Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

It's Not Just Electronics: Delving Into The Problems With China's Apparel Supply Chain

Ma Jun—crusader against bad environmental practices in China—doesn’t just try to make your computer better. He’s also working on the clothes made in China (which is most of them).

Compared to the electronics industry, which is just now facing ramifications for its questionable human rights and environmental practices, the apparel industry has been working on bettering supply chains for ages (sweatshop scandals in the 1990s, anyone?). But there is still work to be done.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an environmental organization led by former journalist Ma Jun, put out a report earlier this month along with four other Chinese NGOs (known collectively as the Green Choice Alliance NGOs) looking at the apparel industry’s environmental supply-chain issues in the country. As in all industries, some companies—Adidas, Nike, Levi’s, and H&M among them—perform better than others.

Environment and Human Rights

There are a handful of big issues plaguing apparel supply chains, according to Peder Michael Jorgensen, managing director for Europe at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). On the environmental side, companies need to worry about water use (cotton is an extremely water-intensive crop), as well as pesticides and hazardous chemicals used in the dyeing process. Garment processing has moved away from China in recent years, but dyeing and finishing has stayed put. That’s the more resource-intensive and hazardous part of the supply chain, explains the Green Choice Alliance’s Cleaning up the Fashion Industry Report Phase II. Out of the four main apparel processes (spinning, material production, printing and dyeing, and garment production), printing and dyeing uses 85% of resources, makes up 85% of energy consumption, and is responsible for 80% of chemical consumption.

In the human rights arena, issues include wages, collective bargaining, and freedom of association. "In many apparel factories you will find migrant workers, and they want to work as much as they can in a short period of time away from their families and then return," he says. If you give the migrant workers overtime, they don’t get the income they want and they end up working longer. The fix is to give people higher wages, but as Jorgensen explains, most apparel companies don’t have the ability to do this because of difficult-to-track, long supply chains.

These long supply chains also make it difficult for companies to find and correct environmental violations—it is the harder-to-track "tier 2" suppliers involved in dyeing and finishing that are hotbeds of pollution. There are a handful of companies, though, that the Green Choice Alliance believe are doing well.

Tracking Down Violators

After a previous investigative report, "Cleaning up the Fashion Industry," was published in April, a handful of companies—H&M, Nike, Esquel, Levi’s, Adidas, Walmart, Burberry, and Gap—followed up, hunting down pollution records and forcing more than 200 leather and textile suppliers to explain their violations and what they were doing to improve. The latest report explains that these brands "have not only responded but have started to investigate specific polluting supplier problems, established a search mechanism, and have pro-actively identified pollution problems in their supply chain."

22 other brands, including Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, and Marks and Spencer, still have a long way to go. These brands failed to respond to a letter from the Green Choice Alliance asking them to explain management issues discovered at their materials suppliers.

Green Choice Alliance hunted down one supplier that works with Marks and Spencer, the Zhejiang Qingmao Textile Printing and Dyeing Co., and found it has major problems with wastewater and waste gas treatment. The report explains what local environmental NGOs found during a September 2012 investigation at Tangtou Village, which is across the river from Qingmao:

On hearing that a group of non-locals had come to try and understand the pollution problems at Qingmao, more than 20 residents gathered together and approached to explain the pollution situation at Qingmao. They pointed to a chimney in the distance discharging emissions and explained that "there is a terrible smell every day" and "when the smell is really bad lots of kids have nosebleeds and feel dizzy."

Ms. Lu, a resident in the village, said, "When it rains Qingmao discharges black liquid into the river. One time they did this, the whole river was black. It rained last Friday and they did it again so I took some pictures." The residents feel that the waste gas emissions from Qingmao have had a serious effect on their health. One of the residents said, "We can’t stand it, it’s killed so many people. So many people have died from lung cancer."

[quote=pull]When it rains Qingmao discharges black liquid into the river. One time they did this, the whole river was black.

Taking Steps

The Green Choice Alliance suggests some concrete steps that companies can take, including checking suppliers against IPE’s Pollution Map Database for environmental violations, performing in-depth audits on problem factories, and using third-party audits after corrective actions have been taken.

One thing that Jorgensen doesn’t think will work: asking people to consume less (yes, we know certain niche companies like Patagonia have tried this, but it’s hard to imagine that working on a larger scale). "That’s not going to be helpful in the process of transformation," he says. Instead, companies "need to design for post-consumer use."

Marks and Spencer, incidentally, is making strides in that area. In the world of supply-chain sustainability, there are few companies that are purely good or bad—many brands are making progress, and most still have lots of work to do.