‘Dirty Fashion’ report reveals pollution in big brands’ supply chains


© Changing Markets

How H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer are buying viscose from highly polluting factories in Asia. By Natasha Hurley.

Some of the world’s biggest fashion brands are using a fibre whose production can be highly dangerous and polluting, new research shows.

Dirty Fashion a report published last week by the Changing Markets Foundation reveals that fashion brands including H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer, are buying viscose from highly polluting factories in Asia to use in their clothes. Although viscose (also known as Rayon) is often touted as an ‘eco-fibre’ or a green choice for consumers, its production uses a cocktail of dangerous chemicals that can harm people and ecosystems if they are released into the environment.

It is generally made from wood pulp and other plant-based cellulose.

The investigation by Changing Markets uncovered evidence that factories are doing just that: dumping untreated wastewater in local lakes and waterways, which is having a devastating impact on local communities. Villagers have stopped drinking contaminated groundwater and in some cases they can no longer swim or fish in local rivers and lakes. This was a common theme in all countries visited for the investigation, which included plants run by textile giants such as Sateri and Tangshan Sanyou in China; India’s Aditya Birla Group; and Austria’s Lenzing (in Indonesia).

The Changing Markets investigation in China focused on factories in the eastern provinces of Hebei, Jianxi and Shandong. The investigation team found air and water pollution, evidence of worker fatalities in the factories, and stories of severe health impacts on residents living in the vicinity of the plants. Downwind of one plant, hydrogen sulphide levels were found to be 12 times over the national limit in China, causing an intense rotten egg-like smell in nearby towns. China produces more than 65 per cent of the global viscose supply. Major brands, such as H&M, Zara, Tesco and M&S were found to be buying from some of the factories investigated.

At a site in Madhya Pradesh, India, villagers reported devastating impacts on health, including cases of cancer and birth deformities suspected to be caused by industrial pollution in their water supply. Soy bean farmer Kallu Singh’s three children were all born healthy, but began to show signs of mental and physical deterioration between the ages of 10 and 12. Singh and his family live in the central Indian region of Madhya Pradesh, on the banks of the Chambal River. They are located downstream from one of the world’s largest producers of viscose, Grasim Industries, owned by multinational conglomerate Aditya Birla Group, which is selling its viscose to H&M, Inditex, Asos, Next, United Colours of Benetton, Burton, Docker’s and Levi’s – to name just a few.

The children of Kallu Singh. ©Changing Markets

Other villagers reported seeing dark black water with streaks of red and an intense smell of rotting radishes coming from the Grasim plant, indicating the presence of carbon disulphide, an endocrine-disrupting chemical linked to neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, coronary heart disease and chronic skin conditions. Industrial waste from the Grasim site in Nagda was also identified as the main source of pollution in the Chambal River, a tributary of the Ganges, by the National Mission to Clean Ganga (Ganges). Without tackling pollution in the Ganges’ tributaries, cleaning up this great river will be an impossible task.

The viscose industry is also polluting rivers in Indonesia. Two of Indonesia’s largest viscose factories are located in West Java, on the banks of the Citarum River, which has been called the most polluted river in the world. Villagers were found washing intermediary viscose products in the river on behalf of manufacturers, directly exposing themselves to toxic chemicals contained in the fibre and adding to the waterway’s already considerable pollution load. These two factories are selling to a range of brands, including H&M, Eileen Fisher and M&S.

Read also: Slave to Fashion: Modern slavery in the fashion industry

These are unsavoury findings, but, as the report highlights, an alternative is possible. Viscose is not an inherently unsustainable fibre. Technology already exists to enable factories to produce viscose with a reduced amount of toxic chemicals, and in a ‘closed loop’ system which captures and recycles chemicals used, eliminating deadly pollution.

Major fashion brands can and should use their considerable influence to work with producers to achieve this. The fashion industry’s supply chain is notoriously complex, but less so when it comes to the production of viscose: just 11 companies control 75 per cent of the global market, which means that there is a clear opportunity for rapid and transformational change across the sector.

Many brands, including H&M, Inditex, ASOS and Stella McCartney are already engaging with these viscose producers on their wood pulp sourcing policies through the CanopyStyle initiative, spearheaded by Canadian NGO Canopy. The initiative seeks to put a stop to deforestation linked with viscose production.

This dialogue can be expanded to include water pollution and chemical use in viscose manufacturing. Innovative approaches to viscose production using fewer chemicals in a closed loop manufacturing system should be taken to scale and rolled out industry-wide; big brands can play a key role in this process by wielding their enormous power to create lasting change.

Changing Markets is calling on retailers and brands to implement a strict zero-pollution policy within their viscose supply chain, with regular auditing of suppliers to ensure they comply with high production standards.

With demand projected to almost double by 2030 and viscose being touted as the ‘fibre of the future’, there is a clear need for viscose to become as green as it is advertised as being.

Natasha Hurley is campaign manager at Changing Markets.