A new report from the Changing Markets Foundation, “Dirty Fashion: How pollution in the global textiles supply chain is making viscose toxic,” implicates top European and U.S. brands for allegedly buying viscose fiber from highly polluting factories.

The Netherlands-based foundation, which partners with NGOs on market focused campaigns to expose irresponsible corporate practices, said in its report that an investigation into the production of viscose has uncovered evidence of the impact of dangerous chemicals and noxious gases being generated by polluting factories across Asia.

Evidence gathered by the Changing Markets Foundation at locations in Indonesia, China and India found viscose factories are dumping highly toxic wastewater into local waterways, destroying marine life and exposing workers and local populations to harmful chemicals.

“Dirty Fashion” allegedly reveals links between the polluting factories and major European and North American fashion brands including H&M, Zara/Inditex, ASOS, Levi’s, Tesco, United Colors of Benetton, Burton, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Dockers, Haggar, Next, Debenhams, Matalan and Van Heusen.

Several of the companies responded to the report in response to Sourcing Journal inquiries.

Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., said, “We are committed to sustainable sourcing for our raw materials, including the very small portion that are forest-based. Through our partnership with Canopy, we ensure that no materials from the world’s endangered forests are used in our products. We are also advancing clean production practices in the textile supply chain through our partnerships with Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, Natural Resources Defense Council Clean by Design program and International Finance Corporation;s Partnership for Cleaner Textiles.”

A spokeswoman for Debenhams said the company we will be reviewing the report published by Changing Markets and taking any appropriate action.

She noted that Debenhams pollution policy involves a chemical risk matrix that suppliers, factories and mills must adhere to in line with its restricted substance list and manufacturers restricted substance list, and its environmental and chemical policy that fall under European Union Reach legislation. Debenhams policy further states that, “the environment must be respected at all times and all mills must operate effluent treatment systems to ensure the disposal of safe water into the external environment and or for re-use, from the process of fabric procurement.”

A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said, “The issues raised in this report 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 incentivizing 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 fiber manufacturers who supply our suppliers that would bring them within scope of our environmental and chemical policy.”

H&M is buying directly from seven of the polluting factories investigated and Zara/Inditex from four of them, the report charges. While several brands, including H&M and Zara, have committed to more sustainable sourcing of wood pulp used to produce viscose, the manufacturing of viscose is still largely ignored, receiving little oversight from retailers, the report contends.

A spokesperson for Inditex said, “Inditex works continuously with its suppliers to improve conditions and ensure that they adhere to sustainable practices. In the case of the viscose supply chain, traceability is Inditex’s first priority and in 2014 we became a founding member of the Canopy commitment to engage cellulosic suppliers directly. Through this commitment we have mapped our cellulosic fiber suppliers and worked firstly, to guarantee that they source wood pulp from sustainable sources verified through Rain Forest Alliance audits, and secondly, that they use environmentally responsible processes. Most suppliers have reached this goal, and with others we continue to work to address their environmental impacts–a requirement to remain as an Inditex supplier. We will publish our preferred viscose supplier list, according to compliance with our standards, at the end of this year.”

H&M could not be reached for comment.

Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets, said, “This report reveals that some of the world’s biggest brands are turning a blind eye to questionable practices within their supply chains. With water pollution increasingly being recognized as a major business risk, shifting to more sustainable production processes should be high on retailers’ agendas. Changing Markets is calling on retailers and brands to implement a strict zero pollution policy, with regular auditing of suppliers to ensure they comply with high production standards.”

In addition to on-the-ground investigations, the report draws on the results of a questionnaire that was jointly issued to clothing brands by Changing Markets and Ethical Consumer in April.

In some areas visited for the investigation, pollution from viscose manufacturing is suspected to be behind the growing incidence of cancer, and villagers have stopped drinking the well water for fear of the effect it will have on their family’s—particularly their children’s—health, the report said.

At factories in West Java operated by Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla and Austria’s Lenzing Group, Changing Markets found villagers washing viscose products in the Citarum river, directly exposing themselves to toxic chemicals and adding to the river’s already considerable pollution load, the report alleged.

Lenzing said it welcomes the focus this study creates on the importance of responsible operation practices in the cellulosic industry and the need for new innovative viscose fiber solutions. The company said it has for many years been “deeply engaged with all stakeholders of the textile industry and has consequently become the front runner in environmental leadership” proven by its top rankings as a sustainable company by NGOs like Canopy and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index.

At production plants in the Chinese provinces of Hebei, Jiangxi and Shandong, operated by viscose manufacturing giants including Sateri, Tangshan Sanyou and Shandong Helon, investigators said they found evidence of water and air pollution, worker fatalities and severe health impacts on local residents.

The viscose staple fiber market, which is projected to grow to $16.78 billion by 2021, is highly concentrated, with 11 companies controlling 75 percent of global viscose production, so a concerted effort on the part of retailers could achieve dramatic change, the groups noted.

The report also highlights that new viscose production methods already exist that do not rely on the abundant use of toxic chemicals, and that bring manufacturing into a “closed loop,” so that the chemicals that are used do not escape into the environment.

The report also calls for:

  • Viscose producers to move toward a closed loop system of viscose production and stop dumping toxic chemicals in the environment surrounding their factories.
  • Brands to impose a strict zero pollution policy across their supply chain and conduct regular audits to ensure it is implemented.
  • Policy makers to mandate transparency across the entire supply chain, and introduce and enforce environmental criteria in supply chain due diligence regulations.
  • Consumers to only buy viscose from brands that have made a clear commitment to sustainable sourcing of wood pulp and clean viscose production.
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