Dirty Fashion: on track for transformation

July 2018 Report
Dirty Fashion 1

Executive summary

One year on from the publication of our first Dirty Fashion report, this report assesses where global apparel companies and viscose manufacturers stand in the transition towards responsibly-produced viscose. Through detailed scrutiny of clothing brands’ transparency and sourcing policies, and manufacturers’ responsible production plans, we examine progress to date and gaps in existing commitments and pledges.

This time last year, there was little knowledge of the environmental and social impacts of viscose production within the apparel industry. To the extent that brands and retailers were aware of sustainability problems in the viscose supply chain, they were mostly focused on the sourcing of timber for use in the production of wood-based dissolving pulp, which is the starting material for most viscose. In partnership with the NGO Canopy, many had pledged to stop sourcing pulp from ancient and endangered forests. Through ‘Detox’ commitments with Greenpeace and other initiatives, such as the ZDHC Foundation’s Programme on hazardous chemicals, some had also taken action to curb pollution from wet processing by committing to phase out the use of toxic substances in textiles dyeing and finishing.

However, almost without exception, brands and retailers had neglected to address a key part of the production chain causing significant pollution and taking a heavy toll on the health and livelihoods of communities living in the shadow of viscose factories.

In June 2017, all this changed when we published Dirty Fashion: How pollution in the global textiles supply chain is making viscose toxic. Following on-the-ground investigations in India, Indonesia and China, we revealed how companies supplying viscose to the international market were dumping untreated wastewater in lakes and waterways, ruining lives and livelihoods. Toxic run-off into rivers next to factories was destroying subsistence agriculture and had been linked to higher incidence of serious diseases such as cancer in local populations. Communities living near some of the plants spoke of a lack of access to clean drinking water and sickening smells that were making life unbearable.

Some clothing companies reacted swiftly to our findings, expressing shock at the scale of the damage we had uncovered and pledging to take steps to tackle it. In the weeks and months following the publication of our report, many of them voiced their concern to us but seemed uncertain about how to drive the transition towards more responsible production.

As a result of this, in February 2018, we produced the Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing, which defined key principles and guidelines for cleaning up manufacturing. In parallel to the Roadmap, we published a follow-up to our first report, Dirty Fashion revisited: Spotlight on a polluting viscose giant, which confirmed our earlier findings of pollution in the viscose supply chain but focused specifically on the world’s biggest producer, the Aditya Birla Group (ABG).

Following engagement with many brands throughout the past year, this report presents a detailed overview of individual companies’ policies and commitments relating to viscose manufacturing, grouping them according to their progress on these fronts. The Roadmap currently has seven signatories, namely Inditex, ASOS, Marks & Spencer (M&S), H&M, Tesco, Esprit and C&A. Next has also communicated that it plans to commit to the Roadmap in the near future.

Roadmap signatories have started engaging with their suppliers, calling on them to commit to closedloop manufacturing by 2023-25 (defined as ensuring emission controls and chemical recovery rates in line with EU Best Available Techniques or ‘BAT’ set out in the EU Reference Document on Polymers). Other brands are also starting to take action, some of them working within the ZDHC to develop “a clear framework of guidelines for wastewater, sludge, waste and air emissions.” While these leaders have shown great proactiveness in their commitments and engagement, this report also exposes a group of laggards: brands that are still ignoring calls for greater sustainability and transparency from consumers and civil society. This group is made up of an unusual mix of luxury brands, such as Gucci, Prada and Chanel, and low-cost retailers, such as Asda, Lidl and online brands Boohoo and Missguided. This group has failed to respond to any of our letters and there is scant detail about their environmental policies online, with almost nothing on viscose. While much progress remains to be made, the tide is beginning to turn in favour of more responsible viscose production. Manufacturers are heeding this message: Austria’s Lenzing and India’s ABG, the two largest viscose producers in the world, have both committed to making all their sites meet EU Ecolabel requirements for viscose production. Lenzing has instituted a Group Environmental Standard which is aligned with EU BAT emissions limits and ABG has committed to an “aspirational” target of making their sites compliant with EU BAT. While welcome, this does not go far enough – we would like to see an explicit commitment to this objective, which is based on emissions values that the best performers in the industry were able to achieve over a decade ago, and which Lenzing has already met at all but one of its viscose production sites. In China, where the country’s ten largest viscose producers have come together to form the Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV), the industry is developing a three-year roadmap. However, its level of ambition is yet to be determined and most initiatives and standards currently listed as guiding the commitment do not (or not yet) address environmental performance during viscose fibre production. We also remain to be convinced about manufacturers’ commitment to the transparent reporting of complaints and grievances, whether from their own workers or from communities impacted by their activities. We note that Lenzing and ABG appear to be making genuine attempts to improve their handling of grievances, but that internal policies are only as good as the level of external scrutiny companies are willing to allow. In summary, the future of viscose production is looking a bit greener now than it was this time last year. The welcome change in mindsets on the part of both brands and producers, and some good initial commitments, must now translate into detailed implementation plans and capital investments to put the industry on target for transformation.

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