Chinese Appetite for Dirty Fashion

By Hongqiao Liu 10 December, 2014

Do Chinese consumers know fashion's 'dirty' secret? Will it change the way they shop? Liu gathers on-ground views, Do Chinese consumers know fashion's 'dirty' secret? Will it change the way they shop? Liu gathers on-ground views, Do Chinese consumers know fashion's 'dirty' secret? Will it change the way they shop? Liu gathers on-ground views

The majority are not aware of fashion's 'dirty' secret; brand rankings can help but there is a lack of options
Consumers say they wil pay 10-30% more for 'greener' product but price is still a key with cheap choices on taobao
Should industry re-think meaning of 'quality'? Fair trade movements in China are growing, it's time to get on-board

sale imageDecember is the month for shopping with the“12.12” big sale on taobao, Black Friday and year-end promotions, you name it. But when you read “50% off” something important is left out – the fashion sector is thirsty and dirty and the environmental cost is not included in the price. To get a better understanding of consumers’ thoughts on fashion and the environment I interviewed fashion bloggers, editors of lifestyle magazines, shop managers of fast fashion, green NGO workers, housewives, taobao shop owners, students and general consumers in Beijing. I asked them one simple question: When you shop, do you consider the environmental impact? If so why, if not why not?

 

What fashion magazines aren’t telling you…

In “Dirty Thirsty Fashion: Blindsided by China’s water wars” released in September 2014, we examined how water intensive and polluting the textile sector is. It’s not just us that know this: the Chinese authorities are also aware – “Textile, Apparel & Footwear” is amongst the 16 Most Polluting Industries identified by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and has been singled out by State Council as one of the “two key industries” to tackle in water pollution and prevention control. Yet it seems consumers are still not aware of the dirty & thirsty nature of the industry.

“I don’t know about the environment nor am I interested. I’m shopaholic”

a fashion blogger in Shanghai

“I don’t know about the environment nor am I interested. I’m shopaholic”, a fashion blogger in Shanghai told me. Others I spoke to had similar comments – they might have gathered a general impression that dyeing and printing is “dirty” from the news but never linked this to the clothes or shoes they wear. It’s not only the general public that hold this opinion; textile industry and fashion brand workers are no better. In November, I attended a workshop on textile pollution control in Shanghai. A programme officer from a fashion brand asked “how many of you think you’re responsible for textile pollution?” Less than half the room raised their hands. What’s ironic is that all the participants of the workshop were either from the environment/CSR departments of fashion brands or the environment authorities. We seek fashion advice from fashion magazines and not from the news. Rivers in China are polluted every now and then, oftentimes because of the textile sector. Photos of “milky rivers” or “blood red streams” will hardly be published in fashion magazines, where fashion is supposed to look stunning and attractive. More than that, the fashion industry has spent billions of money in advertising and marketing just that image.

Photos of “milky rivers” or “blood red streams” will hardly be published in fashion magazines

Pearl River Factory Wastewater Discharge (Lu Guang) When fashion magazines advertise leather shoes that are handmade in Italy, or dresses that are designed in Paris, they don’t tell you that China produces two-thirds of the worlds’ shoes or half of the word’s textiles. Though a product is not labeled “made in China” some part of it (if not all) could also be produced or processed in China.

It’s not easy to avoid dirty & thirsty fashion…

The harsh reality is that whether you are interested in the environment or not, you have contributed to pollution and water scarcity in one way or another. According to the Water Footprint Network, a single cotton T-shirt takes 13.5 bathtubs of water to produce. Moreover, a quarter of the world’s chemical production is used for textiles, many of which are hazardous chemicals (more on this here).

The harsh reality is that whether you are interested in the environment or not, you have contributed to pollution and water scarcity in one way or another

Textile Dyeing Wastewater in Hangzhou Bay (Lu Guang) In 2011, a report published by Greenpeace uncovered the truth that NPE, an endocrine disruptor, widely exists in fashion products by A&F, Adidas, Calvin Klein, etc. By washing clothes consumers release NPE residue into municipal wastewater systems and then surface waters. NPE is not the only hazardous chemical to worry about. According to the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) group, a voluntary membership group currently consisting of 19 fashion brands, hazardous chemicals like AP, NPE, APEOs, PAHs, PFCs and heavy metals are commonly used in producing textiles. The brands have made a shared commitment to discharge zero hazardous chemicals by 2020. ZDHC Mission impossibleThe goal is not only highly ambitious, but also a “mission impossible” commented Prof. Xi Danli of Donghua University, who is also vice chairman of China Dyeing and Printing Association. Even if all ZDHC members achieve their goal in 2020, the chemicals will still be used by the textile industry for another 15 years – some will continue to be washed away into China’s waterways whilst others remain on fashion products only to be washed away elsewhere depending on where the clothes end up. Here’s what consumers have to say about hazardous chemicals: “I don’t know what chemicals are used to produce my T-shirt. If they are really carcinogenic, I am a little worried”, said Tang, a 27-year-old financial worker. But he was overwhelmed when thinking about health risk “living in Beijing, I breathe poisonous air, drink poisonous water, eat poisonous food – too much to worry, clothes is not even on the list.”

