Textile brands get behind China's green shift
Photo courtesy of Esquel
When Sherry Poon set up her childrenswear clothing business, Wobabybasics, nine years ago, finding eco-friendly factories in China was a struggle, and finding organic cotton suppliers was nearly impossible.
A decade later, momentum is growing for the country’s green manufacturing, reports China Dialogue. A record number of eco-friendly manufacturers showed up at the 2017 Intertextile trade show in Shanghai, although they’re still a niche in a large market.
“For the first year they actually labeled which factories used eco or organic textiles, so they were easier to find,” Poon said. “Although we’re still talking maybe just 12 companies, out of thousands there.”
A commitment to sustainability is increasingly recognized in China. Wobabybasics, which uses entirely sustainable materials, was hailed as a top sustainable clothing brand by non-governmental organization Green Initiatives, and studies have shown Chinese consumers are more and more willing to spend on green clothes and products.
Making sustainability the norm
Green manufacturing is no longer the domain of specialist brands.
Hong Kong-based textiles giant Esquel, the world’s largest shirt maker, has put been putting sustainability at the center of its business. With sales of $1.3 billion last year, Esquel manufactures more than 100 million garments annually for retailers including Marks & Spencer, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, and has been focusing on building a more sustainable business for both staff and the environment.
“This industry has a very bad reputation when it comes to labor abuses, and being able to employ people at the bottom of the pyramid,” said Edgar Tung, head of global garment operations, Esquel Group. “We really wanted to reduce our impact on the environment and convert people’s perceptions about this industry.”
The textile and clothing industry has a long way to go to improve its green credentials, industry experts say. It is the second largest polluting industry globally after oil, accounting for 12.8 million tons of textile waste each year, while in China, 17-20 percent of the world’s industrial pollution and 2.5 billion tons of waste water are from textile dyeing and treatment alone each year.
Esquel says it is determined to show that manufacturing doesn’t have to be fueled by cheap migrant labor and cost-cutting. A new $300 million garment factory in Guilin has low-energy measures, such as natural ventilation and a commitment to zero discharge of wastewater.
Their existing factories already offer above industry average wages, childcare facilities, kindergartens, paid overtime and a commitment to no night shifts, in a series of measures to improve staff conditions, as well as actively promoting staff internally.
In the last 10 years, the company claims to have reduced energy consumption per garment by 45 percent and water consumption by 64 percent. A recent Corporate Information Transparency Index, which evaluated 267 brands in China, ranked Esquel as the second-best company textile and apparel company for its green supply chain and fourth greenest among all companies.
“There’s always the perception there’s a cost to sustainability – but in the long run, there’s actually a lot more benefit,” Tung said. “There are a lot of customers that come to us not because we are the cheapest, but because they know we practice green manufacturing and are good to our people.
At the recent Integral Conversation sustainability conference in Guilin, organized by Esquel, some of China’s biggest names came together to outline their work in green production. Conglomerate Far Eastern, which has operations in 10 major industries including textiles, construction and retail, outlined how it has shifted focus to green materials, including what they claim is the world’s first 100 percent bio-polyester shirt.
“This is the way of the future,” Douglas Tong Hsu, chairman and CEO of Far Eastern Group, told the Guilin conference. “We are focused particularly on reduced-chemical products and recycling waste products. Where we have to use new material, we want them to be green materials.”
The government is also lending its support to sustainable manufacturing, inaugurating the Green Manufacturing Association of China this year, and driving companies toward automation as part of the ambitious Made in China 2025 plan to modernize the country’s factories. Some of the most polluting factories have already shut down, according to experts, often unwilling or unable to afford the costs of new environment requirements.
A long way to go
But significant barriers remain in the green manufacturing sector in China. There’s still a lack of awareness from consumers about how environmentally damaging the industry can be, plus the upfront costs of eco-friendly production are higher and it is difficult to secure reliable green suppliers.
Manufacturers also face stricter standards, which haven’t always been adhered to, for example, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which considers both environmental and social factors, requires refreshing every year.
Although there are more options available now, Poon said the green shift in Chinese manufacturing is still just beginning.
“China’s factories have had to change, educate themselves a little more and push to not just be mass market production but one step higher quality – part of that is being more sustainable,” she said. “It’s been 10 years, but this year I’ve finally felt there is a change.”