Cleaning up textile mills makes commercial sense

Plans by two of the world’s largest retailers – Walmart and H&M – to work with their Chinese textile suppliers to reduce water, energy, and chemical use in their factories sends out an important message to global supply chains.

One the one hand, it is clear that so-called eco-manufacturing is going to continue to gain momentum, and on the other, that global textile suppliers are likely be subjected to ever greater scrutiny as retailers and brands try to reduce their environmental impacts.

After all, Walmart has already raised the bar by promising to put more environmentally sustainable products on its shelves and introducing an environmental labelling program for the items sold in its stores. And where the world’s largest retailer leads other will surely follow.

But rather than the threat of continual monitoring and scrutiny to get firms committed to cleaning up their acts, perhaps the biggest incentive for long-lasting change is evidence that not only is there a market out there for textiles made using cleaner practices – but that a greening of the supply chain can save vast amounts of money too. In other words, it makes sound commercial sense.

While confident that its Clean by Design initiative can curb pollution from textile mills, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points out that the environmental challenge now facing the fashion industry is largely of its own making.

In particular, it singles out the relentless march by multi-national corporations over the last decade to expand their textile manufacturing operations across the developing world.

And what this means is that one of the biggest sources of industrial water pollution in the world is now based in countries such as China, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh – all of which have weak environmental standards and even weaker enforcement capabilities.

Dyeing and finishing processes devour vast quantities of clean water and energy, and discharge a host of toxic chemicals if not properly treated. On top of this, textile manufacturing consumes and pollutes as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric with a cocktail of harmful chemicals, and produces considerable CO2 emissions. It also uses tremendous amounts of energy for steam and hot water.

But luckily there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

NRDC’s team has carried out  in-depth pollution prevention assessments on five ‘typical’ dyeing and finishing plants. And from these it has identified ten practices that can “dramatically cut pollution” and which make up its Clean by Design programme.

Together, it says, they can save around 25% of water and 30% of fuel use – with initiatives paying for themselves in less than eight months.

Just as encouraging is the fact they really are as simple and low-cost as NRDC claims: including finding and preventing leaks, reusing steam and water used in bleaching, installing proper insulation and electricity meters, recovering heat from smokestacks, and turning off hoses when not in use.

A showcase mill is the Redbud Textile Company in Changshu, China – also a Walmart supplier – which adopted just three of these practices with a one-time cost of $72,000. The result was a 23% reduction in water use and an 11% cut in coal consumption, with savings of nearly $840,000 per year.

And the facts and figures supporting a supply chain clean-up keep coming.

Apparently, if just 100 small- to medium-sized textile mills implement the improvements, China would save more than 16m metric tons of water annually, enough to provide 12.4m people with drinking water for a year.

The changes at these 100 firms could also eliminate nearly 1m metric tons of CO2 annually, around the same amount of emissions from 172,000 cars per year.

While both Walmart and H&M will start trialling the Clean by Design recommendations at a few of their key Chinese mills before expanding the principles across their textile suppy based, other retailers and brands already collaborating in the Clean by Design effort include Gap, Levi Strauss, Nike, Marks & Spencer, and Li and Fung.

And together these seven major apparel corporations may well have the critical mass – and of course the purchasing power – to drive improvements all the way up the supply chain.

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