Environmental Issues > International Issues Main Page > All International Issues Documents

Video: Click to learn more about Clean by Design

When the United States shifted manufacturing overseas, we also "outsourced" the associated pollution and greenhouses gases produced by this manufacturing to countries where there are few pollution controls.

In addition to threatening the health of local communities in these countries, this resulting pollution can also affect our own health and environment because so many pollutants -- such carbon dioxide, soot (particulate matter), pesticides, and more -- travel great distances and enter our own air, drinking water, and food supply.

Clean by Design is an innovative program to use the buying power of multinational corporations as a lever to reduce the environmental impacts of their suppliers abroad. Clean by Design focuses on improving process efficiency to reduce waste and emissions and improve the environment.

Manufacturing practices in less-developed countries are generally less efficient than in the developed world. That means they waste money by using more energy, water, and materials than necessary. But by improving the efficiency in the manufacturing processes, there are plenty of opportunities to both save money and improve the environment.

Even marginal improvements in manufacturing to these countries' factories have the potential to deliver excellent cost savings. Clean by Design promotes just these kinds of opportunities to increase efficiency (in energy, water, and chemical usage) and thereby reduce the environmental footprint while saving the factory money.

Four Impact Areas

raw materials

Raw Materials

The choice of raw materials for clothing has large impacts on the environment. Natural fibers like cotton are often assumed to be a more environmentally responsible choice, but this is not necessarily true. Cotton is notorious for its intensive use of water and pesticides. The same goes for "natural" dyes, which can rely on the harvest of millions of insects or plant bark to achieve color the "natural" way. These dyes often also require the use of supplementary chemicals that contain toxic metals. Fiber choice also drives consumer-care requirements, which can indirectly impact the consumption of water, energy and toxic chemicals. Read more...



Textile dyeing and finishing mills are particularly high-volume, high-impact producers of water pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Through extensive hands-on research in China, NRDC has developed 10 practical, inexpensive, easy-to-implement best practices for textile mills that significantly reduce water, energy and chemical use, thereby improving manufacturing efficiency. In fact, in nearly all cases, NRDC's best practices pay themselves back in less than a year. Designers, retailers and brands can reduce the footprint of their global supply chain by encouraging or requiring mills to adopt these improvements and reward those that do so with more business. Read more...



The apparel industry is a global enterprise, where raw materials, manufacturers and retailers are routinely on opposite sides of the globe. Each designer and retailer must choose among container ships, railroads, trucks and airplanes to move their garments from factory to market. Each mode of transportation sends different levels of pollution into the environment and affects different populations and ecosystems around the world. But there are many choices a retailer can make to decrease the impact of global transport and to help protect public health. Read more...

consumer care

Consumer Care

Once purchased, the way a consumer cleans and cares for garments can have a surprisingly large impact on water and energy use. In fact, clothes that are frequently laundered or dry-cleaned make their biggest environmental impact once they leave the store. Washing in cold water and minimizing dry cleaning (even so-called "organic dry cleaning") can reduce impacts substantially. Read more...

What NRDC Is Doing

NRDC's Clean by Design program completed the development of the 10 Best Practices in 2009, and we piloted these practices in a handful of textile mills in 2010-2011. At the end of 2011, we rolled out the program to a dozen mills to showcase success across a wide range of sizes and types of mill. At the end of 2013, we launched the scale up of Clean by Design, introducing the program to more than 100 factories in Shaoxing City and Guangzhou Province, China, carefully tracking 33 of those factories to document improvements.

Results from the scale up were stellar. Each and every mill we tracked in the program –- the young and the old, the large and the small, woven/knitted/denim fabric, etc. -- reduced environmental impact and made money. Maximum savings were extremely impressive: one mill reduced its water use by 36 percent. Another mill reduced its energy use by 22 percent. The top mill for economic returns earned $3.5 million in the first year, with projects that paid themselves back in only 13 months.

With these successes in hand, NRDC plans expansion in three key areas moving forward:

  • Disseminate Clean by Design more effectively on the ground, broadening our outreach to many more factories and driving implementation with innovative coaching and trainings
  • Strengthen the number and role of multinational apparel retailers and brands in the program
  • Facilitate the transition in companies ready to lead with sourcing programs that consider environmental performance when qualifying suppliers for business.

Our 2015/2016 effort will focus in the metropolitan area of Suzhou, China, home to more than 600 textile mills.

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Clean Energy Boost

Top Stories

The Minamata Convention on Mercury: Contents, Guidance, and Resources
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty that addresses the global problem of mercury pollution.
China's Budding Environmental Movement
Attorney Alex Wang talks about what it's like to be in on the ground level of a new environmental movement.

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on