Textiles in China: Looking Differently at the Blue Jeans Resting in Your Closet

I've just finished four intensive days of work on our textile project in China.

Most people haven’t thought much about the environmental impact of the fashion industry but believe me, if you could see what I see every time I come here, the white blouse or blue jeans resting quietly in your closet would never seem the same again. 

Huge vats of boiling dyes, steam belching out of every pipe, water of every color in puddles across the factories, dye “kitchens” where color recipes are measured out that look like a kindergarten art project gone wild. The volume of colored fabric coming out the other end boggles the mind. So many of these factories, so much stuff!  How in the world do we consume all this fabric?

We started on this project a little more than a year ago, taking the Health program at NRDC international.  Simply put, thanks to the vast globalization of industry, it was clear that if we planned to remain “the earth’s best defense” here at NRDC, we needed to follow the pounds of pollutants to their source, which was abroad.

NRDC new Beijing office was interested in addressing pollution problems as well as energy efficiency opportunities in industry, and so they welcomed our work.  After some time-consuming data collection and lots of introductory meetings to find good partners, we settled on a first initiative focused on the textile sector, which distinguished itself as one of the biggest polluting sectors in China, also one that used a lot of energy and consumed a lot of water.  

Big environmental footprint, big potential impact.  We’re seeking opportunities to improve production processes with energy efficiency, water conservation, and materials efficiency approaches, with the idea that these initiatives will save the factory money while protecting the environment at the same time.  Because Chinese government environmental authorities are very weak, improvements that save money seem like the most promising approach to the problem, at least theoretically self-reinforcing for the factory.  Hopefully these measures will be implemented and sustainable without an outside “stick.”

One of the things I love best about this project is how culturally cross-cutting it is.  I am usually the only American in the room unless I’m also traveling with my project partner Susan Keane from the DC office.

The factory manager is of course Chinese, often a person who started life as a tailor, without any formal education beyond a high school level.  No licensed engineers, no Harvard business school graduates running these plants, just guys who started small, were good entrepreneurs, worked real hard and got a little lucky.

Almost always it is a family business, sometimes at this point it is the son who is running the show (very very rarely the daughter by the way), sometimes still the dad.  China has just industrialized so quickly that there are more business opportunities than people trained at a university level to lead them.  And so the challenge for us is to communicate well about very technical concepts across a cultural and educational gap the size of the Grand Canyon.

Of course who should be the perfect person for this job but our international consultant, Bas Kothuis of BECO, who happens to be a South African working for a Dutch firm.  No joke, what a kick.  We put out a Request for Proposal for this work and his company submitted the best proposal to help us.  This week, I sat there shaking my head during our “kick off meeting” with two factory managers, watching him reach out sentence by translated sentence, explaining what we were all about, what wanted to do, and how we wanted to do it. 

Miraculously, we connected well, the foreign American from an environmental advocacy organization (what textile factory manager in china has ever heard of an NGO!?  I don’t even explain what I really do for a living anymore, just stick with the “internal expert” tag) and the Dutch engineer with his Powerpoint presentation.

The factory staff went from wary to warm. You could see the light bulb go off by the looks on their faces, when they realized the possible cost savings associated with what we wanted to explore for them, and they pressed us for details for some of our suggestions.  Next week our expert will be on the floor of their factories, investigating various nooks and crannies, finding their biggest problems, and applying internationally relevant experience to solutions we can offer for improvement.

Following this first stage of audits, the plan is to develop a practical list of no more than ten “best practices” for the textile industry, easy fixes that cost little or no money that will substantially reduce the footprint of these operations at typical factories across the country.

We will then work with multi-national apparel retailers and brands to spread the word about these opportunities through workshops and provincial government meetings of the right players.  We’ll also work with corporations to develop supply chain policies that reward factories who have undertaken these improvements, via preferred supplier lists and other carrots.

That’s the plan in place to begin to stem the tide of toxic chemicals here in the big country of China.  I’ll keep you up to date as the project goes forward.