“I don’t know what chemicals are used to produce my T-shirt. If they are really carcinogenic, I am a little worried”

“living in Beijing, I breathe poisonous air, drink poisonous water, eat poisonous food – too much to worry, clothes is not even on the list”

Tang, a 27-year-old financial worker

Tang is not the only one to express worry after being informed of the potential exposure to chemicals in clothing but still, worries about possible impacts on health remain narrow. As for water consumption and wastewater discharge by the textile sector, the concern is even lower. Sun, a 25-year-old lifestyle new media editor says “I know the livestock and poultry industries are heavy polluters, but when I eat an egg, that doesn’t come to mind.”

Transparency might help, but being transparent doesn’t mean one is less dirty or thirsty

While the majority of consumers have no knowledge of fashion’s dirty thirsty secret, those who do (like green NGO workers), suffer from a lack of options.

Consumers suffer from a lack of options for non-dirty & thirsty fashion options

Huo, a 32-year-old fair-trade coffee shop owner and a former green NGO activist, refers to IPE’s green supply chain ranking when shopping. The ranking, however, increases his confusion – brands with products that tested positive for NPEs in Greenpeace’s 2011 report are amongst the top-ranking brands in IPE’s report. It’s not IPE’s fault though. IPE concentrates on transparency and supply chain management, not quality. In fact, no third-party ranking on quality is available at the moment. It’s true that quality supervision department in China conducts sampling inspection on textile, apparel & footwear. But quality control to them means performance like waterproof, fireproof and limited banned chemicals.

We might need to redefine “quality” … … should brands include their water footprint, hazardous chemicals, wastewater discharge in the measurement of “quality?”

To push the thirsty and dirty side of textile industry, we might need to redefine “quality”. Should brands include their water footprint, hazardous chemicals, wastewater discharge in the measurement of “quality?” For someone like Huo, quality means more than fabrics and performance. He is desperate for such information that can help make his purchases more informed. The question is, how transparent should it be? Should the fashion sector develop a composition table for its products? The current composition table for cloth, for example, only shows the fabric composition but what about the chemicals? There’s no way for customers to discover if the contents do harm to one’s health, or the ecosystem. Materials Sustainability Index Measuring Environmental ImpactIt’s true that thousands of chemicals might be used along the production chain. Listing them is a big task but interviewees think there is an easy way to do so: a QR code on a label that leads to the list. By doing so, fashion brands will not only build up a channel for consumers to make the right choice but also improve supply chain management. The Higg Index is an attempt to do this but it has a long way to go and there is more room to explore.

Fast fashion consumers are not ready to pay more…

The real question is: will consumers act differently if they are fully informed of the environmental impact of fashion?

Every one I talked to said they would pay 10-30% more for a “greener” fashion product … but price remains the key consideration

The answer is yes and no. Every one I talked to said they would pay 10-30% more for a “greener” fashion product. One or two people said they would pay 10% more for transparency alone. But when I asked, “how many clothes in your closet are purchased at full price?” They thought for a while and told me that when shopping, price is always the first consideration. They purchased more discounted products than full-price products, even for fast fashion which is already cheap and affordably priced. “I don’t have much money, that’s why I go for fast fashion”, many people told me. At the same time, they may save for months for a wool coat. They are conflicted – on one hand, people purchase affordable fast fashion to meet daily demand; on the other hand, they are not satisfied with fast fashion – they want better stuff.

“Though consumers said they would pay more, you can’t trace their actual purchase behavior”

Shanghai factory manager

Fashion brands are also concerned whether consumers are willing to pay more. In Shanghai, I talked to a manager from one of the largest fast fashion brands in the world. The brand conducted a consumer survey a year ago that showed almost everyone would pay more for a greener product. “The situation is tricky,” said the manager. “Though consumers said they would pay more, you can’t trace their actual purchase behavior”, he added.

Taobao provides even cheaper fashion substitutions

There is a third fashion choice in China – taobao, the most popular e-commerce platform in China. People from all cities across all ages are buying things from taobao. On 11 November, the volume of transaction on taobao reached RMB57.1 billion for a single day. The problem with taobao is that products available on the platform are a mixed bag. Apart from online shops operated by good brands, taobao is home of many no-brand, fake and inferior products – a special phrase “淘宝货” (“taobao products”) has been invented for this. Taobao Sale Banners

Is taobao accidentally & indirect facilitating pollution with “淘宝货” (taobao products) ?

