Over exploitation of the Totoaba has been driven by demand in China for its swim bladder, a highly prized product known as ‘aquatic cocaine’. And bycatch catch in gillnets used to poach totoaba is close to eliminating the vaquita.Continue Reading...
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At a recent environmental forum in Beijing, the speakers were in full swing with relatively predictable insight into China’s environmental challenges, and more broadly, environmental challenges elsewhere.
Then came the question-and-answer period and again a couple of relatively innocuous questions before a Chinese man strode to the front of the auditorium and launched into a discussion of his own.
In angry tones and raised voice, he said the Chinese government was not doing enough to mitigate air, water and soil pollution and demanded immediate attention to related public health concerns.
No one flinched, people listened intently, respectfully, no one emerged from the shadows to haul him away. Several students in the audience also asked about lack of action on pollution and suggested that more should be done to clean the environment and protect citizen health.
I sat beside a Chinese friend who simply shrugged, saying she had seen the man speak out at two other recent environmental forums. She said that because of his stature as an energy expert, he was left unhindered to express his opinions publicly.
She pointed out that the students were also feeling free to criticize the government, whereas previously the unspoken line everyone knew not to cross was any sense of direct opposition to Beijing authorities.
My sense from the entire trip (my previous visit being only four months earlier) was that China is changing, and perhaps faster than we could have imagined.
For the first time, censors this year have allowed Chinese media to carry reports about the “cancer villages” in areas of high industrial pollution.
Environmental advocate Ma Jun told me with some amazement that he had felt free recently to criticize a recent Ministry of Environmental Protection decision not to release data about soil pollution, which it considered a “state secret”.
Ma Jun said this was irresponsible and put public health at risk, a comment that was unusually picked up by the People’s Daily and Xinhua, among other news sources that aren’t usually inclined to publish remarks critical of the government.
“Previously, these comments would have been removed by censors,” Ma Jun said. “Now these issues are allowed to be talked about, debated and discussed.”
This became particularly clear, as March brought the annual meetings of the legislative and consultative bodies of China where major policies traditionally are decided and key government officials appointed.
Concern for the environment was a constant throughout the session – and was the subject of one in ten of the 5,000 proposals submitted by delegates.
Social media was also alive with commentary on the environment throughout.
And talk about environmental protection wasn’t simply a side act to the main show. The National People’s Congress (NPC) at 2,987 members is the largest parliament in the world and gathers alongside the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) whose members represent various groups of society. This year, the NPC confirmed the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
This once-in-a-decade leadership change emerged from November’s Communist Party congress with a strong reform mandate and promising a more sustainable China, balanced growth as well as more emphasis on environmental protection.
To be fair, this was not, however entirely a departure in direction from the previous Hu Jintao, Wen Jibao administration and it remains to be seen whether the result will be real change.
The 2011, 12th Five-Year Plan, which sets the direction for policy, of course emphasized balanced growth and set priority green industries. The mantra that emerged then was that economic growth should not come at the expense of resource depletion or pollution.
Wen Jibao, representing the departing Old Guard, opened the 12th National People’s Congress with a “Report of the Work of the Government” pointing to “steady progress in conserving energy, reducing emissions, and protecting the environment.”
But levels of anger are rising, fueled by recent truly off-the-charts air pollution in Beijing as well as the repeated and increasingly public (because of the rapid spread of news on social media platforms) water pollution incidents nationwide. Rampant corruption among local officials that has allowed harmful practices to continue unhindered has also been a target of microbloggers.
This sense of disregard for public health coupled with an increasingly affluent and vocal middle class presents a problem for the Chinese government in terms of its own legitimacy.
Recognizing this, Xi Jinping said at the March proceedings that the government should play a stronger role in pushing reform and opening up.
“The new administration wants a new start,” Ma Jun said. “They want to make clear that the current environmental challenges are not their fault.”
