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China’s polluting textile industry is being called out by its own. Nearly 50 major apparel brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, H&M, Nike, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara, have links with factories that regularly flout the country’s environmental laws, according to Cleaning Up the Fashion Industry, a joint report filed by five grassroots organizations. “China has put in place environmental regulations to prevent water pollution from the textile and other industries, but resources for effective enforcement are lacking and protection of local interests means implementation is difficult,” write Envirofriends, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, Green Beagle, Nanjing Greenstone, and Friends of Nature. “This means there is insufficient incentives for textile factories to abide by government laws and regulations.”
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But even if there was adequate enforcement, the groups add, the fines and punishments currently in place are insufficient to prevent repeat offenses. IPE’s China Water Pollution Map has recorded more than 6,000 environmental violations by Chinese textile firms since its debut in 2006. The database lists illegal actions such as discharging wastewater out of secret underground pipes, discharging untreated wastewater directly into rivers, exceeding permissible levels of discharged pollutants, expanding production capacity without certification, and failing to use wastewater-treatment facilities on a regular basis.
China’s textile industry produces close to 2.5 billion tons of wastewater and other pollutants each year.
Many of these polluters supply to multinational apparel retailers and brands, according to the groups’ investigations. Although several companies have strong corporate social responsibility policies, they’re rarely enforced at the local level.
While the findings are hardly surprising, the authors of the report are hoping it’ll prompt renewed concerned about the high price the country is paying for its role as the “apparel workshop to the world.” In 2010, China’s textile industry processed some 41.3 million tons of fiber—52 to 54 percent of the world’s total production. That same year, China exported more than $212 billion of textile and apparel products, accounting for 34 percent of global exports. But clothing the planet isn’t without its downsides. The textile industry produces close to 2.5 billion tons of wastewater and other pollutants each year, tainting the air, rivers, lakes, oceans, and even the soil and groundwater.