The IPE Green Supply Chain Map.

With its complicated supply chains, the fashion industry has long been accustomed to operating under a shroud of opacity. Now two environmental organizations have launched a monitoring tool to help brands track their suppliers’ environmental footprints and achieve a greater level of transparency. 

Target Corp., Esprit, New Balance, Puma SE, Gap Inc. and Inditex are the inaugural companies embracing radical transparency. The six shared their supplier lists with the Natural Resources Defense Council in the U.S. and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China for the groups’ new IPE Green Supply Chain Map, which is said to be the only tool in the world to openly link leading multinational corporations to the environmental performance of their suppliers.

IPE’s database and map provide real-time data and historical trends in air-pollution emissions and wastewater discharge for nearly 15,000 major industrial facilities in China based on public data from the Chinese government. IPE also provides access to environmental supervision records for more than half-a-million additional industrial facilities. 

“Until now, customers have lacked effective tools to assess the environmental impact of their favorite brands’ global operations,” said Linda Greer, senior health scientist for NRDC and founder of its Clean by Design green supply chain program. “These companies that have stepped up to put their names first on the inaugural map are showing new levels of transparency on their manufacturing abroad and demonstrating real leadership in supply chain responsibility.”

With Chinese factories producing 33.7 percent of the apparel that’s brought into the U.S., the Asian country has been the epicenter of global manufacturing. However, the industry in recent years has been moving to cheaper countries. “We’ve seen some exodus,” Greer said. “China remains at the center of the problem. It’s ironic that the Chinese government created real-time monitoring of factories. It shows that they’re desperate to solve the pollution problem.”

Factories with notorious histories of pollution are being shut down by the Chinese government, Greer said, adding that she hopes there will also be a market value for good behavior. “We hope to see the factories that have really good performance start getting recognized. This could provide a competitive advantage. It’s potentially transformative.”

“The map has the potential to become a true game-changer for public environmental oversight and improvement efforts for industrial manufacturing in China,” said Ma Jun, environmentalist and director at IPE. “We hope to see more brands step up their game and join the map to connect the missing dots of accountability in the vast network of global supply chains.”

Environmental protection has become a key performance indicator for Chinese officials in recent years as the central government tries to address severe pollution caused by decades of unchecked economic growth.

For eight years, NRDC and IPE have partnered to address China’s environmental problems including air, water and soil pollution, which have grown exponentially as the country greatly expanded its industrial manufacturing base. For example, 25 percent of the country’s carbon emissions are linked to the manufacture of products for sale overseas. 

The IPE Green Supply Chain Map, which comes in English and Chinese versions, is designed to empower brands with knowledge and help them make environmentally responsible decisions about their China operations. The map’s greater transparency gives consumers concerned about the planet a window to the environmental impact of apparel brands.

The map offers opportunities for retailers and brands to make their supply chains “greener” by insisting suppliers actively maintain solid environmental management and transparency. Well-performing factories can be recognized and motivated by multinational and local Chinese firms, which can award greater market share to those with positive environmental behavior. When used correctly, the IPE Green Supply Chain Map can reduce the time and expense associated with factory audits, which often don’t identify hidden problems.

Users can click the logo of a brand of interest at any location in the country to see how its supplier factory is performing environmentally at that moment. There’s also a view of a 30-day trend of emissions and discharges. Factory responses and corrective actions toward environmental violation records can also be viewed, along with voluntarily disclosed annual emissions data.

“We hope the map can serve as a reference for other countries and regions facing similar concerns about environmental impacts of rapid industrialization within their borders,” said Kate Logan, green choice outreach director for IPE.