- China delegates in pollution protest vote (abc.net.au)
- China’s Poison Air Is Becoming Its Leading Export – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- As Pollution Worsens in China, Solutions Succumb to Infighting (wtee.wordpress.com)
- China People’s Congress environment surprise (abc.net.au)
- Anger Over Pollution Becomes Main Cause of China Unrest (bloomberg.com)
We have spent the last few days contemplating with marine experts the real and terrifying challenges our oceans face and what we, as a philanthropic foundation, can do to stimulate urgent thought and action largely absent in Asia around the consumption and trade in fish.
While there is growing attention from governments (local, national and regional bodies), NGOs and philanthropic funders in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand, despite being an important consumer and producer, there has been little attention paid to the challenges in Asia, where an estimated 40 percent of major fish stocks are overexploited or collapsed. At the same time, as a region where poor coastal populations are largely dependent on fisheries for their only source of protein and employment, the issues are particularly urgent.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of just how significant those challenges are and why we in Asia should particularly take note.
Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet and are indispensable to life. They generate 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, absorb warming greenhouse gases, help regulate our climate and are a critical source of food for us all, but most importantly the 1 billion of our world’s poorest for whom fish is their only source of animal protein.
Yet as we have written about here and here, we are depleting, polluting and warming our oceans at unprecedented rates. We are not caring for our greatest resource in the rush to take more and produce more. While population growth has averaged 1.7 percent each year over the past 50 years, with greater global affluence, rates of fish consumption are increasing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent, according to the FAO’s 2012 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture. How will it be when our current population of 7 billion reaches an expected 9 billion by 2050?
Over the past 50 years we have consumed an estimated 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish, encouraged by $27 billion each year in misguided government subsidies for fuel or boat construction offered to the industrial-scale fishing fleets that have led the devastating global scramble to harvest, according to a Pew Environment Group report. Estimates are that about half the world’s wild capture production comes from the smaller coastal fisheries that can be just as destructive, usually are unregulated and yet are a vital source of employment and protein.
The total number of fishing vessels in the world in 2010 is estimated at about 4.36 million and again it’s worth noting that Asia has the largest fleet, accounting for 73 percent of the world total, according to the FAO.
World per capita food fish supply increased from an average of 9.9 kg in the 1960s to 18.4 kg in 2009, and likely 18.6 kg in 2010 when all the numbers are in. Of the 126 million tonnes available for human consumption in 2009, Asia accounted for two-thirds of which 42.8 million tonnes was consumed outside China (15.4 kg per capita).
China, which is expected to pull an additional 300 million people out of rural poverty and into relative urban affluence over the next two decades, has a long way to go. Already over the past 50 years, that country’s share in world fish production rose from 7 percent to 35 percent in 2010, largely fueled by growth in aquaculture there, while fish consumption per capita rose to 31.9 kg in 2009, with an average annual rate of growth of 6 percent between 1990-2009. China is also the world’s largest single exporter, responsible for 12 percent of world trade by volume.
China now produces more than 60 percent of the world’s aquaculture by volume, while Asia as a whole accounts for 89 percent of global volume. This is not, however, taking pressure off our oceans as many people seem to believe. fishmeal itself contains fish and for the more expensive fish the conversion rates are not good. World aquaculture production reached an all-time high in 2010 of 60 million tons, meaning we now farm about half our global consumption.
This massive and growing consumption has meant that most of the stocks of the top ten species, which account for about 30 percent of world marine capture fisheries production, are fully exploited and have no potential for increases in production. Our fishing capacity, meanwhile, is estimated to be as much as two to four times that needed to harvest the sustainable yield catch from the world’s fisheries.
Meanwhile, not only are we emptying our oceans of life, by overfishing, we are killing what’s left with our bad terrestrial habits.
Acidification and the accompanying ocean warming are continuing apace as our marine life absorbs carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by our factories, power plants and transport sector. This has been devastating to our coral reefs, the habitat for 25 percent of our marine species.
Humans are also responsible for a wide assortment of pollutants from oil spills to plastic waste to industrial and municipal effluent, to agricultural runoff from fertilizers that has created whole coastal dead zones.
