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Eating Asia’s Forests

Lisa Genasci —  October 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor

palm oil plantation

Most of us don’t realize that many of the products we use, the foods we eat are causing deforestation on a massive scale in Southeast Asia and are devastating to our planet’s biodiversity.

The culprit is palm oil, which is a key ingredient in many common foods, shampoos, soap and pet products, lubricants, pesticides and paints.  It even helps fuel our cars.

Palm oil has become a silent part of our everyday lives and accounts for 30 percent of world vegetable oil. And that’s how it’s usually identified on the list of ingredients – as vegetable oil so we often don’t even know what we are using.

Our consumption of the versatile lipid is soaring.  Demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. China is the biggest consumer of palm oil, importing 18 per cent of global supply.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, estimated at 2 million hectares a year, wiping out endangered species such as the orangutan, the black sun bear, the Sumatran tiger and many others.  The two countries produce 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

A new study by Stanford and Yale researchers estimates that 75 percent of deforestation in Indonesia was directly attributable to land use changes, from forestry to plantation. The study was released this month and published in the journal Nature Climate Change

Indonesia already has 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another four million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone. In total, the country produced more than 23 million tonnes of biofuels last year and is setting aside 18 million hectares to produce much more.

Malaysia in 2011 produced 18.9 million tonnes of palm oil on nearly 5 million hectares and was the second largest producer of palm oil.

Beyond feeding our snack habit, another challenge for forests is that governments are pushing to increase the use of biofuel, which ironically is seen as a quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU By 2020, 10 per cent of fuel will be biofuel, while China expects 15 per cent of its fuel to be grown in fields.

But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, in order to plant palm oil, often carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and then burned, releasing stored C02 into atmosphere already clogged with greenhouse gases from razing dry land forests. This represents possibly more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.

English: Deforestation and forest burning for ...

And not infrequently palm oil plantations are just an excuse for clearing forest because the profits associated with sales of tropical timber are substantial. In this case, companies seek concessions and access to land that is forested but don’t ever bother to plant palm oil.

We might think that forest and peat swamp loss in Southeast Asia sounds bad but it’s far away so why do we care?

We care for many reasons.  But if we are thinking purely about self-interest, the effects of forest loss can be seen globally in changing climate patterns and erratic weather.

Forest cutting is responsible for 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, meaning this is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and equal to emissions for the entire global transport sector. It is also comparable to the total annual CO2 emissions of the US or China, according to the UK Eliasch Review, “Climate Change, Financing Global Forests”.

If the international community does nothing to reduce deforestation, modeling for the Eliasch Review estimates that the global economic cost of climate change alone caused by deforestation could reach $1 trillion a year by 2100.

Beyond the effects of climate change from deforestation, we look to forests as sources of vital biodiversity.

Estimates are that nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next 25 years because of rainforest deforestation. As rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for disease.

At least 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. We just don’t know enough about the significance of forests to sit back while they disappear.

Locally, the consequences of deforestation on such massive scale are even more immediate.  Forests help regulate regional rainfall, offer defense from floods, maintain soils and their moisture, and generally offer ecosystem services crucial for maintaining life and livelihoods. Globally, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their welfare and livelihoods to one degree or another.

So is it worth it to eat that biscuit, that chocolate, choose a shampoo that contains palm oil and how do we know if it’s not even labeled?

The rule is that if the label shows the saturated fat content is close to 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil. Among those items that should be immediately suspect are biscuits, processed foods, chocolates and snacks.

Other key tip-offs that a food item might contain palm oil listed among ingredients are cocoa butter equivalent (CBE), cocoa butter substitute (CBS), palm olein and palm stearine.

When looking at ingredients in non-food products such as soaps and detergents, those that contain palm oil include: elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates.

Next time you reach for a snack, paint a wall or fill up your car, do your best to make sure palm oil isn’t an ingredient or at least that the brand claims to use oil from sustainable sources.

There are many issues around what makes palm oil sustainable as well as the industry body, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) itself, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

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.

We know that our oceans play a critical role in assuring human wellbeing, providing food, livelihoods and recreation as well as helping to regulate global climates.

We also know that our oceans are in trouble, with many marine species headed for extinction. Ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, rising sea levels, hypoxia, overuse of marine resources and pollution rank among the greatest challenges. All of these are well-discussed in a Stockholm Environment Institute study, Valuing the Ocean, which makes an important argument for valuing and protecting ocean services.

