rights Campaign China director.

“It hasn’t quite worked out that way,” Richardson said.

Richardson said the Burton store in Xinjiang raises questions.

“We have this conversation with companies that are simply selling products, regardless of where they are made, in Xinjiang,” she said. “Are they comfortable operating in and profiting from that kind of political environment?”

Most of the company’s snowboards are manufactured in Austria. Snowboards for Burton-sponsored athletes are made in Burlington. The company manufactures its products in contract factories in 14 countries.

The company website lists the factories where its products are made. Outerwear, bindings, helmets, boards, headwear, boots, fleece, T-shirts, bags and protection are manufactured at 27 factories in China. None of the factories are in Xinjiang.

A company spokesperson did not respond to a question about the difference between helmets and headwear or what protection is.

“Although there are concerns in other parts of the country about forced Uyghur labor being transferred out of the region,” Richardson said, “whether it’s to any of the factories that Burton sources from, I don’t know.”

Richardson said the obligation is on Burton to show that working conditions in the factories it sources from are “fine.”

Burton is accredited by the Fair Labor Association, which means the company has systems in place to identify and remediate unfair labor practices in its global supply chain.

Smith said in his BBC interview that Burton is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, an organization that, among other goals, works toward ending forced labor in the cotton industry, but Burton is not listed among the organization’s members.

The Better Cotton Initiative withdrew from Xinjiang in 2020 “based on the recognition that the operating environment prevents credible assurance and licensing from being executed.”

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