And I could go on about Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, which is an industry unto its own and about which not enough is known but its links to human trafficking, drugs, and terrorism finance have been sporadically documented. With lack of attention to fisheries in Asia and close to zero regulation, this is a particular challenge in terms of even beginning to think about how to stimulate action.
Still, it’s not all gloom and doom – at least in Europe, the U.S., Australia and new Zealand, where NGO pressure and governments (both local and national, as well as regional bodies) have started to focus on the myriad challenges.
According to the FAO report, good progress is being made in reducing exploitation rates and restoring overexploited fish stocks and marine ecosystems through effective management. In the United States of America, 67 percent of all stocks are now being sustainably harvested, while only 17 percent are still overexploited. In New Zealand, 69 percent of stocks are above management targets, reflecting mandatory rebuilding plans for all fisheries that are still below target thresholds. Similarly, Australia reports overfishing for only 12 percent of stocks in 2009. There is also growing EU and USA action around IUU fishing.
But where is Asia in this equation – China, southeast Asia, Japan and India, which together consumed two-thirds of the world’s fish, farm more than 80 percent and export a large chunk to the rest of the world. On marine issues, both governments and NGOs are largely silent, with the exception of the creation of marine protected areas which in concept are important but reality need to be better conceived with proper fisheries management, governance, linkages and adequate funding for monitoring and enforcement.
The reality exists that none of the Asian nations have adequate fisheries management plans, import or export regulations or reliable stock assessments, to their own detriment. IUU fishing is rampant. Yet, fisheries are a vital source of employment and food for the region. Food security and potentially even social stability are at stake.
The question we have been asking ourselves – beyond those provoked by the challenges above – is: What role should a significant global trader such as Hong Kong play in this equation?
Once a fishing village with a booming fishing industry that sustained our appetite for highly commercial species such as snapper and grouper producing 90 percent of the fish we consumed, Hong Kong now imports 90 percent of what it consumes from 140 nations globally. The lack of fish in our oceans caused the government to buy out the once substantial trawling fleets and close Hong Kong waters to commercial fishing.
Despite the declining productivity of our own seas, our appetite for fish, particularly endangered luxury species, has only increased with our greater affluence. In 2009, an average of 71.6 kgs of seafood was consumed per person. That’s 3.9 times higher than the global average and up from 9.9 kg in the 1960s.
So the question remains: should not Hong Kong, a significant consumer of seafood and as such a contributor to global ocean challenges not act now to help save our seas? The key to keep our oceans from emptying completely will be for governments to adopt policies that encourage sustainable consumption and to regulate the fishing and seafood-related industry more carefully.
- Green Blog: A Milestone Looms for Farm-Raised Fish (green.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Fishers Fight Over Dwindling Catch (ipsnews.net)
- David Bank: Fish 2.0: Investing in Sustainable Oceans and Fisheries (huffingtonpost.com)
- What’s up with Sustainable Seafood? (jenniferbrowne.org)
- World Fisheries: are we managing an effective decline? (worldfishing.net)
- The high seas are too precious to be left to plunderers and polluters | Callum Roberts (guardian.co.uk)
An unbelievable and disturbing sight photographed Jan. 2nd in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong by Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton. An estimated 18,000 fins were found drying in the beautiful early January sunshine.
About 50 percent of the global shark fin trade passes through Hong Kong, largely to feed Asian appetites for shark fin soup and other shark-related product. Estimates are that possibly as many as 73 million shark are harvested annually in a lucrative trade estimated in value from US$540 million to US$1.2 billion.
A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe, with Spain as the largest supplier, providing between 2,000 and 5,000 metric tons a year. Norway supplies 39 metric tonnes. Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers. Bags of fin labeled from Brazil were found on the Hong Kong rooftop.
As affluence has grown in Asia, particularly China, so too has demand for shark fin soup, which is eaten largely as an expensive delicacy at wedding and other banquets.
One-third of sharks species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List.
Many brands that say they are producing sustainable product are in reality greenwashing their textile production in China, according to the latest report from five environmental NGOs in China.
