Water pollution is disturbingly rampant in China, and it has become one of the country’s greatest environmental challenges as it struggles to rank among the world’s top industrialized nations. The textile industry is a significant source of pollution in China, and it is largely driven by the worldwide demand for cotton products.
just how polluted is china?
The World Health Organization estimates that polluted water causes 75 percent of diseases in China, and over 100,000 deaths annually. Cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are significantly higher than the national average.
According to information in a Scipeeps.com article, 70 percent of lakes and rivers in China are polluted, as is an astounding 90 percent of the groundwater. More than 320 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water – that’s more than the entire population of the United States.
Recently, a Chinese photographer won the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his photos exposing the horrific instances of industrial pollution and its effects. Here is just a sample of Lu Guang’s extraordinary work and examples of how desperate the situation is in China:
the cotton problem
Go into any discount retailer such as like Wal-Mart or Target, and you’re sure to find inexpensive cotton T-shirts and other products. While low-cost goods please American consumers, the effects on the environment and population of countries like China are staggering.
China produced an average of 36 million bales of cotton each year from 2006 through 2008, making it the world’s largest producer of cotton. But it’s not the leading exporter. In order to meet its enormous domestic demand for cotton, China buys 45 percent of the yearly exports by U.S. cotton growers.
Each year, cotton growers account for more than 25 percent of worldwide insecticide usage, and 12 percent of all pesticide usage The crop requires seven times more fertilizer than insecticides, and the runoff from all these chemicals pollutes the rivers and lakes, leeches into the groundwater, and leads to China’s abnormally high water pollution. Farmers in China are using more than six times the amount of pesticides and fertilizers than growers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Cotton also is a remarkably water-intensive crop. Eco Fashion World estimates that to grow enough cotton for a single t-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water. The expansion of cotton farming is leading to increased desertification in areas of the world. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is an example of how cotton farming can turn lakes into deserts. In China, cotton farming is increasing the size of the Taklamakan Desert because an unsustainable amount of water is being diverted to grow the crop.
tainted textile production
The textile industry in China is a big business. The Chinese State Development and Reform Commission said that in 2005, textile and apparel exports exceeded $117.5 billion, with an average annual growth rate of 17.3 percent. According to the Danamex China Business Resource, China provided 24 percent of the global textiles and apparel in 2005. And as bad as growing cotton in China is currently, the textile industry is far more environmentally damaging.
In addition to heavy metals, carcinogens, fabrics, dyes, organic materials, starches, and bleach, the industry uses a large amount of water and energy. According to information from Bluesign Technologies, growing cotton for use in textiles requires between 8,000 liters and 40,000 liters of water per kilogram of cotton. Producing textiles creates up to 600 liters of wastewater per kilogram of textiles. The chemically-saturated and toxic wastewater is what makes textiles such an environmentally damaging industry in China. Miller-McCune, a consultancy, estimates that only 10 percent of dye wastes are recycled. According to an article on textile pollution in the Wall Street Journal, treating contaminated water can cost more than 13 cents per metric ton. In order to keep prices low, many textile dye houses build pipelines that dump industrial runoff either underground or directly into rivers and lakes. In China, people often joke that to know what colors are currently in fashion, one need only look at the rivers.
In the same article, Andy Xie, former chief economist of Morgan Stanley Asia is quoted as saying, “Prices in the U.S. are artificially low. You’re not paying the costs of pollution, and that is why China is an environmental catastrophe.”
Although China’s national leaders have environmental guidelines and policies to curb pollution, local agencies routinely ignore violations because of economic development incentives. There is little enforcement of national environmental policies at the local level, and companies who conduct business with dye houses and textile mills often have a greater ability to influence change.
It is clear to Chinese leaders that pollution is becoming a drag on the country’s economy. China’s Development Research Center commissioned researchers from around the world to create pragmatic solutions and policies that worked with the market. The researchers concluded that China would benefit from a “Green Trade Policy” to encourage sustainable cotton growing, supply chains, and textile production. One proposal recommended instituting a “green tax” on cotton and textile goods to pay for wastewater treatment and recycling, though this measure is not favored by industry.
The Chinese cotton and textile industries are coming under increased scrutiny as people around the world are becoming conscious of the country’s environmental catastrophes. Several companies have worked with textile partners to impose higher environmental standards, but that is not the norm. Most companies either are not aware of–or ignore–the true environmental costs associated with their products.
Some Chinese activists are taking it upon themselves to add transparency to the textile supply chain by publicly linking polluting factories with the overseas companies that purchase their products.
Ma Jun, a Chinese water pollution activist who posts pollution data on a website, told the Wall Street Journal, “We want them to know we’re watching from China.”
A company who is found doing business with major polluters could suffer reputational damage to its brand as customers increasingly demand products that are “better” for the environment. Pollution from cotton growing and textile production may become what sweatshop labor was for the industry in the 1990s.
Companies interested in avoiding brand damage should work with dye houses to ensure that better environmental standards are met. Another option is to use dyeing technology that doesn’t use massive amounts of water, energy, or toxic chemicals that can be dumped into waterways. Textile companies looking to establish sustainable supply chains need to seriously reexamine the cotton-growing, garment dyeing, and textile treatment operations in China.