Fashion executives know that sustainability is good for the environment, and a new report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council underscores its potential to help the bottom line.

This story first appeared in the April 15, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Collectively, 33 Chinese textile mills — including ones that churn out clothing for Target, Gap, Levi Strauss and Co. and H&M, among others — are saving $14.7 million annually by adopting such practices as recycling water and heat. During Wednesday’s announcement at Swissotel Grand Shanghai, the NRDC also honored standout sustainable efforts in 19 different categories.

The 33 production sites are participants in the organization’s Clean by Design program, an international initiative that is working with major fashion retailers and designers to improve sustainability throughout the fashion industry’s supply chain. By taking these environmentally friendly steps, the participating mills’ water use was reduced by as much as 36 percent, with the average mill using 9 percent less water. In terms of energy usage, the 33 participants saw a 6 percent decline on average, with the top five mills reducing energy use by 10 percent or more. That amassed a total reduction of 61,000 tons of coal, which is used primarily to fire the boilers to make steam. On another front, electricity usage dropped 4.2 percent on average with the leading five front-runners posting more than a 6.5 percent reduction.

In the past 20 years, China has become the epicenter of global manufacturing, producing more than 50 percent of the world’s fabric totaling more than 80 billion meters annually, according to the report. Textile manufacturing — especially the dyeing and finishing aspects — takes a toll on water and energy supplies, requiring 250 tons of water for every 10,000 meters of fabric produced and consuming 110 million tons of coal every year. The textile industry is China third-largest discharger of wastewater and the second-largest user of chemicals.

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The new report, “The Textile Industry Leaps Forward with Clean by Design: Bigger Profits Through Less Environmental Impact,” highlights 200 improvement projects that were adopted by the 33 mills in the Shaoxing and Guangzhou regions. Their efforts are rooted in the NRDC’s Ten Best Practices program.

On average each mill saved 9 percent in water usage, with each of the top mills reducing water consumption by more than 20 percent. The greatest savings were up to 36 percent of water use and three million tons of water.

In terms of energy reduction, the average rate was 6 percent per mill, with each of the top five mills reducing energy use by 10 percent or more. They saved up to 22 percent of energy use and cut coal usage by 61,000 tons. The collective effort also helped to reduce chemical use to at least 400 tons, which were mostly dyes.

The NRDC pegged the annual return per mill to be $440,000, with the top five mills saving more than $800,000.

As part of its expansion plan, Clean by Design has branched out to the greater Suzhou area in Jiangsu province, another area deeply concentrated with textiles mills. The NRDC is working with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group that represents more than 40 percent of global apparel production.