“Sustainable Apparel’s Critical Blind Spot,” which can be found here, was a follow on from a report I wrote about here released in April that named 49 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.
Led by Ma Jun’s Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry” listed 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers of goods ranging from sports apparel to luxury handbags.
Subsequently, 30 brands began conversations with IPE about how to improve the environmental performance of their supply chain, according to Ma Jun.
Clothing brands and retailers such as H&M, Nike, Esquel, Levi’s Adidas, Walmart, Burberry and Gap have all established regular screening mechanisms, are actively identifying pollution violations in their supply chain and have pushed more than 200 textile and leather suppliers to clean up.
Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and H&M have begun to address environmental challenges with their dyeing and finishing suppliers, the report said.
The latest investigation looked deeper into supply chains following a letter sent September 25th by the NGOs to the 49 brands requesting information about pollution management issues at materials suppliers.
Besides IPE, authors of the report were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone
In all, 22 of the brands receiving the letter, including Marks & Spencer, Disney, J.C. Penney, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger gave limited or no responses to specific questions relative to emissions violation problems in their supply chain. This despite Marks & Spencer, for example, promoting its “Plan A”, which is a sustainable business benchmark for global textile companies and retailers.
Companies promoting sustainability should “not continue to let suppliers pollute the environment and hurt communities whilst using concepts such as ‘zero waste’ and ‘carbon neutral’ to greenwash their performance,” the environmental NGOs wrote in the report.
The report draws attention to the fact that textile exports from China have dropped recently, weighed by higher labor costs in China, trade barriers, the appreciation of the RMB and higher resource costs.
Big brands have moved some of their cut and sew production to South and Southeast Asia. Nike shut down its only shoe factory in China and recently, Adidas also closed its only factory in China, leading people to believe China is steadily losing its status as the textile factory to the world.
But materials production is still concentrated in China, with exports of these products rising steadily, according to the report. This is the most polluting portion of the apparel supply chain.
In the raw materials processing sector, which includes dyeing and finishing, exports are growing steadily. According to the 2011/2012 China Textile Industry Report, for the six main printing and dyeing product categories, the total amount of exported printed and dyed cloth was 14.412 billion meters which showed a year on year growth of 13.76%.
The value of exported printed and dyed products was US$16.979 billion, which showed a year on year growth of 31.26%. However, at the same time the total value of all exported textile products only increased by 0.49%.
The cut and sew industry provides the most jobs, uses less water and energy and pollution discharge is not a big problem. However, the reverse is true for textile production. Essentially, China has kept the dirty part of the business, while allowing the relatively clean, job-creating cut and sew industry to wane.
The problem is that enforcement of pollution remains weak in China, while the cost of inputs like water and energy are still relatively low. So dyeing and finishing companies often avoid any water or energy savings initiatives and disregard pollution control, ignoring environmental laws and regulations.
Sustainable apparel in particular, has a ”dangerous blind spot,” according to the report, which means that dyeing and finishing mills and factories lower their environmental standards to cut costs and win orders in a race to the bottom.
Essentially the problem is that most apparel and retail brands still choose not to look into the polluting part of their business – the bottom of the supply chain. Consequently, materials manufacturers are still trying to produce in the cheapest way possible in order to keep costs low for fast fashion.
We as consumers must recognize that we have a choice not to buy the cheapest item on the shelves, to acquire less and from companies that truly care about not doing harm to our planet.
One of the more important conversations that emerged from June’s Rio+20 Summit was around valuing natural resources and, ultimately, moving our economies beyond GDP as a sole measure of growth.
The concept is not a new one but it did seem gain traction. Included among the side events on one day alone were at least two standing-room-only sessions on the topic: “Measuring the Future We Want” and the Natural Capital Summit.
In Measuring the Future, the panel recognized that over the last 20 years we have seen poverty decline but at the cost of growing environmental challenges. The call was for governments to institute a framework for natural capital accounting.
