Ma Jun on Fashion’s Critical Blind Spot

By Ma Jun 8 November, 2012

Ma Jun talks to us about the progress of brands in addressing pollution issues in their supply chain

Most brands overlook dying & finishing process, which are water, waste & energy intensive
Enforcement remains weak but stakeholders should get involved
Industry collaboration & dialogue are key; sharing of tech & solutions will help facilitate change
Ma Jun
Author: Ma Jun
Ma Jun was named as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world by TIME magazine in 2006. He is well known for his book, China’s Water Crisis released in 1999, which has been compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He directs the IPE (Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs), which developed China’s first public database on air and water pollution.
Read more from Ma Jun →

China Water Risk Interview with Ma Jun on the latest IPE-led report focused on the textile sector: Cleaning up the Fashion Industry Report Phase II, Sustainable Apparel’s Critical Blind SpotOur review of the second report can be accessed here and a summary of the first report can be found here. Also read about how stakeholders could be affected by NGO action in “Investors Beware: Black holes & Blacklists”.


CWR: What has been the response to the latest IPE report?

Ma Jun: So far we have had quite a positive response. We tried in the report to highlight the important aspects, the important gaps, the blind spots that many brands have in sustainability planning. The report has aroused the attention of some brands like M&S and Disney, which were named. We have had some discussions and, at the beginning, of course it’s not so easy, it’s a bit rough actually but now the conversations have turned more positive and we are making headway. As of now, of the 49 brands from the original report, 30 have responded positively while 19 still have not.

CWR: In putting together the IPE report, were you surprised by what you found, that some of the companies considered leaders in sustainability were actually not thinking as far down the supply chain as they might?

Ma Jun: I was very surprised. I had heard so many good things about the various sustainability plans but I think unfortunately most of them overlook the dying and finishing process, which generates the largest volume of waste, uses the most energy and has the most water intensive process.

CWR: So what you are seeing in reality is that pollution is not improving despite growing brand attention to this?

Ma Jun: I think some effort has been made but sadly there is still a lack of incentives for companies to do better. Enforcement remains weak and the cost of a violation is too low. Water and energy prices are also too low. Most of the brands have a management system that has reached tier one, the cut and sew garment factories, but they haven’t extended that management to the dye house.

CWR: Why aren’t they paying attention? Is it because they haven’t had to?

Ma Jun: Brands and retailers pay more attention to the parts of their business that are closest to the consumers, to the consumer markets. One of reasons that they haven’t extended management to the dye houses is that consumers know so little about that process. It’s so far away from major consumer markets. Also even for NGOs and activists it’s quite hard to figure out the pollutants in the upstream of the supply chain, to figure out which are the dye houses that companies use. This, of course, it is an area that aggregates the most waste and brands don’t want to own this problem. This is quite unfortunate because there are technologies available and there is pretty large potential for innovation. Actually, some of the forward-looking dye houses have been trying to prepare for change and have bought new technologies that will consume much less water, which is very important, that and using less toxic chemicals. The trouble is there are no financial incentives to use the new technologies at present.

CWR: The real problem though is enforcement right?

Ma Jun: Enforcement remains an issue but we recognize this and want more stakeholders in the dialogue to address the problem. With limited stakeholders, the dye houses are polluting. Confrontation between the local governments and people leads to nowhere. If we include brands and consumers in the process so everyone can see the fashion product is causing problems, then everyone has a duty to try to manage the issues. The government needs to enhance enforcement but this shouldn’t be an excuse for brands to take advantage of the loopholes.

We also have identified in the report a trend for the labor intensive part of apparel production, the cut and sew factories, to leave China at a faster rate. This makes some of the brands and consumers feel that China soon will no longer be the textile factory to the world. They feel less exposed, that they have a smaller exposure to China so don’t need to do much to help with pollution control. But we have found that the dying and finishing is staying in China, which then exports raw materials to new factory countries such as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia. But China will remain a major dye house for quite a long time. We hope brands can recognize this and address the pollution problem.

CWR: What do you hope will be the effect of the report?

Ma Jun: Some companies such as Nike, Adidas and H&M are starting to address their issues down to the bottom of their supply chain. They have been more open to dialogue and engagement with stakeholders, particularly local stakeholders. Other brands are engaging with larger stakeholders but not in China and not with local groups. There is value to engaging with local players and trying to benefit from their knowledge. Some brands also are trying to follow their sustainability program and are not just waiting passively for others to call on them regarding supplier problems. They are working proactively to address gaps and push for solutions. Through this engagement, they have recognized the need to address the dye house issue. So long as they are willing to try, people will have more patience.

CWR: What are your next steps?

Ma Jun: We will try to work with some of the brands to figure out additional best practice through dialogue and joint research. The idea is also to gather baseline data. This will be useful to monitor and document energy and water efficiency and discharge data. It will also make the work more verifiable. There are ways to help factories move from high water intensity to lower intensity. The end goal is to see stakeholders working with brands. There is an important motivator to work together to facilitate the transformation of this industry with new technology. We want to make that happens quickly.