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WASHINGTON — Retailers and brands are broadening their scrutiny of global textile suppliers after an initiative with an environmental group led to greater efficiencies and pollution control in China.
Some of the six companies that have partnered with the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental protection organization, have already seen improvements in the textile supply chain in China and they are ready to turn next to a new pilot project in Bangladesh.
The textile industry shares the mantle of being the worst water polluter in China with the chemical industry, according to the NRDC, while the steel, cement and petroleum sectors have a bigger impact on the environment through air pollution.
“We followed the pounds and what our analysis lead us to was the biggest polluters in the country,” said Linda Greer, director of the NRDC’s health and environmental program. “Based on the information from one industrialized province in China, we picked the industry that had the highest percentage of factories having pollution problems and that is what drove us to the textile industry. I knew nothing about the textile industry and I was amazed it was the textile industry.”
There are more than 50,000 textile mills in China, using as much as 200 tons of water for every ton of fabric produced and using steam often generated by coal-fired industrial boilers, which pollute the environment heavily, as do the chemicals used in the processing of dyes and finishes for textiles.
The sheer size of the textile industry in China and its environmental impact caused the NRDC to launch the Responsible Sourcing Initiative in China in 2008, which drew in major industry players, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Gap Inc., H&M, Nike Inc. and Li & Fung Ltd. The by-product of the first initiative and audits of five textile firms in China was a list of the 10 best practices that would reduce the environmental impact of textile factories and save them money within a year of being implemented.
The 10 guidelines range from finding and preventing leaks to reusing steam and water used in bleaching to installing proper insulation and recovering heat from smokestacks. The NRDC said each of the steps could reduce costs for textile factories from $1,500 to $95,000.
“The results have been really encouraging,” said Leslie Croshaw, senior manager of social and environmental sustainability at Levi’s. “One of our textile mills that participated [in the original audits] implemented three of the 10 best practices identified by the NRDC and their estimated savings per year are 112 tons of water (23 percent of the water they were using) and 208,000 tons of coal per year (11 percent of what they were using) and this translated into $840,000 over a year. That’s huge.”
Croshaw said the NRDC estimated an eight-month return on investment for the 10 best practices, but it only took the textile mill in the audit one month to recoup its investment.
Levi’s plans to roll out the best practices to all of its fabric mills globally after developing some “practical tools” with the NRDC to help mills implement the guidelines, she said. The company is also participating with the environmental group in Bangladesh to develop methods at textile mills to reduce water usage and pollution.
Gap Inc. also anticipates positive results from the initiative and has plans to take the guidelines to its entire supply chain, according to Kindley Walsh Lawlor, the company’s vice president of social and environmental responsibility. Gap’s apparel production in China represents 30 percent of its total global manufacturing, she noted.
“We think the idea of best practices is the best way to dialogue with mills that have never been approached in this manner,” Lawlor said. “It is an opportunity for them to be trained to do…something they may not be aware of that is bigger than only relighting their textile mills, such as reusing dye baths or scheduling dyes in a different capacity, like not using a black dye before a white dye.”
Gap has given textile mill suppliers in China until the end of the year to learn the new best practices and start implementing them.
Sourcing giant Li & Fung has also seen benefits from the initiative in China and is in the process of sharing the guidelines with global suppliers, said Bruce Bergstrom, vice president of vendor compliance at Li & Fung.
“Global environmental issues are complex in nature and require multifaceted and multistakeholder approaches to effect positive change,” said Bergstrom. “Perhaps the biggest challenge to overcome is building suppliers’ awareness and understanding of the issues and opportunities that eco-manufacturing holds for them.”
Bergstrom said the NRDC initiative was “an ideal platform to partner with a well-regarded NGO [nongovernmental organization] and like-minded companies” to find “eco-efficiencies” within the apparel and textile supply chains.
He said Li & Fung will next work with the NRDC on a project in Changshu, China, as well as customer-specific dye mill initiatives and in the joint NRDC/World Bank project in Bangladesh.
The NRDC launched what Greer calls a “copycat initiative” in the textile industry in Bangladesh last November and there are plans to expand in China, as well. The organization has budgeted in-depth audits for another 10 textile mills in China to develop more case studies and ultimately hopes to have 100 mills participate in the pilot project over the next two years.
Bangladesh is a new frontier for the NRDC and the brands and retailers. The World Bank approached them for help in finding solutions to large-scale water pollution and a massive water shortage in the Dhaka watershed.
“The World Bank has been very concerned because the population of Dhaka, 12 million, is basically drinking from the same water supply as the industrial factories use,” said Greer. “What they are facing is the prospect of the textile industry in particular sucking away the drinking water of Bangladesh, which puts the whole country in a tremendous crisis.”
The NRDC and the six companies are gearing up to select five textile factories for audits and follow a parallel track of developing best practices and spreading them to textile mills throughout the country.
Looking beyond the pilot projects in China and Bangladesh, Greer said the initiative will have global ramifications.
“If in the final stages of this project, these multinational companies develop supply chain policies that somehow reward factories that do environmental improvements, this could have a global impact with the NRDC not even having to go to these countries,” said Greer. “We wouldn’t have to go country by country because we could rely on the global supply chain of the industry and I think that is the most effective way of doing global environmental protection.”