Pollution in the textile supply chain is mostly tied to dyeing and finishing

Pollution in the textile supply chain is mostly tied to dyeing and finishing

China’s textile and garment sector has come a long way in achieving sustainability and social compliance – but checks still need to be made.

A top-down government crusade against pollution, and foreign fashion brands’ wariness of being accused of making money with polluting and labour-exploitative supply chains are largely responsible for the improvements.

However, claim sustainability experts, it is the major, export-orientated garment enterprises that can be trusted for strategic partnerships, whereas their small, domestic market-oriented counterparts still tend to have plenty to hide.

"If you want to export garments from China these days, there are so many requirements that are checked by buyers’ compliance offices," said Allan Chan, an associated professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing.

"Often these regional compliance offices in places such as Guangdong and Shanghai are staffed with Hong Kong people, who come and look at the factory, the canteen food, the workers’ dormitories and so on," he elaborated.

Chan added where he has undertaken compliance investigations on garment factories in southern China in recent years, he has found workers’ dormitories that were "quite clean and sufficiently spacious, with also their electricity layouts being safe."

He stressed that employment of Hong Kong auditors to assess worker safety and well-being standards has helped overcome the major challenge of western and mainland Chinese textile industry players having different takes on environmental and labour standards. This is because Hong Kong experts are not only well versed in both sides’ languages and business, laws but also in the cultural aspects.

Investigative reports
On the environmental side, as serious pollution in the textile supply chain is mostly tied to dyeing and finishing units, the environmental agencies of China’s local governments have begun monitoring these particularly closely. An amendment to China’s national Environmental Protection Law that took effect on 1 January 2015, facilitates closer monitoring of factories by non-government organisations, such as the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).

Among other checks, it evaluates satellite images to track changes in the colour of rivers so that law enforcement officers can trace sources of illegal emissions. According to Chan, there still are some unscrupulous factories that discharge at night to outsmart the satellites, but these factories are not export-orientated.

"Mainland TV broadcasts lots of investigative reports on industrial pollution cases these days, reflecting that the general public and the authorities are very aware of such issues now," Chan explained. "Polluters are now charged substantial fines, whereas the sizable companies spend a lot to clean up their discharge and recycle their waste water."

Recognition for Chenfeng
A good example of a large, export-oriented Chinese garment maker turning greener and fairer is the Chenfeng Group, in Jiangsu province. With its annual output of 60m pieces and 13,000 workers in 11 factories, it is among China’s top 100 garment exporting enterprises, according to the company.

Chenfeng has been recognised by the Chinese government as a ‘National Harmonious Labour Relations Enterprise’ and is an affiliated enterprise of the International Fair Labor Association (FLA), which was created by US President Bill Clinton in 1999 following a series of child labour and other sweatshop scandals involving major apparel and footwear brands.

"Over 50% of our factory sites are planted with trees, which is a very high ratio by Chinese factory standards," said Yin Guoxin, Chenfeng’s chairman and general secretary. "We furthermore collect rainwater for various uses including the washing of the fabric and then treat and recycle the waste water," he said.

Yin added that solar panels were installed on Chenfeng’s factory roofs two years ago, providing electricity for lighting and dormitories’ water heaters, for example. He went on saying that China’s increasingly strict environmental standards are a good thing, with the resulting pressures on garment makers being tolerable.

"We are able to absorb our investments in sustainability with higher production efficiency through automation," Yin said.

Major international fashion retailers that source in Asia know compliance in China was never quite the problem it was alleged to be, according to observers such as Mike Flanagan, CEO of Clothesource, a UK-based consultancy firm. According to Flanagan, if a brand does not specify and check compliance in China, it will be deceived, whereas the brand setting up the sourcing the way it wants, will not.

"The volume of anything being made in China is so huge and its range of support services is so all-encompassing that it’s easy to buy something, take whatever assurances they think you want and believe it, but that’s not normally how Nike or M&S go about sourcing clothes," Flanagan said.

"If you’re M&S and keep your antennae switched on, you are probably less likely to be the victim of an unexpected scandal in China than anywhere else, including domestic sourcing."

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