Mapping the environmental impacts of China's textile industry

A textile factory in China. Photo by: UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

MANILA — Some clothing brands have been criticized for subjecting their workers to sweatshop labor. Now, a new map aims to spotlight their environmental impacts too.

The IPE Green Supply Chain Map is a new tool, currently the only one publicly available, that shows how multinational brands’ suppliers are contributing — or not — to air and water pollution in China. The country is the world’s largest producer of textile, and is known for its huge manufacturing industry, including clothing.

The map is an initiative by Beijing-based environmental research organization The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs and New York-based international environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, and contains data for close to 15,000 major industrial facilities in China. It identifies brand suppliers’ name and location, emissions data, waste and water consumption, and environmental violations overtime.

It also provides a visual of air and water quality in different Chinese cities and localities. The map ranks Khotan, a town in Xinjiang province in Western China, as having among the worst air pollution in the country.

“The figures can vary among sources and type of environmental impact, but it is clear that the textile industry is among the top five polluting global industries.”

— Kurt Kipka, senior project manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council

By making such data public, the two organizations are hoping to raise awareness among brands and their consumers of the impacts of textile manufacturing on the environment, and reduce that by making informed decisions on their business and purchases.

“It's a transformative step forward for supply chain environmental transparency,” Kate Logan, IPE’s green choice outreach director, told Devex. “It creates an accountability mechanism for brands and suppliers to maintain positive performance and publicly respond to any issues as soon as they arise. All of this transparency will increase the efficiency of management and reduce costs.”

Textile manufacturing is one of the most highly-polluting industries in the world, said Kurt Kipka, senior project manager at NRDC. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, Kipka said the fashion industry was responsible for 1,715 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2015, accounting for about 5.4 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions in 2015. Textile mills are also a huge contributor, about one-fifth, to the world’s industrial water pollution, using thousands of toxic chemicals during production, some of which are found to be carcinogenic.

“The figures can vary among sources and type of environmental impact, but it is clear that the textile industry is among the top five polluting global industries,” Kipka told Devex.

Meanwhile in China, official data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection reveal that the textile industry was the third largest source of industrial wastewater in the country. In 2015, the industry produced 1.84 billion tons of wastewater effluent, accounting for 10.1 percent of China’s total industrial wastewater discharge.

“Over the past 20 years, shifts in this sector to production almost exclusively in developing nations has meant that much of the industry operates below global standards in resource use efficiency and pollution control, which in turn provides significant, attainable opportunities for improvement,” Kipka said.

Opinion: 4 ways to help save the planet with more sustainable supply chains

Many companies are working hard to improve the environmental impact of their supply chains. But more needs to be done. If carried out effectively, persuading local suppliers to improve their sustainability could have a massive impact on improving the environment for us all.

In its infancy, the map covers only a few brands with supply chains in China’s clothing manufacturing industry, but the two organizations hope it will inspire other companies to join the effort and volunteer their supplier list as well. Currently, the map covers six apparel and clothing companies: Esprit, Gap Inc., Inditex, New Balance, PUMA, and Target. They also hope brands will be active in responding to their suppliers’ performance via the map.

A screenshot of the IPE Green Supply Chain Map.

“We're currently refining an instantaneous, simultaneous three-party alert system to facilitate this level of management,” Logan said.

They hope the map can inform other countries and industries with interest in managing the impacts of their supply chains as well.

Asked whether they have done similar studies and tracing initiatives among international development organizations and companies, Kipka said they haven’t, but that “with more information it could be worth considering.”

“Although we have not conducted this effort, it is certainly an opportunity for growth. So long as the data and supplier lists exist, we can connect the dots and allow the results to speak for themselves,” the senior project manager said. “That is the beauty of this initiative, it simply takes existing information and makes it more usable for a key audience — allowing them to take action in accordance with their own policies and principles.”

The map can be viewed in English, but some information is only available in Chinese.

The initiative speaks to the goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Among its goals: “By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.”

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.