The Natural Capital Summit, meanwhile, featured speeches from Britain’s Nick Clegg and Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, as well as remarks from the presidents of Gabon and Costa Rica, illustrating clearly the level of interest in the topic.
“How to value nature is one of the most important political decisions,” Stoltenberg said, shortly after Clegg had talked over a masked heckler, accusing world leaders and the World Bank of commoditizing nature.
Despite the mask and the point well taken about assigning value to nature, the reality is not so simple. As we have it now, few benefit from our forests, oceans, our extractive industries and water. The costs of pollution are borne by us all rather than the polluter.
This creates a world where we are rapidly depleting our natural resources for the enrichment of a few, and economic growth, as measured by GDP, is vastly inflated.
Both Rio+20 side sessions were short on answers or plans of action, despite some participants stating the desire to help international gatherings move beyond declarations – something that is sorely needed.
As a path toward action, however, also at Rio, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Environmental Program, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Climate Change (IHDP) introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index.
The idea is to consider a country’s assets to get a better picture of a country’s wealth and the sustainability of its growth. In reporting every two years, IHDP will calculate the IWI for 20 countries that together account for almost three-quarters of global GDP.
Unsurprisingly, the first report showed that despite strong GDP growth, the United States, China, Brazil and South Africa had significantly depleted their natural capital base. This was calculated as the total of renewable and non-renewable resources such as fisheries, forests and fossil fuels.
Again, not surprisingly, China showed the most dramatic difference between GDP and IWI. GDP growth alone was measured at 422 percent between 1990 and 2007 but IWI measured over the time was just 45 percent.
The report also showed that future growth, as measured by IWI, was dependent on the sustainable use of resources since all countries surveyed had a higher share of natural than manufactured capital.
The key factor here is that countries are using their natural resources faster than they can be replenished, thus challenging future economic development.
The strong sense in Rio was that governments need to step in to create a policy framework by which natural capital can be valued in order for real change to happen. The private sector, of course, wants a level playing field.
Meanwhile, some leading companies that are among the biggest beneficiaries of natural resources and free pollution, also stepped into the discussion this week in Rio.
Twenty-four of them, including Cocoa-Cola, Xerox, Dow Chemical and Kimberly-Clark announced a four-step framework for a methodology that would value natural resources.
Two-thirds of our planet’s land and water ecosystems are now significantly degraded thanks to human activity and climate change is only accelerating the damage. The UN estimates that mismanagement of natural assets costs the global economy an estimated $6.6 trillion a year or 11 percent of GDP collectively.
According to the report, these costs are expected to reach $28 trillion by 2050 and threaten core business interests through potential supply chain disruptions or costly substitutions, regulatory or legal risks.
KPMG has estimated that if companies had to pay for their own environmental bills they would lose 41 cents for every $1 in earnings.
The text of Valuing Natural Capital acknowledges that “each year our planet’s land and water systems produce an estimated $72 trillion worth of “free” goods and services essential to a well-functioning world economy.”
Because these are not bartered and sold in the marketplace it is hard to assign them with a value or corporate or government financial statements. “As a result this value has been largely unaccounted for in business decisions and market transactions.”
But this is starting to change, according to the document, with, “business executives recognizing the business imperative of safeguarding them.”
Among the natural goods and services on which the global economy was seen to depend are: Clean water and air; affordable raw materials and commodities; fertile soils; fisheries; buffers to floods, droughts, fires and extreme weather; barriers to the spread of disease; biological information to propel scientific and medical breakthroughs.
Still, the report although strong on the challenges is short on how natural resources will actually be valued.
Puma has been a leader in this field. Last year the company introduced an environmental profit and loss screening that represented an interesting step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed, to emissions and toward determining the true cost of production for the apparel and shoe brand. I have written about this here.
Finally, also this week the leaders of 37 banks, investment funds and insurance companies agreed to take better stock of the stress put on ecosystems by the economic activity they manage, and work towards integrating natural capital into products and services.
The Natural Capital Declaration is once again short on detail, but at least represents an acknowledgement of the issue.
