British retailers linked to polluting supplier factories

Marks & Spencer, H&M and ASOS are among the global companies that have agreed to incorporate new measures into sourcing policies for textile fibres, after a new report linked Tesco, Asda and Next to Asian viscose factories that are polluting the environment and contributing to premature deaths.

The Changing Markets Foundation has today released an update to its Dirty Fashion report, which concluded that the production of viscose – a staple plant-based fibre used widely in the textile industry – at two factories in India and Indonesia were contributing to illness, premature deaths and environmental devastation.

Notably, the report claims that Asda, Next and Tesco are continuing to source from factories owned by Aditya Birla Group, a $50bn, Mumbai-based business that is the world’s largest producer of viscose, claiming a 20% supplier share to major fashion brands. Factories of the Birla Group were criticised in the report for a lack of environmental stewardship and links to illness and death.

An Asda spokesperson said the company “will take action where appropriate”, while Next claimed the “issues are both complex and very real — and therefore cannot be solved by any single party acting alone. Next is therefore seeking to join with others in the retail sector to work collaboratively on a long-term solution”.

Tesco were yet to provide response to edie at the time of publication. Tesco has vowed to phase-out toxic chemicals in the supply chain of its F&F clothing line, having signed-up to Greenpeace’s DETOX campaign.

Acting as a follow up to Changing Market’s 2017 report, the new findings examined two of Birla’s factories, one in Madhya Pradesh, India and one in West Java, Indonesia. The report found that the sites were riddled with “visible and strong-smelling pollution”, including dark red water. Water tests at one of the plants found that carbon disulphide – the toxic chemical used in viscose production – levels were 125 times the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline value.

Changing Markets’ campaign manager Natasha Hurley said: “Our investigation suggests that Aditya Birla Group is failing to live up to its sustainability claims. Brands buying from the company should look beyond the green spin to understand what is really happening on the ground, where local residents’ and workers’ lives are blighted by pollution on a daily basis.”

The report outlined that in October 2017, a “major health incident” resulted in two deaths and left 60 seriously ill. The report claimed that locals linked the incident to a local Birla site. Aditya Birla has repeatedly refuted the report findings.

The report has called on the Birla Group to establish an independent and transparent grievance mechanism for workers, while committing to improving transparency of emissions through third-party auditing. Birla Cellulose from the Aditya Birla Group was one of the first to complete a vigorous audit conducted by the Rainforest Alliance.

Another supplier listed in the report, Grasim Industries, has also been linked to “frequent accidents” and deaths, with workers reportedly dying of suffocation (asphyxiation), heart attacks or toxic spills.

Roadmap solutions

Last year’s report listed H&M, M&S ASOS and Zara’s parent company Inditex alongside Tesco as companies failing to tackle toxic chemicals from viscose production in supply chains. Today, Inditex, H&M, ASOS and M&S have all committed to incorporate a Changing Markets roadmap into sourcing policies.

The ‘roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing, aims to push retailers towards more sustainable practices, using the EU Best Available Technique (BAT) standard as an overarching framework to achieve “ambitious” change.

M&S’s Environmental and Chemical Policy (ECP) forms part of its flagship Plan A sustainability initiative, which has just been updated to run through to 2025. Under the ECP, all M&S suppliers, dyers, printers, laundries and tanneries must commit to meeting standards for chemical compliance and safety, and have the “tools to reduce their impact on natural resources such as water and energy”.

As for H&M, a new approach will be partly based on the Higg Index facility module used by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which measures environmental, social and labour impacts of production and identifies areas for improvement. Specifically, H&M warned that if producers are not willing to meet new expectations, it will “stop sourcing from them”.

Matt Mace

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