Accusations of toxic water pollution at the Guotai Dyeing Factory (Well Dying Factory Limited) have spurred industry efforts to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. Photo credit: Qiu Bo/Greenpeace.

Accusations of toxic water pollution at the Guotai Dyeing Factory (Well Dying Factory Limited) have spurred industry efforts to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. Photo credit: Qiu Bo/Greenpeace.

What started out as a challenge back in July by environmental pressure group Greenpeace to try to persuade global fashion brands and retailers to eliminate the discharge of hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and products has been gaining momentum ever since. So much so that the firms involved believe their efforts have the potential to "change apparel manufacturing."

In the space of just four months Adidas, C&A, H&M, Li Ning, Nike and Puma have not only jumped on board the so-called Detox challenge, but they have all agreed to work together in what they describe as a "game-changing collaboration."

Between them they have compiled a joint 'roadmap' outlining the steps they intend to take to achieve the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in their supply chains by 2020. The initiative, they say, sets a new standard of environmental performance for the global apparel and footwear industry - and will help to safeguard the environment for future generations.

There's no doubt that by working together they stand to make considerably more progress towards their goals than by going it alone. As Puma points out: "By collaborating, we can join forces, bundle resources and develop one common understanding and basic roadmap, which then can be implemented at our direct suppliers and the chemical industry.

"With one common message, we hope to achieve greater leverage towards the chemical industry and avoid double work at our supplier base, many of which manufacture products for more than one brand."

"Dirty Laundry" report
While the actions of all six firms are laudable, they have also been prompted by scathing evidence against them.

Greenpeace's "Dirty Laundry" report found toxic chemicals in waste water discharges from two textile processing facilities in China supplying global apparel firms. It said the chemicals found at the Youngor Textile City Complex and the Well Dyeing Factory, by the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas included "persistent and bioaccumulative hormone disruptors that pose long-term threats to the environment and to human health".

It said none of the companies involved had the necessary policies in place to give them a complete overview of the chemicals used and released across their entire supply chain - and challenged them to set a zero-discharge policy for their suppliers.

Manufacturing challenges
In response, the six apparel and footwear firms are now setting out to change the way products are manufactured globally. And the joint roadmap document released last week sets out some of the challenges facing them in the years ahead.

Not least of which is the supply chain itself. The firms own few of the factories and suppliers that make their products, they work with thousands of direct contract manufacturers and tens of thousands of material suppliers, and hundreds of individual chemicals are used at each of these.

As if that wasn't enough to contend with, they have limited visibility into the chemical formulations used by suppliers - especially the hazardous ingredients - and point out that brands have never before attempted to directly control the chemical formulations used deep in the supply chain by suppliers' suppliers.

Other challenges include the vast volumes of water used in dyeing/finishing and other processes, and the fact that wastewater treatment varies from facility to facility. There are also import/export barriers for chemicals and technologies that they will have to overcome.

Initially, pilot projects will be carried out at major, vertically integrated apparel suppliers and dye houses between 2011 and 2013 to get a better understanding of the scope of use and discharge of hazardous chemicals. The pilot facilities will be in China, Philippines, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Thailand, India and Indonesia, with the findings then rolled out to footwear and other products. From 2012 to 2013, the focus will be textile production.

Nine classes of hazardous or persistent chemicals are currently restricted in all products sold by the six retailers and brands, so projects will be aimed at verifying their absence from discharge water or sludge. These are phthalates (ortho-phthalates), brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, azo dyes, organotin compounds, chlorobenzenes, chlorinated solvents, chlorophenols, short-chained chlorinated paraffins (sccps), and heavy metals (cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium).

By mid-2013, an action plan will be developed to phase-out of any of the nine chemicals that are found.

Other action plans
Action will also be taken on other chemical groups such as APEOs/NPEs which are used in textile and leather manufacturing processes, including scouring/degreasing and detergents. Suppliers will be asked to source preparations that are APEO/NPE free, and a list of such preparations compiled.

Timelines will also be set to eliminate products associated with the fluorocarbon compounds perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), which are widely used for water and/or stain repellency.

It is planned that an inventory of all chemicals used in apparel manufacturing will be initiated by the end of 2012, and a sector-wide list of hazardous chemicals established the following year. The lists will also be used to identify alternative (greener) chemical formulations that are currently available (such as water-based adhesives and water-based inks) or needed.

Other steps include disclosing the results of all pilots and studies undertaken as part of this commitment, and reporting regularly and publicly on their progress, quarterly in 2012 and annually from 2013 to 2020.

The firms are at pains to point out the challenges that lie ahead, not least of which is the "incredibly ambitious" eight-year timeline to 2020. Similar initiatives such as PRTRs (Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers) or TRI (Toxics Release Inventory) have taken decades to achieve results, they say, while this initiative is attempting to achieve the same, in just a fraction of the time, across thousands of suppliers in more than 50 countries.

They also note that the capacity of chemical laboratories in Asia to conduct the required testing still has to be developed, and that the lack of specific information on which chemicals are used in certain formulations means it will take time to produce a complete chemicals inventory.

The brands also point out that their leverage really only exists with direct suppliers and declines with each tier down the supply chain. And many suppliers produce for more than one brand, so even if one brand decides to phase out a chemical, the supplier may still need to use it if nominated by another brand/customer.

It is for this reason they are keen to get other firms in the global apparel and footwear industry to join their efforts.