I am constantly surprised that Hong Kong does not pay more attention to its water supply, that something so vital to our city is far from secured by our government.
How many of us know that 75 percent of our water comes from the Dongjiang River, while only 25 percent of the city’s drinking water is supplied by reservoirs from within the territory? That while Singapore has similar water concerns, the island nation is investing in technology to conserve, recycle and desalinate water to ensure adequate supply, yet our government simply is not.
This is wrong for many reasons but here are two of the most obvious:
1) China is experiencing a significant water crisis and is acting aggressively to ensure its own supply. As Civic Exchange’s Su Liu recently pointed out while speaking on a panel, “We in Hong Kong don’t see the big picture – 40 million compared to our 7 million also rely on the Dongjiang. If water tensions rise on the mainland – where is the priority? ” You can more read about the excellent discussion on China’s water stresses moderated by http://www.ChinaWaterRisk.org’s Debra Tan, here.
2) The Lower Dongjiang River Basin is becoming intensely industrialized and urbanized meaning industrial pollution regionally is a real concern. At the same time, agriculture further inland has intensified and pollutants from farms, such as pesticides and fertilizers are just as dangerous in drinking water as industrial materials. So How safe is our water in reality? Clearly local testing shows that currently the water we drink meets health standards but can we be sure that will always be the case?
To my first point, China registers a 50-billion-cubic meter water shortage annually, with two-thirds of cities having trouble accessing water, according to a China Daily article last week quoting Chen Lei, the country’s minister of water resources. In all, China’s water consumption apparently has exceeded 600 billion cubic meters, accounting for 74 percent of the country’s exploitable water resources.
In January, the central government issued a document asking the entire country to limit the scale of water exploitation, improve the efficiency of water usage and curb water pollution. According to the article, China aims to reduce water consumption per 10,000 yuan ($1,597) industrial value-added output to less than 40 cubic meters by 2030, raise the effective water use coefficient of farmland irrigation water to above 0.6 and improve water quality.
Chen also has said the nation will set water consumption quotas for local governments and continue to perfect the water price formation mechanism in order to promote water resource conservation and protection.
So it sounds as though Su Liu has the right idea – the Chinese government priority won’t be to keep prices low and supply constant for the 7 million Hong Kongers drawing ever higher upstream on the Dongjiang.
And we are vulnerable. Our water agreement with Guangdong was renewed in late 2011 but only for another three years, until 2014 and for a maximum supply of 820 million cubed meters from the Dongjiang, a major tributary to the Pearl River, 83 kilometers north of Hong Kong. Our current accord commits to this supply regardless of drought. But the river also supplies fresh water to seven other cities, including Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen. All of those cities, however, have seen allowances decreased during drought years so will Hong Kong continue to receive privileged treatment?
At the same time, we would be ill-equipped for any water rationing. As China Water risk has pointed out here, Hong Kong uses more water per capita than Paris, London, Singapore or Melbourne and over 50 percent of our water is for domestic use. This compares to just 15 percent of water usage in China being for municipal use.
Part of the problem is that our tariffs are among the lowest in the world. As CWR points out, the first 12 cubic meters of water used every four months is free for all domestic users. Countries with comparable GDP per capita such as Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.S. all have higher water tariffs.
But tariffs are also low in China and the expectation is that with a push on the mainland toward water conservation, pricing will likely at some point rise to a water tariff level of 2-3 percent of average household income. That should also translate to higher prices in Hong Kong.
Turning to pollution, I have written several blogs on the lack of enforcement of water quality standards in China. The intense industrial development throughout China, but particularly in the south, has helped fuel annual GDP growth in the double digits but it has also rendered many rivers, lakes and reservoirs, indeed much of the country’s groundwater, essentially useless for agriculture or consumption.
Of the country’s 26 key lakes and reservoirs monitored, only 23 percent fall within grade 1-111, while 19 percent of China’s seven major river basins monitored are considered essentially useless. Finally, almost 74 percent of groundwater is considered grade IV-V standard, or excessively polluted. More information on China’s water pollution can be found here.
