Every day seems to bring another in-your-face reminder of China’s environmental issues. This month alone, a Shenzhen canal turned blood-red; the Beijing sky appeared as if doomsday had arrived; and 100kg of dead fish inexplicably rose to the surface of a Guangdong fish farm. So, we’re always pleased to see that there are some environmentally conscious initiatives in action to combat pollution, before it deforms our bodies and destroys our crops à la a nuclear winter, spelling utter ruin.
In response to the poisonous effect of China’s textile industry, US-based non-profit organisation Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) launched a campaign called Clean by Design in 2009.
The statistics regarding the devastating effect of China’s estimated 15,000 textile mills makes for scary reading. According to China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, harmful emissions from textile mills have contributed to nearly a third of the country’s rivers being classified as too polluted for any direct human contact. The NRDC also reports that:
The textile industry ranks third among all industries in China for its 3 billion tons of annual wastewater discharge and second for its chemical oxygen demand (COD) loading, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of total industrial discharge of this contaminant so lethal to fish and aquatic life.
The Clean by Design initiative reached out to Chinese textile mills to improve their efficiency and reduce waste. The group alluded to the financial rewards of more efficient practices and employed heavyweight global retailers who are some of the biggest consumers of Chinese textiles (Target, H&M, Levis and Gap) to leverage pressure. In 2014, 33 mills in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province and Guangzhou, Guangdong province completed the program by observing 200 new regulations.
The results of the program were encouraging. On average, each mill cut its water use by 9 percent, electricity use by 4 percent, and coal use by 6.5 percent. Total fiscal savings were 14.7 million USD, and the most savings by an individual mill was 3.5 million USD.
However, Linda Greer (director of NRDC’s health and environment programs) recognises that it faces difficulties in fixing some of the textile industry’s core issues when it comes to pollution. A fundamental problem is the use of hazardous chemicals, which remains entrenched in mills’ dying practices as they are wary of losing consistency (and thus, demand for their products) if they are to reform.
Nevertheless, this has been a step in the right direction and we remain hopeful of a China where environmental degradation has one day been reversed and its rivers don’t continue to look like this.
By Liam Bourke