Fashion giants accused of letting Cambodian suppliers burn waste in dangerous kilns

Image: Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for Unearthed

Greenpeace’s investigative journalism arm, Unearthed, has this week published the results of an investigation into how waste garments are managed in Cambodia. Cambodia is emerging as a major fashion production hub, and it is estimated that the manufacturing of clothes there, largely for export, employs 800,000 people. This is equivalent to 86% of all people in Cambodia working in manufacturing.

Unearthed team members had received reports that garments and pieces of garments disposed of by fashion factories were being used to fuel kilns used for making bricks. One 2020 survey conducted by Royal Holloway with the support of trade unions in Cambodia found that at least 23 kilns were regularly burning garment waste – often because it is significantly cheaper than wood and rice husks.

When team members visited five of these kilns in Kandal province, full and partial products with branding were found ready to be used for feedstocks. In the case of Ralph Lauren, labels and factory documentation were also found. Brands identifiable from the waste piles were Ralph Lauren, Nike, Reebok, Michael Kors, Clarks, Next and Diesel.

Unearthed heard evidence that, in many cases, fashion suppliers will place their waste on a truck bound for landfill and pay for certification that it has been landfilled – but that these trucks can be intercepted by those looking to buy garment waste to sell to kiln operators.

This could be undermining fashion retailers’ and brands’ commitments on waste management and supplier conduct. Nike notably has a ‘move to zero’ commitment to divert all waste in operations and the supply chain from landfill by 2025, for example. It also states that it will not allow the “improper disposal” of waste in uncontrolled burning sites.

Unearthed is also highlighting how unregulated kilns, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and present other issues such as air pollution, have been created by hundreds of people in Cambodia who used to farm but left the profession as changing weather patterns, temperature increase and soil degradation harmed yields. As such, brands implicated in situations like this could face criticism for their work on climate adaptation and social sustainability.

“Scorching heat, poisonous fumes, and appalling working conditions – this is a hellscape that should have no place in any 21st-century industry,” said Greenpeace campaigner Viola Wohlgemuth.

“Many of these brands have been trumpeting their efforts to cut waste and carbon emissions, yet they have failed to stop these awful practices from happening on their watch. This is rank hypocrisy. The fashion industry keeps churning out mountains of waste at both ends of their supply chain, and all too often it’s poorer communities in the global South that end up stuck with it.”

Image: Thomas Cristofoletti for Unearthed

Brand responses

edie reached out to all the brands named by Unearthed for a comment.

A Clarks spokesperson said: “We take our responsibility to the environment and to the communities in which we live and operate very seriously.

“We have strict codes of practice which ensure effective systems for waste management are in place, preventing any pollution or detrimental impact on communities. We expect our partners and suppliers to comply with these policies and practices, and we conduct regular and rigorous audits throughout our supply chain to ensure this is the case.

“What is alleged goes against our values as a business, our policies, and our business practices. We are conducting a thorough investigation and we believe we have identified the potential source. We believe this incident to be an exceptional occurrence. Our ongoing investigation has led us to believe that in accordance with our code of practice for suppliers, waste from the relevant Cambodian factories was provided to a government-approved waste services company. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure any waste from our products is disposed of appropriately.”

This article will be updated with further responses as and when they come in. You can see the brands’ responses to Unearthed directly here. All responded directly except Nike and Ralph Lauren.

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    Is it to be assumed that proper disposal is controlled combustion and ash disposal?
    Waste has to go somewhere, and complete combustion is as clean a solution as exists.
    But it has to be COMPLETE; not just a bonfire!!
    Richard Phillips

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