More than 200 improvement projects were carried out last year by 33 Chinese textile mills

More than 200 improvement projects were carried out last year by 33 Chinese textile mills

Annual savings of $14.7m in operating costs are being claimed for an initiative helping to cut water, energy and chemical use at textile mills in China supplying brands including Target, H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss.

The savings have been calculated through the Clean By Design programme from the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been working with 33 Chinese textile mills for the past two years – many of which supply major high-volume apparel brands and retailers.

By adopting simple efficiency measures in their production processes, the mills have "dramatically reduced the pollution generated, cutting up to 36% of water use and 22% of energy use per mill, and a total of at least 400 tons of chemicals," its latest analysis suggests.

Indeed, such has been its success so far that Clean By Design is this year expanding to the greater Suzhou area, in Jiangsu Province, another Chinese city with a high concentration of textile mills.

It is also seeking broader brand participation though an alignment with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which represents more than 40% of global apparel production, as it moves forward on its aim of establishing a global model for manufacturing sustainability in the fashion supply chain.

"Great fashion can also be green fashion," explains Linda Greer, PhD, NRDC senior scientist and director of Clean By Design.

"Although apparel manufacturing is among the largest polluting industries in the world, it doesn’t have to be. There are enormous opportunities for the fashion industry to clean up its act while saving money, and Clean By Design offers low-cost, high-impact solutions to do just that."

Pollution in China
The programme picked the textile industry in China for its focus thanks to its "notorious" energy and water intensity and pollution load. China currently produces more than 50% of the world’s fabric, totalling more than 80bn metres annually, but is also suffering from increasingly serious pollution problems.

Textile manufacturing, particularly the dyeing and finishing of fabric, is water and energy intensive, swallowing up to 250 tons of water for every 10,000 metres of fabric produced and and consuming 110m tons of coal every year. In China, the textile industry also ranks as the country’s third largest discharger of wastewater and the second largest user of chemicals.

A new report from NRDC, ‘The Textile Industry Leaps forward with Clean by Design: Bigger Profits Through Less Environmental Impact,’ identifies more than 200 improvement projects grounded in the programme’s Ten Best Practices.

These were carried out in 2014 by 33 textile mills in Shaoxing and the Guangzhou area in China, two of the world’s textile manufacturing hot spots with the highest concentration of mills.

What have they done? Crucially, the steps taken do not call for large-scale retooling of the textile industry, are no-cost or low cost, easy-to-implement, "and almost always pay for themselves in less than a year."

They include installing – and reading – meters to measure water, steam, and electricity consumption; better insulation of steam pipes; better-maintained steam traps; insulation of dye tanks; repairing air leaks in compressed air systems; and recovering heat from air compressor systems or reusing their condensate.

Overall savings delivered by Clean By Design in 2014 include:

  • Water: Saving up to 36% of water use and 3m tons of water, with an average 9% water savings at each mill. Each of the top five mills reduced water consumption by more than 20%;
  • Energy: Saving up to 22% of energy use and reducing the use of 61,000 tons of coal, which is mainly used to fire the boilers and make steam, with an average 6% energy reduction at each mill. Each of the top five mills reduced energy use by 10% or more. Reducing the use of 36m kWh of electricity, with an average 4.2% electricity reduction and each of the top five mills reducing electricity by more than 6.5%;
  • Chemicals: Reducing the use of at least 400 tons of chemicals, mostly dyes;
  • Money: Financial savings totalling $14.7m in operating costs to participating mills with a payback time of only 14 months. The annual return per mill averaged $440,000, with the top five performing mills saving more than $800,000.

"This practical and replicable action plan provides a proven blueprint for companies to drive a sustainable transformation of the fashion industry," Greer adds.

The timing comes as developing countries like China are stepping up their efforts to monitor or enforce environmental standards.

As reported on just-style last week, the first case demanding compensation for air pollution in China is to be heard – four months after the country’s tough new Environment Protection Law came into force.

Its aim is to facilitate public interest litigation against polluters – including textile finishing plants – calculating the potential amount of damages on an offending company’s operating costs as opposed to the amount of actual damage, which is difficult to determine.

The ability for the public to sue polluters presents a risk that if a company, including dye houses, does not adhere to the regulations they could be shut down or fined a substantial amount of money.

For more details, click here to read the full Clean By Design report results with textile mill stories.