Manila/London, 8 August 2022— An Unearthed investigation reveals how clothing waste generated in Cambodia during the production of apparel and footwear for global fashion brands is incinerated to fuel brick-making, driving emissions and exposing bonded workers to toxic fumes. [1] 

The report found labels, footwear, fabric and garment scraps from Nike, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Reebok, Next, Diesel and Clarks at five different kilns fueling their fires with garment and textile waste. This is happening despite many of these household names having made high-profile pledges to cut waste and emissions and crack down on modern-day slavery. [2]

The scraps are mostly offcuts from Cambodian factories that manufacture clothing for leading fashion brands. These factories dispose most of their textile waste at a landfill or elsewhere through licensed waste disposal companies. But through a web of middlemen, some of the waste is sold to kiln owners as cheap fuel – despite this practice breaching environmental laws and regulations. [3]

Aside from ecological and health hazards, the investigation also puts the spotlight on Cambodia’s brick sector that has become infamous for human rights abuses, including debt-bondage – the most common form of contemporary slavery, according to the United Nations (UN). Many kiln workers used to be farmers, who took out loans to meet farming expenses and whose crops failed because of unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change. A 2018 report also links climate change to slavery in Cambodia’s kilns. [4]

Entire families can end up trapped for years in intergenerational debt bondage, with children taking over the parents’ debt after their loved ones pass. Unearthed spoke to 21-year-old Samneang, whose name was changed to protect his identity, who has been paying off his parents’ $2,000 USD debt since he turned 15. His health seems to have already suffered from working at the kiln, and he has since borrowed an additional $400 USD from the kiln owner, partly for medical expenses. 

Commenting on the findings, Yeb Saño, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Executive Director, said:

“Despite all their talk of environmental commitments and social consciousness, these global fashion brands continue to be negligent of the environmental and human rights harms their businesses foster, enabling modern-day slavery to happen and persist. They have double standards when it comes to their policies on how they source and operate in developing countries like Cambodia, which already has a very poor track record when it comes to environmental and human rights.

“These kiln labourers, mostly farmers, have already suffered so much. Climate change impacts have forced them to shift to brick-making – taking on a dirty and dangerous job that perpetuates a vicious cycle of economic hardship and debt bondage. It’s time for Nike, Clarks, Reebok and others to be accountable and ensure that their global supply chains do not cause any more harm and exploit the local environment and its workers. Fashion should not cost us the environment and someone else’s freedom.”

The apparel industry has been the lynchpin of Cambodia’s economy and the biggest employer in the country, hiring over 700,000 predominantly female workers. But it has also been the biggest industrial waste producer, generating no less than 90,000 tons of garment waste per year.

Read the full Unearthed investigation, watch the video and download the images.

[1] To manufacture bricks workers move dried slabs of clay by hand into the kilns, where they burn for a couple of days in temperatures reaching up to 650C. To maintain such heat, the kilns need to stay fired and workers burn fuel – in some instances a mix of garment waste and wood – around the clock. As a large proportion of clothing is made up of synthetic materials like plastic which – when burnt – can often release toxic chemicals, burning garments in kilns causes local air pollution and exacerbates the carbon footprint of clothes destined for Europe and the US. The black plumes of smoke often seen rising out of the kilns endanger the health of vulnerable workers, with reported health impacts including coughs, colds, flus, nose bleeds and lung inflammation. 

[2] Nike’s much-advertised “Move to Zero” campaign promises a “journey toward zero carbon and zero waste”. This includes diverting 100% of waste from landfill in Nike’s supply chain and zero carbon emissions — meaning they’ll be at or below 2020 levels — from key suppliers by 2025. Nike, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Reebok, Next, Clarks and Diesel also have supplier codes of conduct, which at the very minimum require factories in Cambodia to respect local environmental laws and dispose of waste in line with applicable regulations.

[3] According to a sub-decree on waste management, industries burning solid waste – which includes garment and fabric scraps – can be fined $250 USD. Another sub-decree warrants inspection by the Ministry of Environment where pollution endangers human health or the environment. However, pollution that endangers “human bodies or lives” appears to be a violation of Cambodia’s environmental law, which stipulates over $12,000 USD in fines and five years imprisonment for most egregious offenders. 

[4] A 2018 report by  Dr. Laurie Parsons of UK’s Royal Holloway University exposed the practice of garment incineration in Cambodian kilns. That report also identified garment waste linked to major high-street brands at brick kilns. According to Dr. Parsons, the burning of acrylic garments, especially when combined with plastic bags, hangers, rubber and other waste as occurs in Cambodia, releases plastic microfibres and other toxic chemicals into the immediate environment which compromise the health of workers and neighbours on a short and long term basis. The human impacts, in particular, are substantially worse than burning wood and have been highlighted in a recent UK parliamentary report as a major problem in the industry.  

Media Contacts:
Therese Salvador, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Communications Coordinator
E: [email protected] ; M: +63917-8228734

Alison Kirkman, Greenpeace UK Deputy Head of News
E: [email protected] ; M: +4407896894154