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Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Walmart and H&M, two of the world's largest clothing retailers, have committed to working with their Chinese textile suppliers to reduce water, energy, and chemical use in their supply chains. Walmart announced its work with NRDC's Clean by Design project at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) today, helping strategically selected mills adopt Clean by Design practices. H&M initiated a similar agreement with NRDC in mid-September.
During the last decade, multi-national corporations have quickly expanded textile manufacturing operations across the developing world into countries that have weak environmental standards and even weaker enforcement capabilities. Through NRDC's Clean by Design—an initiative aimed at curbing pollution from textile mills—NRDC hopes to use the purchasing power of well-known brands and retailers as a lever to reduce the environmental impacts of textile production.
"People don't think of the fashion industry as polluting the environment like chemical or steel manufacturing, but in fact it is one of the biggest polluters in China," said Linda Greer, director of the Health Program at NRDC and Clean by Design creator.
Textile dyeing and finishing consumes large quantities of clean water and energy, and discharges a host of toxic chemicals if not properly treated. Textile manufacturing consumes and pollutes as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric, and produces considerable CO2 emissions. NRDC's Clean by Design techniques not only reduce water pollution and energy use, but also help plants run more efficiently and use fewer resources, saving companies significant money.
If just 100 small- to medium-sized textile mills implement NRDC's recommended improvements, China would save more than 16 million metric tons of water annually, enough to provide 12.4 million people drinking water for a year. The practices can also eliminate nearly 1 million metric tons of CO2 annually, approximately the same amount of emissions from 172,000 cars per year.
Based on the commitment announced today, Walmart agrees that the mills selected to implement NRDC's program will provide benchmark data on water and energy use at the start of the assessment and will track and verify reductions they achieve. H&M, which operates more than 2,000 stores worldwide, launched a similar agreement with NRDC in Shanghai on Sept. 13.
Both companies will undertake pilot efforts at key mills before bringing the effort to scale in their supply chain. NRDC is calling for other major companies in the apparel industry to become more familiar with their supply chain and develop policies that reward textile mills for reducing their environmental footprint. Such policies also reward the most efficient and cost-effective manufacturers.
So far, trial implementations at textile plants have shown that NRDC's recommended practices can pay for themselves in less than eight months. Taken together, the best practices can cut approximately 25 percent of water and 30 percent of fuel use. Practices range from the simple installation of electricity meters, turning off hoses when not in use, and installing proper insulation, to more complicated but extremely efficient and lucrative practices such as reuse of rinse water and steam condensate.
A case study with the Redbud textile factory in Changshu, China (also a Walmart supplier) showed that, through the adoption of some of NRDC's best practices and an upfront investment of $72,000, the factory is accruing savings at a rate of $840,000 annually.
Other retailers and brands collaborating with NRDC in the Clean by Design effort include Gap, Levi, Nike, Marks and Spencer, and Li and Fung, a large Hong Kong sourcing firm. Together, these seven major apparel corporations comprise a critical mass with the potential to change the environmental impacts of the apparel supply chain.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.3 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing. Visit Clinton Global Initiative