A taobao shop owner in Hangzhou told me that it’s very easy to find a factory to produce mass imitation clothes of big brands. It’s even easier to assign a random brand to imitation goods. With a much lower price compared to the authentic goods, imitations sell like crazy. So is taobao accidentally and indirectly facilitating pollution? Why do people buy these taobao products? The products are so cheap that you don’t feel bad throwing it away after a single use. To a certain extent, the low price encourages more impulsive buying and that’s why fast fashion has been blamed for pollution. Considering all this, when people say they are willing to pay more for “greener” products, I doubt it.

Alternative choice: a bottom-up ethics movement?

Are there any other choices? A few decades ago customers aware of their environmental responsibility started the organic food movement. The social movement driven by environmental and social consciousness is now a blooming industry. A similar movement is fair trade, aiming to promote higher social and environment goals and benefit farmers, artisan, laborers in developing countries.

In China, fair-trade markets in Beijing have been growing and with them handmade clothes and leather bags by small designer brands that use organic cotton and certificated fair-trade materials.

There have been some trials of organic and fair-trade fashion. A good example is Emma Watson’s (Harry Potter actress) collaboration with fair-trade fashion brand “People Tree” in 2010 to promote what she called “ethics fashion”. “I don’t want to wear something on my body that hurts the environment or the people in it”, Emma said. In China, fair-trade markets in Beijing have been growing and with them handmade clothes and leather bags by small designer brands that use organic cotton and certificated fair-trade materials. These designers are targeting consumers with higher price points who are environmentally and socially conscious. What will the fashion industry look like when conscious consumers choose to grow organic cotton, dye cloth and finish fabrics with the highest quality chemicals by themselves, or set up their own cooperation? What if the consciousness grows into a social movement just like the organic movement? Will it be another commercial success triggered by social movement?

Industry should act now before consumers’ attitude change

Luckily for the fashion industry, such a movement is not yet mainstream. Some people might take action to avoid dirty thirsty fashion, some may only gain a blurry impression of the dirty truth whilst others remain unaware.

As environment consciousness grows and consumer campaigns continue, the situation will change. For fashion brands, it’s time to make the decision

This mixture of feelings is the result of an information gap in China. As environmental consciousness grows and consumer campaigns continue, the situation will change. There will also be significant pressure from the “war on pollution” on the fashion industry. Is it the end of fast fashion?

For fashion brands, it’s time to make the decision – adopt a “wait-and-see” approach until the changes happen or lead the trend and take action now.


Further Reading

  • Christmas Came Early – Xi’s carbon emission promise, increased regulatory risk are a few reasons why Debra Tan thinks Christmas came early for China’s waters. Industry beware; as China is expected to aggressively enforce some of these new polices
  • Pollution: It Doesn’t Pay to be Naughty – State Council wants to use the enforcement of law & regulation “to force the economy to transform and upgrade”. See how violation cost surges with daily fines, new standards & discharge permit trading in a bid to push China to go clean
  • China Water Investments: 3 Thoughts – It seems the water industry, government and consumers are all finally ready for a water tariff hike. Debra Tan shares her thoughts on the investing in China’s water industry – wastewater vs water supply, rural markets & the growing opportunities for private capital
  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li Keqiang has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war

On Fashion

  • Dirty Thirsty Wars – Fashion Blindsided – CLSA report titled “Dirty Thirsty Fashion: Blindsided by China’s water wars”, examines how China’s water risks could blindside the US$1.7 trillion global fashion industry. Is this the end of fast fashion? Debra Tan expands
  • Brand Rankings Through A Chinese Lens – See how global and local brands rank across 8 sectors in terms of their supply chain’s environmental impact in this review of the new Corporate Information Transparency Index (CITI) report by IPE & NRDC
  • Cotton Farming: How Deep Is Your Well? – Can cotton flourish in water scarce areas? Cotton Connect’s Lort-Phillips on how to extract more crop per drop and why brands need to do more than address water at a farm level in China 
  • Materials Sustainability in the Higg Index – Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Sousa & Young on how Nike’s Materials Sustainability Index can help brands & suppliers make the right water-friendly choices in raw material selection
  • The Colour this Season is Green – Trucost’s Jackson on key discussions at the 2014 Copenhagen Fashion Summit & Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel awards. On the agenda: natural capital accounting, water savings & education, all against a backdrop of limited resources & increasing demand

Hongqiao Liu
Author: Hongqiao Liu
Hongqiao is China Water Risk’s external researcher. She is an award-winning environmental & science journalist and prior to joining China Water Risk, she worked for leading Chinese media: Caixin Media and the Southern Metropolis Daily. Her investigative stories published by Caixin on tap water quality, contaminated farmland and diseases caused by environmental pollution brought about lasting public debate and cast positive impacts on policy makers. Hongqiao has lived and worked across China and South Africa.
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