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The textile industry is under assault for its use of certain chemicals. Man-made fibres as well as wool and cotton are involved.
In a campaign called Dirty Laundry, Greenpeace is targeting high profile clothing brands in an attempt to compel them to force their suppliers to reduce chemical use and eliminate discharges. It is basing its campaign on two samples taken from each of two wool processors in China which it claims were discharging “hazardous and persistent chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties.”
Details are lacking and there are many flaws in its methodology and findings, but that has never deterred Greenpeace. A number of high profile companies, including Nike, Puma and Adidas, have pledged to eliminate all releases of hazardous chemicals throughout their products and supply chains by 2020.
Other NGOs are also operating in this space. The main one is a group known as Made-By, which originated in the Netherlands from the fair trade campaign in coffee and bananas. Its mission is “to improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry and make sustainability common practice".
According to Made-By, wool scores poorly on multiple parameters including greenhouse gas emissions, the toxicity of chemicals used in scouring and processing, and because it requires a lot of land per kg of fibre produced. Cotton has a similar rating for somewhat different reasons while man-made fibres are rated better.
In addition to its advocacy role, Made-By provides consulting services to apparel and footwear businesses to help them become more “sustainable”.
It defines its services as “anything from support on setting sustainability strategies to sustainable materials workshops, social compliance training and consumer communication.” Its founding partner, Solidaridad, offers consulting services in manufacturing.
The industry has responded by forming the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and created the Higg Index, a scheme for assessing brands, products and facilities on sustainability criteria, including water and waste. Nike, Puma and Adidas are among its 80 members, as are Made-By and Solidaridad.
The coalition aims to improve water use efficiency, reduce the use of chemicals and potentially hazardous materials, and eliminate impacts on local communities in both fibre production and processing. It claims to represent 30 per cent of the total apparel and footwear market. Its Higg Index rates wool worse than all the fibres.
Another organisation involved in all this is a Swiss company called Bluesign, which is busily promoting its technical standards to the textile industry. Some suggest it is no coincidence that the Greenpeace campaign, Higg Index and Bluesign activities all commenced around the same time and have certain similarities.
The textile industry is highly global these days and also quite mobile, with processing gravitating to countries that have the lowest costs. Whereas that was once Italy and Japan, it is currently China with Bangladesh, Vietnam, Belarus and the Ukraine rapidly gaining ground. In the future Burma and countries in Africa will take over from them.
If the clothing brands being targeted by Greenpeace were to boycott the two Chinese processors from which it took samples, there are thousands of alternatives available. And if the brands were to make compliance with Greenpeace’s standards a condition of supply, and could enforce it, they would be even more vulnerable to cheap copies. Nike, which appears to have signed up to everything, is especially vulnerable.
The industry knows it is not perfect in its use of chemicals, but that has long been the case. Thirty years ago Japanese wool scourers forced Australia’s wool producers to stop using arsenic-based lice control products rather than remove the arsenic before discharging the scourings into the sea. Later, when arsenic had been replaced with other insecticides, there were complaints about them too.
The Chinese government accepts things need to improve and is applying pressure to its textile industry to control chemical pollution by 2015. The challenge is to address the real problems (which are not necessarily the same ones Greenpeace nominates) without harming millions of textile industry workers who have just emerged from abject poverty and are light years away from prosperous Greenpeace supporters.
Greenpeace is largely indifferent to the people it harms, as I discussed last week. And almost certainly its campaign is driven by a desire to muscle in on Made-By and capture a share of the bribes being paid to maintain a favourable public image. With its system of good cops and round tables, it is an old hand at this.
But in gambling that it can embarrass the major brands enough to force them into signing up to its version of sustainability, I suspect it has underestimated the power of the market, in particular the growing importance of consumers in emerging markets who aspire to wear name brands but can only afford them if they are cheap.
Fairly obviously the industry needs to continue its efforts to replace hazardous chemicals with safe ones, to use less water and to minimise adverse effects on local communities. But it should let the market do what it does best, and it won’t do anyone any favours - except perhaps the employees of green NGOs - if it pays protection money.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com