"Of all the factories we have been to over the past few years, we have never before seen such large-scale pollution. The samples of wastewater taken on site have proven to be some of the most toxic testing results we have seen," says Yifang Li, Senior Toxics Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.
The pollution is coming from textile manufacturing plants in China that are part of the supply chain for Levi's, GAP and Calvin Klein, among many others in the clothing industry.
Greenpeace International's investigation reveals dumping of industrial waste water with a wide range of hazardous substances in two of China's most important textile manufacturing zones.
Their report "Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade," details how facilities are exploiting complex wastewater systems to hide scrutiny of their manufacturing processes.
Water samples from the two largest communal wastewater treatment plants show that processed effluent contains toxic, cancer-causing chemicals, at least some of which are persistent and bio-accumulative. People that live there are so concerned about their health that they rely on the local government to deliver drinking water.
"Many international brands, such as Levi's, source their products from facilities within such Industrial Zones, yet identifying whether individual suppliers are responsible for releasing hazardous substances in their effluent is almost impossible. This provides a convenient smokescreen for unacceptable environmental practices at individual facilities, including the use and discharge of hazardous chemicals, by the global textile industry," says Li.
As those who advocated for organic cotton and sustainably produced textiles for years know, hazardous chemicals remain on conventional textiles even after being sold at the retail level. Chemical residues enter water systems when textiles are washed.
"Along with setting short term timelines to eliminate the worst hazardous chemicals, brands must require their suppliers to publicly disclose releases of these chemicals. Both are key steps to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020 and Greenpeace will continue to expose brands that do not take responsibility for every stage of their supply chain," says Martin Hojsik, Greenpeace International Detox Campaign Coordinator.
Global Fashion Industry Responds
This isn't the first report Greenpeace has issued on the subject. Last year, its report, "Dirty Laundry," linked companies and suppliers to the release of hazardous and hormone-disrupting chemicals into Chinese rivers.
At the time, Puma, Nike and Adidas pledged to eliminate hazardous chemical discharges throughout their supply chain and across the entire lifecycle of its products by 2020. So did H&M Group, which has 26,000 retail locations.
Esprit, and Spain-based Zara (the world's largest fashion retailer) and Mango recently joined in making the same commitment following pressure from the Greenpeace Detox campaign, which challenges companies to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains.
Companies also formed the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to take concerted action. Their Higgs Index, released this summer after two years of development, is meant to help clothing and shoe retailers assess the environmental impact of brands they sell.
Not Only in China
Yet another Greenpeace investigation, Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-up, shows there are plenty of hazardous substances used around the world in the textile industry.
An April 2012 investigation in which Greenpeace bought 141 articles of clothing from 29 countries around the world found toxic materials in about two-thirds of the items.
Greenpeace is particularly focused on Levi Strauss at the moment because it found industrial wastewater dumping in Mexico by two of the country's biggest textile manufacturing facilities, both of which are Levi's suppliers. Other brands linked to the facility include Calvin Klein, LVMH, Guess, Gap and Walmart. The findings are published in Toxic Threads: Under Wraps.
"This is some of the worst water pollution from the textile industry Greenpeace has found in Mexico," says Pierre Terras, toxics campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Mexico. "These facilities are so secretive that Greenpeace had to force the government to disclose even the most basic information about what sort of toxic cocktail was being dumped into our water and who was responsible."
Levi's, which has long been known a sustainable business leader in its industry, says it's taken the "Detox Pledge" in China, responding proactively to yet another report, this one by five Chinese non-profits, Sustainable Apparel's Critical Blind Spot. It too lists Levi's as linked to environmental contamination through its supply chain in China.
The company says they examined pollution records of companies in their supply chain and pushed 200 textile and leather vendors to clean up their act. They are now extending that to dyeing and finishing suppliers.
In a statement, Levi's details its progress and enumerates more goals to get toxic chemicals out of its supply chain, but "Given the vast breadth and depth of global supply chains, the fact that many factories from many different industries often release wastewater into the same bodies of water, and the fact that our industry has long-established practices, change isn't going to be easy - it will require investment, innovation, collaboration, and perseverance," they say.
"We don't pretend to have all the answers, but we'll continue to push ourselves to lead," they write.
Best Practices for Safer Chemicals
If Levi's and other clothing manufacturers need specific, practical ideas for pulling this off, they might want to consult a new resource published by BizNGO, a coalition of companies working to creating systematic ways to replace "chemicals of high concern."
Their Guide to Safer Chemicals sets benchmarks for how manufacturers, retailers and purchasers can remove substances that may contribute to chronic health problems including asthma, childhood cancers, infertility, and learning and developmental activities.
The publication provides concrete ways to assess (and disclose) the situation and make improvements through the supply chain.
Among the more than 500 companies and organizations adopting the guide and its principles are Staples, Hewlett-Packard, Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Construction Specialties, Novation, Perkins+Will, Shaw Industries, Seventh Generation, Method, and Premier.
"Leading companies from electronics manufacturers to retailers to health care providers are highly motivated to purchase inherently safer alternatives to chemicals of high concern," says Dr. Mark Ross, co-chair of BizNGO and lead author. "Such steps offer new market opportunities by positioning U.S. businesses to meet emerging global consumer demands and be far ahead of any regulation."
Here's the guide: