SHANGHAI — Target Corp.’s president of global sourcing said China was a priority when it comes to introducing sustainable practices.

At a National Resources Defense Council conference here Wednesday, America’s second-largest discount retailer was joined by Gap Inc., Levi Strauss and Co. and H&M, among others, to laud the efforts of 33 Chinese textile mills that participated in the NRDC’s Clean by Design project, an initiative encouraging global brands to reduce their environmental footprint abroad.

“China is very important to us so we have invested, and are dedicating our efforts through the NRDC to move the needle here,” said Irene Quarshie, Target’s representative, adding, “As a global organization, we are looking at our supply chain across the board everywhere we do business.”

When asked about the cost of investment, Quarshie did not give a figure, but said, “The commitment has been meaningful and the return has also been meaningful.” She confirmed that investments in heat- and water-saving technologies and chemical-waste management were recouped within 14 months of adoption, on average, according to the 20 mills they partnered with.

For the last two decades, China has been the epicenter of global manufacturing. In recent years, the domestic industry has been blighted by foreign competition, rising wages and growing calls for environmental and health reform.

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According to the NRDC’s new report, “The Textile Industry Leaps Forward With Clean by Design: Bigger Profits Through Less Environmental Impact,” nearly one third of the country’s rivers are designated as too polluted for any direct human contact. Water supply is an immediate threat, with more than 100 of China’s cities experiencing grave water scarcity, while air pollution exceeds healthy levels in many of China’s major cities.

The project has saved $14.7 million annually since launching in 2013 in Guangzhou and Shaoxing, the report said.

“We’re looking at direct engagement in first-tier cities [in China] as well as our second-tier vendor partners,” said Quarshie, adding, “this is the first meaningful step in a long journey.”

The next phase of Clean by Design will roll out in the greater Suzhou area in Jiangsu province, another area deeply concentrated with textile mills.

Amid talk of Chinese factories relocating to Vietnam or Bangladesh where the cost of labor is as much as a third cheaper than in China, Irmgard Fischer, country manager of production for Hennes & Mauritz China, told the audience of industry officials and mill owners that the Swedish company sees clear benefits in retail and production remaining in the same country.

“We are currently growing at around 10 and 15 percent per year, and China is one of our fastest-growing retail markets, where we already have 200 stores,” Fischer said. “We are addressing challenges where they appear across the value chain, from design to production, to transport and usage.…In China, we have already collected 300 tons of [discarded] clothes since 2013, 80 percent or which are either reused or recycled.”

China’s Communist Party has made reform of the textile industry central to its current 12th Five-Year Plan. As part of a raft of measures, it will require 15,000 factories across the country to release real-time environmental discharge and emission data to the public.

A government adviser said failure to comply with new initiatives will be punished.

“In the Tengger desert, we have a scandal [relating to] environmental pollution. The polluters have been subject to huge fines. Even the executives of these companies are held responsible and the local government officials are [being] disciplined. Enforcement is very important for the success [of new environmental policy],” said Yang Jichao, the former secretary general of the China National Textile and Apparel Council.

Liu Lihua of the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology added that green initiatives are key to China’s ongoing economic restructuring. “Priorities are shifting from scale and growth rate to efficiency and quality. In the ‘new normal’ context, China intends to control carbon emissions and total energy use — these are daunting challenges for the industry,” he said.

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