The fashion industry involves long and varied supply chains of production: sourcing of raw material, manufacturing, clothing design and construction, transport and shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal. This makes determining the ecological footprint of the industry as a whole is a huge challenge. An assessment must take into account the pollutants as well as the amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, processing, manufacturing and shipping.
Yet, a look at some statistics can give us an idea of the extent of that footprint. Surveys show that nearly five percent of all landfill space is consumed by textile waste. In the US, 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased each year, 400% more than two decades ago. The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste a year, mounting up to 11 million tons. In the UK, domestic clothing consumption has increased from one million ton in 2010 to 1.1 million in 2015, with England and Wales sending an estimated 620,000 ton to landfill (2013-14).
The textile industry is also second only to agriculture as the biggest polluter of clean water globally. The World Bank (WB) estimates that almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles, with some 70 toxic chemicals reaching our water supply from textile dyeing.
With 65% of the world’s clothing made in China, the world’s leading exporter of textiles and apparel, has been one of the most environmentally destructive industry for the country. In 2012, Greenpeace published a report, ‘Dirty Laundry’, showing the impact of the textile industry on water supplies. It found that it was responsible for 10% of China’s industrial wastewater; locals would say you can tell the colour in fashion next season by the colour of the rivers. Meanwhile, Greenpeace also revealed that shoppers worldwide were buying contaminated clothing and unwittingly spreading water pollution as they wash their new garments. A similar report report (2009) from the Guangdong Academy of Sciences on regional environmental policy, listed the textile industry among the top five producers of solid waste and 6th in energy consumption. Nationwide, the textile industry is the fourth-largest contributor to Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) pollution, ranking behind paper, food and chemicals.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in China polluted water causes 75% of diseases and over 100,000 deaths annually. Cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average, and villagers living by textile factories started refusing work due to health problems. Nitin Dani, director of Shanghai-based campaign organisation Green Initiatives said “The way air quality and food safety issues are threatening the health of Chinese residents and their families is playing a big part in increased environmental awareness.”
Eventually, forced to heed public demands and facing an economic slowdown, Premier Li Keqiang’s promised a “war on pollution” in 2014. The government strengthened China’s Environmental Protection Law for the first time in 25 years, and pledged over US$600 billion to clean up air and water pollution. While the new environmental laws aggressively targeted the textile industry, investment in renewable energy sources, an almost non-existent industry until then, also soared.
This October 2016, China reaffirmed its intention to clean-up the textile industry. China’s 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development for 2016-2020 shows it aims to achieve average annual output growth of 6-7% and for the industry to become more environmentally friendly. The government set an 18% reduction target for the industry's energy intensity and a 10% drop in pollutant emission. According to the plan, “the industry will become greener and smarter, with cleaner technology and more customised products”. The textile industry is also central to China’s plans for a circular economy, with investment being put into recycling technology. Recycled textile production is targeted to reach 4.5 million tons by 2020.
Response from industry players
With the threat of hefty fines and changing consumer patterns, many of China’s leading manufacturers have had to make significant changes. Christina Dean, Founder of Redress, Hong Kong based environmental NGO, notes that the better suppliers are those having long term business relationships with known brands such as H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer and Adidas. For instance, the Hong-Kong-based Esquel Group, which produces over 100 million garments annually for brands including Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike, has invested in one of China’s largest waste-water treatment plants. While Crystal Group’s Zhongshan Yida Apparel Factory, which works with the likes of Levi Strauss, H&M and Gap, has become a role model for sustainable denim jeans production. Its recycled cotton fabric factory upcycles fabric remnants into new material for eco and recycled jeans.
Between government legislation, shifting public and consumer demand and brand action, a more sustainable industry is in progress, stirring innovation and creativity along the way. China’s decided commitment and relentless pressure, will make sustainability in the fashion industry a ‘must’ for those wanting to remain competitive. While smaller brands may move their operations away from China and into less strict legal environments within East-Asia, the sheer size of the Chinese textile industry will, regardless, change the future of the industry. Actors in the fashion industry, all along the value chain from farmers to retailers, would be advised to jump on that band-wagon sooner rather than later.
(Sources: Fashionating World, Institute for sustainable Communication, World Bank, Not just a label, China business review, Greenpeace, Word Health Organisation, Green Initiatives)