We should remember that a river collects the water in its basin and that means that all the pollutants within the Dongjiang Basin could potentially end up in Hong Kong’s water supply – not a pleasant thought. Will we have to wait for a major accident on the Dongjiang or its feeders before the Hong Kong government wakes up to our vulnerability?
For now, Hong Kong water quality data, although only through September last year, can be found here, on the Water Supplies Department website.
Hong Kong consumers have the ability to sustain a significant tariff hike. That would help us move toward greater water conservation and at the same time provide the resources for the city to invest in making options such as desalination and water recycling economically viable. What are we waiting for?
Five Chinese environmental groups have named 48 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.
A report led by Ma Jun and his Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs and released this week lists 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers of goods that ranged from sports apparel to luxury handbags.
Brands were linked to the factories over seven months of painstaking review of official websites, financial reports, recruitment ads and procurement bids, among other documents, according to IPE.
Over the past eight years the Institute has gathered a database of over 90,000 air and water violations from official government sources. IPE now works with many brands to make sure they are not using polluting suppliers and to help clean up those that are illegally dumping untreated toxic waste water into rivers.
Between march 22 and March 29 the five environmental groups wrote to the CEOs of each of the 48 brands linked to factories with repeated environmental violations. They asked the brands to ensure their Chinese suppliers would not pollute the environment while manufacturing their products.
While some of the brands named immediately responded to queries from the environmental groups, acknowledged the issues and detailed how they would address the issues, about two-thirds have not yet engaged, Ma Jun said.
Notably, Spanish clothing retailer, Zara, responded by saying that it was not the company’s policy to answer questions about its business model.
Nike, Walmart, Esquel, H&M, Levi’s, Adidas and Burberry were among the companies that responded positively, saying they would work with their Chinese contractors to improve their environmental performance. Many of these brands were already working with NGOs to clean their supply chain, IPE said.
Besides IPE, the other authors of the report, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry,” were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone.
China is a global leader in textile manufacturing, responsible for nearly half the world’s fiber and exporting 34 percent of the garments we wear.
This production has contributed significantly to the country’s GDP but has also taken a heavy environmental toll locally. Ma said that fashion manufacturers discharge 2.5 billion tons of waste water and chemicals into rivers and the ocean, while 80 percent of effluent is generated in fiber dying.
This has a serious impact on the country’s water supplies and is compounded by the fact that the re-use of water in the textile industry lags way behind that of many others, creating a situation where water efficiency is incredibly low, IPE said.
Among the 6,000 violations, a number of factories were given administrative penalties. Many were told to rectify problems such as illegal effluent emissions via secret discharge pipes, directly discharging waste water into waterways, improper use of waste water treatment facilities and pollutant discharges in breach of standards.
After five reports looking at the environmental performance of IT sector contractors, most of the brands named had responded to requests for information disclosure and action.
Among the last hold-outs was Apple, which was the focus of the last two reports. The company has since agreed to disclose its connections to suppliers and provide information on contractor environmental performance.
Clearly, Ma Jun and his colleagues hope for a similar response from another industry that is widely credited with some of the worst environmental performance in China.
With IPE and others watching, retailers and brands will no longer be able to hide behind stated ignorance about how a product is manufactured. They will no longer be able to refuse to divulge lists of suppliers or deny responsibility for egregious environmental emissions locally.
Part of the problem for the apparel sector has been the quantity of suppliers used to manufacture just one item of clothing or shoe. This is a problem we have written about here.
While many brands are getting better at understanding and working with the factories actually putting together the clothes, they tend to know less about the dyers, the spinners and the knitters who cause much of the environmental damage.
yet engaging with polluting contractors in any part of the supply chain has become a serious reputational risk and thus business risk for global brands hoping to squeeze their suppliers on cost.
It is also a wake up call for consumers hooked on cheap product made at huge environmental expense abroad. It’s about time we all made careful choices about how we consume, make sure that brands are using responsible suppliers.
For companies, the argument turns back to fiduciary duty and redefining what that means, something I have written about here.