Dirty fashion

June 2017 Report
Dirty fashion 3

Executive summary

The investigation: Evidence and impacts of pollution from viscose manufacturing in Indonesia, China and India

This report shines a spotlight on the environmental and human health impacts caused by the rapidly expanding viscose industry. It presents evidence from the top three viscose producing countries in Asia, showing how the environment, lives and livelihoods are being ruined by the dangerous chemicals and noxious gases its production generates. The report tracks the supply chain and establishes direct links between major European and North American brands and the polluting factories investigated.

Viscose, an increasingly popular man-made fibre, prized by high street brands and high-end designers alike, is not inherently unsustainable. However, when manufactured irresponsibly it can have a devastating impact on workers and people living in areas surrounding manufacturing plants.

As a plant-based fibre, viscose is sometimes presented as a ‘green choice’ for consumers but, as this report shows, most viscose on the market today is in fact produced using a highly chemical-intensive process. While much has been written about the problems caused by the production of cotton and oil-based synthetics, consumers are less aware of the negative impacts of the production of viscose and other semi-synthetic fibres, which are derived from the organic compound cellulose.

Cheap production, which is driven by the fast fashion industry, combined with lax enforcement of environmental regulations in China, India and Indonesia, is proving to be a toxic mix.

In each of the countries we visited, we found clear evidence that viscose manufacturers are dumping untreated wastewater, which is contaminating local lakes and waterways. This pollution is having a devastating impact on local people’s quality of life. In some areas we visited it 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 factories are also destroying many traditional livelihoods, with local fishermen particularly badly impacted.

At factories in West Java operated by Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla and Austria’s Lenzing Group, we found villagers doing the dirty work for manufacturers by washing intermediary viscose products in the Citarum river, directly exposing themselves to toxic chemicals contained in the fibre and adding to the river’s already considerable pollution load. Our investigators were told that no one swims in the river anymore, as was once common. In one village they visited, viscose fibres were observed hanging out to dry and viscose waste littered the ground as far as the eye could see.

At production plants in the Chinese provinces of Hebei, Jiangxi and Shandong operated by viscose manufacturing giants including Sateri, Tangshan Sanyou and Shandong Helon, our investigators found evidence of water and air pollution, worker fatalities and severe health impacts on local residents. In Jiangxi, they found evidence that the viscose industry has played a role in polluting Poyang Lake, turning the water black, killing fish and shrimps, and stunting crop growth. Poyang, China’s largest freshwater lake, is already under serious threat from desertification. It’s home to several critically endangered species, including the finless porpoise, and provides critical habitat for half a million migratory birds each year.

At a plant operated by Birla subsidiary Grasim Industries in Madhya Pradesh, our investigators discovered a close nexus between the local authorities and Grasim management which resulted in most violations not being reported. However, it has become clear that pollution from Grasim Industries – the only big industrial complex in Nagda – is a large source of pollution for the Chambal River, a key tributary to the sacred River Ganges. Downstream villages reported dark black water with streaks of red and an intense smell of rotting radishes coming from the plant, indicating the presence of carbon disulphide. The factory also dumps huge quantities of its viscose rejects on the bank of the river which are washed away into the river during monsoons. Families are suffering cases of cancer and birth deformities, as their groundwater and soil have been contaminated by industrial pollution. Upstream, investigators reported villagers protesting against the factory’s building of a dam, which has caused flooding, and plans to raise the dam height by one metre, which would lead to the submergence of agricultural lands and homes along the bank.

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