Detox Background

Page - July 13, 2011
A Greenpeace investigation has uncovered the release of hazardous chemicals by textile factories into major rivers in China. These factories are suppliers to a number of major global brands - such as the global sportswear giants Nike and Adidas. The hazardous chemicals discharged by these factories pose a threat to human health and the environment. Some are known hormone disruptors, whilst others can affect the reproductive system. Many of them don’t break down in the environment, but instead build up in the bodies of animals and humans.

At 5am in the morning, pipe1 (ZJ-G1) finished dumping yellow-coloured wastewater and is now dumping red, pungent wastewater. The pipe belongs to the Youngor textiles factory in Yinzhou district, Ningbo. Youngor is a major apparel and textiles brand in China.

The problem

Clean water is not only a basic human right - it is the world’s most threatened essential resource. Aside from being critical habitats for wildlife, waterways such as rivers and lakes provide vital resources. Many people rely on this water for drinking, for farming, and for foods like fish and shellfish. Yet these vital water sources are often abused by industry and treated as if they are private sewers.

The textile industry is chemically intensive - using a number of different chemicals for everything from dyeing fabrics to printing and finishing. The wastewater from these processes is often toxic and can contaminate important waterways. This hazardous discharge can negatively affect human health, wildlife, and the environment.

Our investigations found two textile factories in China that were discharging a range of hazardous chemicals into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. Hazardous and persistent chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties were found being discharged from these facilities. Alkylphenols (including nonylphenol) were found in wastewater samples from both factories, and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were present in the wastewater from the Youngor Textile Complex. This was despite the presence of a modern wastewater treatment plant at the Youngor facility.

The alkylphenols and PFCs found in the samples are a cause for serious concern, as these chemicals are known hormone disruptors and can be hazardous even at very low levels. Both groups of chemicals are man-made substances that persist in the environment and can have potentially devastating effects as they accumulate up the food chain.

Workers inside Youngor textiles factoy, Ningbo.

Many hazardous chemicals can also be transported in our oceans, atmosphere and food chains and accumulate in places far away from their original source. They have been found to build up in the bodies of animals including birds, fish, whales, polar bears and even human breast milk. The problem and the solution are therefore not only a cause of local concern. This is a truly global issue.

What is more, our investigation covered two of the thousands of industrial facilities located in China. The results from these samples are indicative of a much wider problem, that extends beyond China and beyond the textile industry. What we need now is innovation and leadership from brands in order to champion a different way of operating that puts an end to industry polluting our water supplies with persistent, toxic and hormone disrupting chemicals.

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The brands

Our investigations have linked a number of international brands to the factories responsible for these toxic discharges, including the international sportswear giants Adidas and Nike and the Chinese national sportswear brand Li Ning, amongst others (see the ‘Dirty Laundry’ report for the full list).

Is Adidas really all in?

The global textile supply chain can be difficult to untangle as there are many companies, businesses, and countries involved, and they all share responsibility for the release of these hazardous chemicals. However, normally, it is the brand owner who triggers the product development process, including research and design. Brand owners are therefore the best placed to bring about change in the production of textiles and clothing - through their choices of suppliers, the design of their products and the control they can exert over the use of chemicals in the production process and the final product.We also collaborate with factories to improve efficiency in order to avoid borrowing more water than is needed and to be able to return it as clean, or cleaner, than it was found - Nike. Our strategy is to become a zero-emissions company - Adidas. P.38, NIKE Inc Corporate Responsibility Report FY 07 08 098 Adidas website (green company)


Of these brand owners, one group stood out in particular as the most likely champions of a toxic-free future - the world’s largest sports brands. Not only are these brands self-proclaimed leaders and innovators, but they have the size and influence to work with their suppliers to begin bringing about real change on the ground and eliminate the use and release of these hazardous chemicals. They are not only implicated in the problem, but they are also well-placed to bring about the solution.

After all, these brands are all about action over words.

“Just do it”,

“Impossible is nothing”,

“Make the Change”.

Who will rise to the challenge, team together with their suppliers and lead the shift from toxic to non-hazardous chemicals?

The solution

Greenpeace is calling on these brands to become champions for a toxic-free future and to work with all their suppliers to eliminate the release of hazardous chemicals from across their supply chain and products. To do this these companies must:

  • COME UP WITH A GAME PLAN: Adopt clear company and supplier policies that drive the shift from toxic to non-hazardous chemicals, with clear and realistic time-lines.
  • LET THEIR ACTIONS DO THE TALKING: Respond to the urgency of the situation by demonstrating real and substantial action on the ground, prioritising the worst chemicals and eliminating these immediately.
  • BE A TEAM-PLAYER: Become more transparent in making data on the elimination of these hazardous chemicals publicly available so that the brands can be held accountable.

At Greenpeace we are focusing our resources on tackling the urgent issue of hazardous chemicals being released into our waterways, but we are also aware of many other pressing issues related to the textile industry that need tackling. You can find out more about these issues and what you can do through organisations like UNICEF, Oxfam and Save the Children.

For the latest news on which companies are being linked to sweatshop use, or child labour you can also visit: and For more information on the dangers of sandblasting in the denim industry you can check out: