Dirty Fashion: Global retailers vow to respond to ‘toxic’ supply chain practices

Fashion retailers H&M and Marks and Spencer (M&S) have vowed to implement new supply chain management approaches, after a new report linked some of the world's largest fashion brands with highly-polluting facilities that are producing man-made viscose fibres.

The “Dirty Fashion” report from the Changing Markets Foundation, released today (13 June), found that fashion brands including Zara, ASOS and Tesco were sourcing from Asian viscose factories that are dumping toxic wastewater into local waterways.

According to the report, the production of viscose – a staple plant-based fibre used widely in the textile industry – at locations in Indonesia, China and India were linked to increased cancer rates and the destruction of waterways and traditional and marine livelihoods.

The Changing Markets Foundation approached more than 40 of the world’s largest fashion brands to enquire about viscose-sourcing practices and manufacturing policies. While the report praises the transparency of companies such as Zara and H&M in disclosing information, the report found that H&M was buying directly from seven of the investigated and polluting factories. Zara was found to be purchasing from four facilities, while M&S said they were sourcing from most major viscose producers.

In response to the report, a H&M spokesperson told edie: “We are deeply concerned regarding the findings of the report and we will follow up with mentioned viscose producers that we source from. We are aware of this being an industry problem – that the viscose process unfortunately is very chemical intense which requires that the producers have well-managed systems on the production sites for treating the chemicals and the waste and wastewater.

“We are currently working on a revised man-made cellulosic fibre policy that also will include the viscose fiber production process. We have therefore together with an external consultant developed a tool to evaluate the different viscose producer’s fibre production processes in their different production facilities.”

H&M has a goal in place to use 100% recycled or “other sustainable sourced” materials by 2030, this includes man-made cellulosic materials. A zero discharge of hazardous chemicals target is also in place for 2020.

The Swedish retailer is working with the Canopy non-profit, along with several other brands, to ensure that viscose purchases to do not contribute to deforestation. The company is also the second largest user of Tencel Lyocell, which according to the product’s creator, Austrian textile giant Lenzing, can be grown per tonne on half an acre of forestland that isn’t suitable for farming. In comparison, the Natural Resource Defense Council claims that cotton requires up to five times more space of highly-arable farmland.

H&M’s 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”. However, the viscose market is projected to grow from $13.45bn to $16.7bn by 2021, and 11 companies control 75% of global production, meaning that H&M may have to seek alternative materials.

Plan A in practice

The Dirty Fashion report, claims that “cheap production, which is driven by the fast fashion industry, combined with lax enforcement of environmental regulations in China, India and Indonesia, is proving to be a toxic mix”.

The chemical-intensive production process was sited at factories in West Java, operated by Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla and the Lenzing Group. An investigation found that villagers were washing viscose products in the nearby Citarum river, exposing themselves to the toxic chemicals and polluting the river.

Similar incidents were highlighted in the Chinese provinces of Hebei, Jiangxi and Shandong, operated by viscose manufacturing giants including Sateri, Tangshan Sanyou and Shandong Helon. At plants operated by Birla subsidiary Grasim Industries in Madhya Pradesh, the report found that a “close nexus” between Grasim and the local authorities meant that most violations were going unreported.

M&S have stated that they are actively sourcing from most of these producers. The company’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”.

An M&S spokesperson said: “Whilst we have only seen a summary of this report, the issues it raises are concerning – which is why the use of chemicals in viscose manufacturing is firmly on our agenda. We already encourage suppliers to produce more responsibly or more sustainably by incentivising them with an M&S accreditation if they do so. We know that there is much more to do though and we are currently working on an approach for the fibre manufacturers who supply our suppliers that would bring them within scope of our Environmental & Chemical Policy.”

As revealed when M&S was linked to the revelation that Syrian refugee children had been found making clothes for a number of British fashion brands, the company does boast a strong track-record of extensive supplier auditing processes. A company report released in June showed that it had conducted 1246 audits, raising 7,256 non-compliance concerns directly with the suppliers.

Human connections

At the time of that revelation, the director of environmental law firm CLT Envirolaw and regular edie blogger Colleen Theron, warned that releasing statements was all good and well, but that companies needed to be able to back claims with “robust procedures”.

Speaking to edie in the wake of the Dirty Fashion report, Theron warned that the separation of human rights and the environment was hindering supply chain coverage amongst the retailers.

“The scale of the issue is devastating and seems that fashion supply chain keeps throwing up new issues,” Theron said. “There is still a tendency for companies to separate the environmental and human rights impacts, which is reflected in companies having separate departments for employees dealing with these respective issues. The obvious impact of this approach is that potential issues, like the findings in this report, are not addressed in a uniform manner.

“If the brands that have been ‘named and shamed’ have got the percentage buying power and leverage that is suggested in this report then there seems little excuse why they are not taking more responsibility for their impacts.”

Theron noted that law makers and litigants are increasingly viewing environmental impacts as human rights issues, and has been teaching these concepts at both a law school in Birkbeck and at the University in Pisa.

In fact, M&S themselves have suggested that human rights issues were becoming intertwined with environmental impacts, and should be viewed as the “next big challenge” for corporates.

Time for the revolution

Efforts are slowly being introduced to signify the importance of disclosing this type of information and then acting on it in the fashion sector.

However, Many global fashion brands still don’t disclose enough information about their impact on the lives of workers in their supply chain. April 24 marked Fashion Revolution Week, which was dedicated to generating awareness over sustainability issues in the fashion sector.

The week commenced with the ranking of disclosed information supplied by 100 global firms with revenues over $1,2bn on their progress in areas such as governance, traceability, supplier assessment, and living wages. The average transparency score in the latest Fashion Transparency Index 2017 was 49 out of 250.

The data was compiled by Fashion Revolution, and the organisation’s co-founder and creative director Orsola de Castro told edie that transparency was just the first step towards implementing best practice in supply chains.

“I find it deeply disconcerting that brands such as M&S and H&M are still using a very unsustainable form of viscose, rather than investing in more sustainable solutions,” de Castro said. “The [Dirty Fashion] report is transparency working at its best. The big companies are disclosing the information, but the information is not necessarily leading to best practice. But it is leading to individuals and organisations being able to apply scrutiny and vigilance.

“Transparency is a first step, and it clearly doesn’t mean best practice. As far as brands who do not want to disclose, I don’t think they’ve got much of an option. The brand loyalty of tomorrow will be about disclosure and transparency, nobody can fix what they cannot see, and companies that choose not to disclose, and to a certain extent discover their supply chain, are the companies that won’t be able to better themselves, and this won’t be attractive to consumers.”

de Castro alluded to the work of Stella McCartney, which is working with Canopy like H&M, as an example of how companies can begin to apply external pressure to introduce measures that reduce the environmental impact of supply chains. But ultimately, companies need to uncover the issues before they act, which is what M&S and H&M have pledged to do.

Matt Mace

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