Can Fashion Be Green?

By China Water Risk 13 December, 2011

China Water Risk takes a look at where brands stand on pollution and if fashion can be green.

Key brands linked to pollution in China led Nike, Puma, Adidas and H&M to respond
52 out of 78 items of clothing in stores globally tested positive with hormone-disrupting chemical
As textile manufactures in China struggle with rising costs, there is little left over to clean up pollution

In recent months, there have been significant commitments from key players in the textile industry to encourage less polluting production by their supplier mills, largely in response to action by environmental groups.

Following the release of two Dirty Laundry Reports by Greenpeace this year, four top clothing brands, Nike, Puma, Adidas and H&M, have agreed to eliminate discharges of all hazardous chemicals across their entire supply chain and product life-cycle by 2020. In late November, these four published a “Joint Roadmap” to achieve this. At the same time, retailer C&A and Chinese brand Li Ning also made individual commitments to eliminate hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and the Joint Roadmap.

The reports, Unraveling the Corporate Connections to Toxic Water Pollution in China and Unraveling the Toxic Trail from Pipes to Products , highlighted the use of hazardous chemicals and their improper disposal by suppliers to the apparel and shoe industry.

Made in China – discharging hazardous chemicals into China’s waterways

The first Dirty Laundry Report uncovered that Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Cortefiel, H&M, Meters/bonwe, Nike, Phillips Van Heusen Corp and Puma despite a strong internal sustainability campaign, had links to factories that were discharging hazardous chemicals into waterways in China. Other firms linked to these factories that did not respond to a request for comment included Blazek, Carters, JC Penny, Kohls, Nautica, Macy’s, the Oxford Apparel Group, Ralph Lauren, Semir and Yishion.

Some branded clothing contained nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) which are used as surfactants in textile production.  Once discharged into the environment via waste water effluents, NPEs break down into toxic nonylphenols compounds (NPs), which are hormone disrupting chemicals. These build up in the water supply and food chain, and are considered hazardous even at low levels of exposure. The EU has banned the use of these chemicals in clothing manufacture.

In response, H&M, Nike, Adidas and Puma said over the next months they will show how they will put their commitments into practice to “bring about real change in the clothing industry,” according to Greenpeace

Adidas, Nike, H&M and Puma have committed publically to the “zero discharge” of hazardous hormone disrupting chemicals. We will write more about “zero liquid discharge” in January’s newsletter so watch for that article.

In its press statement, Nike said the company also would, “drive toward innovative solutions for transparency in chemical management disclosure.”

According to Greenpeace, other brands contacted for the report also have at least engaged on the topic of supplier mill discharges of NPEs. These included Lacoste, G-Star Raw and Uniqlo.

The possible addition of these brands to the few that already have strong sustainability programs was considered a significant success. Hong Kong textile manufacturer, Esquel , for example, has long been a leader in minimizing the footprint of its supply chain, setting industry standards in considering the impact of its operations and labor conditions.

Clothing in stores globally found with NP, a hormone-disrupting toxic chemical

For the Dirty Laundry 2 Report, 78 articles of sport and recreational clothing as well as shoes bearing the logos of 15 leading clothing brands were bought in flagship stores and authorized sellers across 18 countries in April and May this year and tested for the presence of NPEs. These 78 articles were manufactured in 13 countries and, of the 78, 52 tested positive for the presence of NPEs.

The appendix of the report makes for interesting reading. Not only do the results clearly show the NPEs have been used at some stage of production, they show that their use is not limited to products made in China.

Moreover, the fact that NPs are in the clothes means that upon washing, they enter into the local water systems. In other words, the chemicals are effectively imported back to the EU where their use in clothing manufacture is banned.

The Swedish government is reportedly taking the lead in looking to ban even the residue in clothes as a way to closing this loophole.

This of course raises the question, should we be more careful when buying clothes or selecting which brands to buy? Or perhaps we should just buy less?  And these are questions that even some brands are starting to ask.

Patagonia, considered a leader in environmentally friendly outerwear, ran a highly effective ad in the November 25 edition of the New York Times asking consumers not to buy more than they need.

