Major Retailers Join NRDC to Clean Up Textile Industry

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“People say you can tell the latest color trends in fashion by looking at the shade of the rivers in China,” writes Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Each season’s dyes get dumped into Chinese waterways after they are circulated through poorly operated textile mills, leaving a string of hazardous chemicals in their wake.”

From the design board to the tumble dryer, textile manufacturing has a huge environmental footprint. Photo: Flickr/epSos.de

China’s problem, right? Sure. Though last time we checked, water, and air for that matter, didn’t seem too concerned about staying within China’s borders.

And it’s only clothing. It’s not like it’s steel or chemical manufacturing. How much damage could clothing manufacturing really do? Well, a lot.

Home to more than 50,000 textile mills, the environmental footprint of the textile industry in China in massive. Just 1 ton of fabric put through the dyeing and finishing process can result in the pollution of up to 200 tons of water!

Factor in the amounts of energy used for steam and hot water, and that pair of distressed blue jeans is looking a little less rustic. (Said author admits to wearing a pair of distressed blue jeans while writing this very article.)

The NRDC and a group of clothing retailers, including Walmart and H&M, have joined forces, spearheading the Responsible Sourcing Initiative (RSI), to address the rapidly increase global effect from the industry. The Initiative is part of NRDC’s larger “Clean by Design” effort, meant to address all major steps of the industry, from fiber sourcing to consumer care.

After reviewing factory performance for more than 12,000 industrial and commercial operations in China in 2007, the NRDC zeroed in on textiles and audited Chinese textiles mills in 2009 to identify cost-saving and pollution-reducing measures. Working with local government, the NRDC identified 10 simple, low-cost practices to dramatically cut water, energy and chemical use in dyeing and finishing.

From recycling of hot rinse water head to heat recovery from smokestacks, the practices can be implemented with a relatively small upfront cost and a dramatic cost savings annually.

When Walmart became aware one of its largest textile suppliers, Jiangsu Redbud Textile Company, was ranked second worst in a five-tiered public ranking system, the retail giant and partner NRDC linked up to implement the recommended initiatives.

By adopting just three of the ten “best practices,” Redbud achieved a 23 percent reduction in water use and 11 percent reduction in coal. Though Redbud did have a $72,000 one-time cost in making these improvements, that amount was recouped in cost savings after just one month.

If those percentages and savings seem small, look at them as real numbers: 70,000 tons of water per year saved by capturing cooling water; 42,000 tons of water per year saved by collecting steam condensate from dryers and 108,000 tons of water per year saved by reusing process water.

According to the NRDC, if just 100 small- to medium- sized textile mills implement the recommended improvements, China would save more than 16 million metric tons of water annually, enough to provide 12.4 million people with drinking water for an entire year.

Both Walmart and H&M will undertake pilot efforts at various key mills before bringing the effort to full scale in their supply chain. Other retailers joining NRDC in the Clean by Design effort include Gap, Levi, Nike, Marks and Spencer and Li and Fung.

Though it may be a few years before you notice these “cleaner by design” fashions in the stores, Linda Greer, Director of NRDC’s Health Program, gave Earth911 a few tips on what consumers can do now to make their fashions a bit greener. “Starting right now, consumers can make inherently better choices,” said Greer.

After buying used or vintage, Greer recommends clothing made from materials of lower environmental impact, such as organic cotton, recycled polyester or lyocell (a wood pulp-based type of rayon).

For new clothes, buying from retailers that have made a commitment to cleaning the textile industries where their products are sourced is a great way of using your purchasing power for good.

And here’s a little known fact shared by Greer: the best blue jeans are actually dark blue jeans. According to Greer, the lighter the jeans or the more stylish tears added to a pair of jeans adds to its level of distressing, a chemical intensive process done during manufacturing. Who knew!?

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