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How International Pressure Can Change Chinese Factories

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China Power

How International Pressure Can Change Chinese Factories

Will fashion brands phase out the use of hazardous chemicals from their entire supply chain?

The year kicked off with Mike Daisey's controversial monologue lambasting labor conditions in Chinese factories making Apple products. But it has ended with actual change in an altogether different industry but who too were accused of unethical practices in their Chinese factories. Last month Greenpeace announced Zara committed to the organization’s Detox campaign, requiring fashion brands to phase out their use of hazardous chemicals from their entire supply chain, by 2020.

Zara joins a long list of clothing brands — including Nike, Adidas, Puma, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Esprit, Mango and Li-Ning — whose supplier factories were polluting Chinese rivers but have now signed a commitment to change. The effectiveness of the Detox campaign illustrates just what is required to transform Chinese industrial practices: a global campaign, backed by solid, scientific evidence of transgressions, and high-profile, coordinated actions that pressure brands who are highly sensitive to consumer demands.

In April 2012, Greenpeace investigators purchased 141 items of clothing from authorized retailers in 29 countries and regions worldwide. The hazardous chemicals nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were identified in just under two thirds of those tested. Four garments included high levels of toxic phthalates, while cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes turned up in two garments. 

Having last year targeted sports clothing retailers, this year the organization expanded the Detox umbrella to out some of the most popular fashion names in the world, such as Zara, Levi's and Calvin Klein. At the time Li Yifang, toxics campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia said in a press statement: “These are the big potatoes in the fashion industry — Zara alone churns out 850 million clothing items a year. You can imagine the size of the toxic footprint it has left on this planet, particularly in developing countries like China where many of its products are made."

The more brands that sign on, the easier the process becomes, as one supplier often sells to several brands. The hope is that by having started with leading international brands, this snowball effect will roll out across the entire industry, until these hazardous chemicals are abandoned altogether by the fashion industry; suppliers and brands, large and small.

With several brands having now committed to the 2020 roadmap, Greenpeace will also take on a supervisory role, checking their progress according to timelines that have been agreed upon and testing discharges and clothes whenever necessary. Li says, "The rollout process will differ chemical to chemical, and brand to brand. For example, Mango claimed they've already banned NPE, yet we found high levels of NPE in their clothes. So for them it is about investigating where the problem is and enforcing the bans. For others who don’t yet have a ban, it is about communicating to their supplier and monitoring their performance."

Li adds that there are already safe alternatives to NPE on the market, as it is a chemical that has been banned for years in Europe. These alternatives cost between one and five cents extra per item on average.

"And if you look at PFCs, some brands have simply banned it very quickly, such as H&M, who set a deadline for end of 2012. Other brands are taking a step-by-step approach. They will switch to safer alternatives next year and then finally to PFC-free alternatives by 2015 or 2016," says Li.

Another requirement of the Detox commitment has been to draw up an inventory of chemicals used in order to compile a black list. In the future, any new chemical that a supplier is considering introducing must be evaluated for their toxic properties.

While the Detox campaign has made effective use of leveraging brand power to instigate change, last year Greenpeace East Asia activists also carried out investigations at two polluting facilities, Youngor Group and Well Dyeing. Clients of these Chinese textiles suppliers include Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Converse, H&M, Lacoste, Nike and others. Connecting effluent from the suppliers' sewage pipes and identifying a relationship between the brands and the suppliers would prove to be one of the most challenging aspects of the investigation. 

However campaigning on individual factories produces small-scale results, at best leading to the government shutting down a polluting factory. There are over 50,000 textile factories in China, and few clearly mark their effluent pipes. In fact, factories often use hidden waste wells, underwater pipes, fake "show pipes" and a host of other methods to disguise their pollution. Their use of hazardous chemicals not only endangers the local community whom depend on this water, but also their very own workers who are exposed to them on a daily basis.

It is also important to note the current inadequacy of Chinese environmental law in addressing the country's toxic pollution crisis. Greenpeace East Asia has continued to campaign for policy change and seen small but significant process. According to Li, last year when the Detox campaign kicked off there was no regulation on toxic chemicals. But this October, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) released their first environmental regulation on toxic chemicals, requiring factories that produce or use toxic chemicals to register their use and provide this information to the government, as well as disclose them to the public. The new regulations are set to go into effect in March of next year.

Every figure that belongs to the billion-dollar industry called fashion is obsessed with image. It is, after all, what their profits are driven by. It is also their Achilles heel, and makes them perfect candidates for consumer driven change. More than 700 Greenpeace volunteers in 20 countries were out at Zara stores last month, with eye-catching actions that parodied the fashion industry's own models and mannequins. Participating cities included Beijing, Hong Kong, Budapest, Geneva, Hamburg and Madrid. On Twitter alone there were at least 43,800 mentions of Zara and the Detox campaign, while 300,000 people joined the online campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took just nine days for Zara to cave-in and join Detox.

"Be they international or Chinese, these brands have a responsibility to lead the way to a greener future. Particularly when marketing themselves as socially and environmentally conscious and employing advertising slogans such as 'Go Forth' and 'Apathy is death', as seen with Greenpeace's new target, Levi's," says Li. "Their action will send a clear message to the whole industry, far beyond their suppliers. And after they shift to toxic-free production, the alternatives will become more accessible for the others."

Monica Tan is a writer and Beijing-based web editor for Greenpeace East Asia. The views expressed in this article reflect those of Greenpeace.