Reduce, Repair and Reuse were the suggestions listed under the heading:

“Don’t Buy This Jacket”

The ad continued:

“Everything we make takes something from the planet we can’t give back. Each piece of Patagonia clothing, whether or not it’s organic or uses recycled materials, emits several times its weight in greenhouse gases, generates at least another half garment’s”

For more on Patagonia, see our interview with Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway, VP of Environmental Initiatives and Jill Dumain, the company’s Director of Environmental Strategy.


Other environmental initiatives in the textile industry

While Greenpeace was achieving success emphasizing the reputational risk of associating with polluting suppliers, several other NGOs and initiatives have been pressuring the textile industry to clean up its act.

Green Choice Alliance


A Beijing-based coalition of NGOs, The Green Choice Alliance (GCA), was also working to promote a global green supply chain by pushing large corporations to concentrate on procurement and the environmental performance of their suppliers.

Led by environmental activist, Ma Jun, his organization, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs since 2006 has been using government data to map air and water polluters.

The initiative has focused on specific industry sectors and most recently IT brands have come under pressure from the GCA to clean up their supply chains. Apple, which has only recently started to engage with the Alliance on emissions and exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals, has been targeted and again risks reputational damage. (Read more about this in our review, Apple: A New Chapter).

IPE and its coalition of now 41 NGOs intends to take on the textile industry next, according to IPE’s Ma Jun, perhaps as early as the first quarter of next year. Currently, dozens of brands are being researched for their connections to polluting suppliers, he said. IPE will be again looking at mills with repeated violations for illegal emissions of hazardous waste.

Clean by Design


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) after several years of study, in Spring 2010 launched its Clean by Design Responsible Sourcing Initiative (RSI). The Initiative targeted multinational retailers, brands and designers, with information about recommended supply chain best practices for textile mills that reduce environmental damage and cut costs.

At the same time, NRDC is working with Chinese officials and experts to improve environmental performance in the highly polluting sector as well as to transfer the knowledge and skills to Chinese managers in the hope of providing lasting solutions.

RSI partners include Wal-Mart, Gap, Levi Strauss, H&M, Nike and Target.  NRDC also is working with HK-based sourcing company, Li & Fung.

The Initiative recently has extended beyond China to Bangladesh, which is the fastest-growing country for textile manufacturing and faces a critical shortage of clean water and water treatment. Many of the textile plants are Chinese-owned and have moved there to take advantage of lower labor costs and lax environmental standards.

Luckily, the retail brands listed above and others are not looking for ever more lax standards, instead they are looking to improve their own supply chains and influence the industry more broadly.

In March, a coalition of retail companies, apparel and shoe manufacturers, fashion houses, non-profits, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a new organization that seeks to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothing industry worldwide.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition


The Sustainable Apparel Coalition , which includes Wal-Mart, Hanes, J.C. Penney, Nike, Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, and Patagonia, among others, aims to help to develop improved sustainability strategies and tools to measure and evaluate sustainability performance. This group of thirty organizations began working together informally last year. (Read our review of the Sustainable Apparel Coaliation)

The Coalition announced it was developing a database of the environmental effects of every manufacturer, component and process in apparel production, with the aim of using the gathered information to give  garments a sustainability score.

Part of the problem for the apparel industry is the complexity of the supply chain. There are many pieces to each item of clothing and each may be produced in a different factory and then assembled in yet another.

That means accounting for the environmental impact of any one item of clothing, tracing the zippers, the buttons, the natural fabric, the dyed fabric, is quite a feat.

Still, for the new coalition, tracing the various parts that make up one jacket or pair of trousers is the goal, along with conveying that information to the consumer.

The idea is that eventually there is a label that allows shoppers to see how well their coveted item of clothing is produced and learn about its impact on both the planet and people.

Brands turn to China to source cheaper clothes, but at what cost?

The attention paid to brands by environmental groups comes amid the rapid growth over the last ten years of the textile and apparel industry in China. The number of apparel and textile producers in the country more than doubled over this period, while China’s global share of the textiles and clothing trade also doubled to more than one-third.

According to NRDC 48 percent of total fiber processing now takes place in China.

In the first three quarters of 2011, China’s textile industry posted a year-on-year rise of 29 percent in industrial output value,  hitting 3.9558 trillion RMB (US$623 billion), the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced.

