Worker at a denim washing factory in GuangDong (Photo credit: Qiu Bo/Greenpeace)

Worker at a denim washing factory in GuangDong (Photo credit: Qiu Bo/Greenpeace)

Upstream textile and finishing suppliers to China’s mighty clothing industry may face a struggle to survive following the release of the government’s ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan.’

The plan issued by the State Council in April aims to improve the quality of drinking water sources to a new set of standards by 2020, tightening these further by 2030. China hopes the water quality of its seven main rivers, including the Yangtze River, Huang He (The Yellow River) and the Pearl Delta River will meet these objectives.

But these watercourses have been used as dumping grounds for waste liquids by textile finishers, and the plan will impose tougher restrictions on their pollution.

A senior manager at Zhejiang Hangmin Stock Co Ltd, one of China’s top 20 dyeing companies, and based in Hangzhou, on the Qiantang River, says dyeing and finishing fees charged by his company have increased "15%" compared to last year, to reduce its environmental impact. "We will probably increase that [again] in this coming September," he says.

China’s dyeing industry is facing large-scale consolidation and many small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SME) in the Yangtze River area and Pearl Delta River may close as a result, and soon, claims Hu Kehua, deputy director for the office of social responsibility at the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC). Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, he says at least 5% of dyeing companies will close before the end of 2016.

China has been plagued with water pollution and water scarcity since its industrialisation started in earnest in the early 1990s, Wu Shunze, vice dean of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, an institute under the ministry of environmental protection (MEP) notes. "Black, smelly, and severely polluted rivers are one of our major headaches".

The plan mentions "the printing and dyeing industry" seven times in its documentation, stating that illegal projects, workshops and companies from industries, also including paper, metals, petrochemicals, tanning, and electroplating industries, which severely pollute rivers, lakes and groundwater, will be closed down by the end of 2016.

The plan also says the textile printing and dyeing industry needs to adopt low-level wastewater emission production techniques by the end of 2017.

It says targets will be imposed on various sectors, including the textile industry, to reduce water consumption by the end of 2020, adding that detailed quotas will be released going forward.

Sustainable development
Debra Tan, director of China Water Risk, a non-profit Hong Kong-based environmental group, told just-style that textiles, apparel and footwear are the most polluting industrial sectors in China. These sectors discharge "twice" as much wastewater as China’s entire coal industry, she claims, with problems especially severe if illegal discharges are taken into account, one of the many reasons "the plan heavily targets this sector".

Chinese textile companies find themselves "stuck in the middle," according to Tan.

Meanwhile, Hu agrees that the ability of Chinese textile companies to develop sustainably has been sharply curtailed by intensive market competition, strengthening environmental requirements and rising production costs.

"If textile companies are weak in sustainable development, failing to invest in environmental protection ahead, and unable to allocate clean-up costs over a long period, it is not easy for them to undergo a quick green transformation," he says.

Companies who have made plans will be in a better position. Xu said his company was one of these and has been preparing for sustainable change by sourcing new advanced colouring agents and installing wastewater pollution treatment facilities since 2010. He claims the company is now capable of recycling 40% to 50% of its wastewater.

Meanwhile regulatory controls remain patchy, claims Tan. With the majority of textile and finishing companies being SMEs, China’s environment ministry can only effectively monitor 30% of them, she says.

The new ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’ comes on top of sweeping changes to China's national Environmental Protection Law from the beginning of the year, which give greater powers to environmental authorities and harsh punishments for polluters.

A compulsory public disclosure element also means multinational clothing suppliers must choose their textile supply chain partners with greater care and transparency. The provisions, which came into force on 1 January, emphasise the need for companies to clean up their supply chains.

Click on the following link to read more: China law changes tighten up on textile pollution.