Early one morning in 2011, environmentalist Lei Yuting was crouched by the side of the Fenghua River, which snakes through the Chinese province of Ningbo. Despite his face mask and protective goggles he could smell the chemical dyes that polluted the water. His gear drew the attention of a few locals passing by on their morning exercise. They stopped to tell him that the area always smells bad, and that the color of the wastewater changes throughout the day.
Moments later they hurried off. Lei says he got the feeling few chose to linger by a river that a few decades ago would have been clear and teeming with fisherman, tourists and local children. Now, nothing broke the lifelessness except the occasional freight-carrying barge and a couple of lonely white egrets, perched on the muddy banks. There were certainly no more fishing boats.
Lei is a campaigner with Greenpeace, and was in the area collecting water samples for an investigation that would eventually reveal how two textile manufacturers, supplying some of the world's biggest fashion brands, are discharging hazardous substances such as nonylphenol (NP) into Chinese waterways. NP is a chemical with hormone-disrupting properties that's persistent (i.e. doesn't readily break down in the environment), moderatelybioaccumulative (it builds up in the food chain), and hazardous to aquatic life even at very low levels.
The use of NP in clothing manufacturing has effectively been banned within the EU, with similar restrictions also in place in the United States and Canada. Of course, this is hardly the first time multinational companies have taken advantage of lax standards in other countries. Exporting the manufacturing industry hasn't been accompanied by the export of high environmental protection standards, and has led to a host of pollution problems in China, most pressingly water pollution. Ask any local, it seems, and it's hard to find a river clean enough to swim in in this country.
"These are supposed to be some of the most scenic mountains and clearest waters in China. How is it that they are now poisoned by industry and filled with sorrow?" Lei asks.
Consumers often find it easy to turn a blind eye to the conditions in which their clothes were manufactured, but when a good produced using hazardous chemicals means those items themselves contain hazardous chemicals, then it unsurprisingly becomes a little harder to ignore.
In the latest toxics report to be commissioned by Greenpeace, simulations of standard domestic laundering on 14 clothing samples found that a single wash can wash out a substantial amount of the nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) residues present within textile products. More than 80 percent were washed out for half of the plain fabric samples tested. This suggests that all residues of NPEs within textile products will be washed out over their lifetime, and that in many cases this will have occurred after just the first few washes.
These NPEs are then discharged to wastewater treatment plants, which don't effectively treat or prevent the release of these hazardous substances into the environment. Indeed, they can break down NPEs to form toxic and hormone-disrupting NPs that are then released within the treated water.
In short, brands are making their consumers unsuspecting accomplices in the release of these hazardous substances into public water supplies. And, let's not forget, we're talking about a substance that has been effectively banned or heavily restricted in the EU, United States and Canada.
NPEs are a compound belonging to a broader group of chemicals known as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). It's not enough to set a lower limit for the concentration of APEs in finished products (although we need this as well.) Suppliers could attempt to give the final product additional rinsing, which may help reduce the chemical levels in the product. But this would still be discharged into the rivers, lakes and seas of the manufacturing countries. That's why the chemicals should be eliminated from the process entirely.
Greenpeace has already convinced six major brands – Puma, Nike, Adidas, Li-Ning, H&M and C&A – to collaborate on a "draft joint roadmap towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals." This roadmap sets out the steps that the brands commit to take to achieve the zero discharge of hazardous chemicals, and invites others to partner in this endeavor. However, the roadmap doesn't yet include a specific commitment or a date to eliminate all uses of APEs.
In Europe, restrictions on the marketing of products with NPEs above a specified level are under development. Equally important is that measures are taken to restrict the use of APEs in manufacture for the countries where the majority of manufacturing takes place, such as in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
As global citizens, it's surely time to start applying some pressure.
Image © Lu Guang / Greenpeace