This massive growth has been partly fueled by a dramatic drop-off over the past decade in apparel prices as China has been able to produce at significantly lower cost. Indeed, prices of fabric and clothing imported to the U.S. have fallen 25% since 1995, encouraged also by the multiplication of discount retail chains that have fed off lower prices from China.

So we are all now buying clothes made in China and have come to expect low price. The trouble is, many of the clothes we wear, particularly the cheapest, are highly polluting to produce at the low cost-point.

According to the World Bank, 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, and there are at least 72 toxic chemicals in our water that originate solely from textile dyeing. Of these, 30 cannot be removed.

That’s a real problem for the textile industry: In China, polluted water causes 75 percent of diseases and over 100,000 deaths annually, the World Health Organization has said. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.


According to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, 77% of key lakes and reservoirs and 43% of the seven major river basins monitored are already unfit for human touch, as well as 50 percent of the groundwater. In all, an estimated 300 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water – , almost the entire population of the United States.

But the rapidly growing industry, the overuse of raw materials, the pollution and unplanned use of water resources, the interlinked rising prices of raw materials, power and labor has started to squeeze margins for the textile industry in China.

China’s textile factories are struggling

There is real concern from manufacturers that growth will start to fall off, with small and medium-sized producers – the core of the textile and apparel industry in China – squeezed out of the market.

“While we would all love to work together for a better plan to reduce various discharges, with the amount of challenges we face, we need help,”

Anderson Lee, Executive Director, The Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium

Last year, the price of cotton almost doubled amid water shortages, lack of arable land and excessive demand, causing many factories to opt for synthetics. This in turn put pressure on polyester, which rose almost 200 percent in the same period. Chemicals have shown similar price increases over the same period, while labor costs have risen 17 percent annually and energy costs have continued to rise.

There is not a lot left over to spend on cleaning up or putting in place environmental management systems, according to Anderson Lee, executive director of the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium (SFBC).

While we would all love to work together for a better plan to reduce various discharges, with the amount of challenges we face, we need help,” Lee said. He suggested the government could work with the sector to help stabilize energy and labor costs.

But Linda Greer of NRDC’s RSI initiative and director of the NGO’s public Health program said environmental clean up can actually save costs.

The NRDC’s list of ten “best-practices” was based on in-depth assessments at 20 mills. These were initiatives that cost the least, paid back investment quickly and taken together reduce water and energy use by roughly 20 percent, improving production efficiency and saving money.

According to NRDC there is lots of room for efficiency improvement and cost savings. Chinese Mills by NRDC’s estimations use 2-3 times more water and 3-5 times more energy than their global equivalents.

“Our Best Practices show that improving factory efficiency and conserving resources such as water and energy results in real savings for factories,” Greer said recently, “not only in terms of direct water and energy costs, but also in indirect savings in terms of reduced production time, lower labor costs, improved quality and fewer products rejected by buyers.”

Instead of higher costs, she said, “they require a willingness to change attitudes, management styles and overcome the business-as-usual mentality. For factories willing to make these adjustments, the payoffs can be substantial.”

In all, 15 mills are working with NRDC to implement the recommended efficiency changes. NRDC hopes these will lead the way for others.

It appears that Fashion is going green, albeit slowly and water pollution is just one part of the equation. The actual consumption of water by the industry is huge, from the farming of the cotton, or cattle for leather, to preparation, dying and manufacture. Some leading brands like Patagonia are just starting to map out the water footprint of their clothes and we can wish for a deeper collaboration between NGOs, brands, manufacturers and governments.

As for this holiday season, shop wisely and we can all still continue to dream of a green Christmas. For shopping tips, check out A Second-Hand Christmas.

China Water Risk
Author: China Water Risk
We believe regardless of whether we care for the environment that water risks affect us all – as investors, businesses and individuals. Water risks are fundamental to future decision making and growth patterns in global economies. Water scarcity has emerged as a critical sustainability issue for China's economy and since water powers the economy, we aim to highlight these risks inherent in each sector. In addition, we write about current trends in the global water industry, analyze changes occurring both regionally and globally, as well as providing explanations on the new technologies that are revolutionizing this industry.
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