But how do we gauge the health of our oceans and marine resources – a daunting task given the many interlinked and complex benefits and threats?

Recently responding to this question, a broad group of marine conservationists and scientists released the Ocean Health Index,which is a sort of marine GDP, reflecting the health of our marine environments and how sustainably we are using them.

An account of the Index was published in the Aug. 30th issue of Nature.

The groundbreaking tool is not just a measure of how pristine the waters of any country might be, but rather considers how we humans benefit from our marine ecosystems and how our oceans are faring globally in terms of provision of services to us.

In search of baseline measures, scientists and marine experts calculated standards for the many ways we use the ocean. It comprises ten goals for a healthy human–ocean system in the waters of a country’s exclusive economic zone, which usually stretch 200 mile offshore.

The index now offers hard numbers to show how close or far each  coastal country is to balanced use of the Big Blue.

The country goals for a balanced marine environment include clean water, food provision, carbon capture, biodiversity, coastal protection, recreational opportunities, artisanal fisheries, support of local economies, and a “sense of place.”

Globally, the overall index score was 60 out of 100, with developed countries largely performing better than developing countries. Only 5% of countries scored higher than 70, while 32% scored lower than 50.

Rather predictably, while northern European countries tended to score highly, much of  West Africa, for example, did not score so well.

Researchers hope the Ocean Health Index will build awareness of the state of the world’s ocean, and work as a catalyst and guide for business and government decision-makers to develop effective policies promoting ocean health.

Researchers intend to release an updated version annually that responds to  new data that will overtime refine the index.

The Ocean Health Index was developed with the contributions of more than 65 ocean experts including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and the Synthesis and the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project. Founding partners are Conservation International, The National Geographic Society and The New England Aquarium.

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.

 

 

In Rio this week up for discussion and negotiation (mostly negotiation) is a 49-page draft document that aims to establish clear sustainable development goals and action to achieve them.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio Plus 20, marks 20 years since the Earth Summit, which at the time was the largest gathering of heads of state ever to talk about environmental challenges.

This time, the agenda has been softened to be about sustainable development, with an emphasis on development. Indeed, some people here don’t seem to believe that environment really plays any part in the conference. Earth isn’t anywhere isn’t mentioned – despite that this is clearly supposed to be a follow-on to the earlier event.

Yet it’s hard to imagine how the discussion of sustainable development can take place without careful consideration of our natural environment.

The reality and the urgency is that our world’s population is expected to rise from its current 7 billion to more than 9 billion in 2050. That’s scary in a world where already an estimated 3 billion people don’t have clean water to drink and 14 percent of our planet, to adequate food.

According to the final version of the Rio Plus 20 Common Vision submitted today under the title, The Future We Want, one in five people, over 1 billion people, still live in extreme poverty. By 2050 two-thirds of our world will live in cities.

So where we find food and water for another 2 million people in 38 years is the crux of the challenge and one that really can’t be denied, regardless of political leaning.

And we live in Asia, where most of that future population growth is expected to occur. This places the challenges front and centre for those of us engaged in work to combat environmental challenges and with communities without adequate means to survive.

Despite the enormity of the task at hand, however, few here in Rio are optimistic that real change will come from or be led by the conference.

The Brazil delegation worked hard in recent days to ram through a document that is in essence hollow, fearing more than anything a repeat of the Copenhagen disaster when no one could agree on anything.

I guess the sense is that if they can at least agree on nothing meaningful that’s better than agreeing on nothing at all over the three-day official proceedings, which begin Wednesday?

The conference document finalized today was, “the result of intensive and prolonged negotiations,” according to the press release, and is a “compromise text,” in which, “countries have had to both give and take to achieve progress.”

The text is to be approved by heads of state at the conference conclusion on Friday. Significantly, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel will not be present in Rio.

Still, the text does include a commitment at least to the concept of sustainable development and recognition that eradicating poverty is one of our greatest challenges. It emphasizes the urgency around “freeing humanity from hunger and poverty”.

The text establishes the clear linkages between sustainable development and the environment, between sustainable development and the means to bolster our struggling economies, and emphasizes the value of public-private partnerships.

Sadly, the hope that this translates into government action is absent from the jaded community spending long hours being bused among several distant event locations in fancy and frigid coaches that have nothing to do with sustainable development other than collective transport.

Part of the skepticism also derives from the fact that the earlier Rio conference ended with two treaties aimed at curbing emissions of greenhouse gases and conserving biological diversity that have since languished amid lack of political will.

There is, additionally, a certain exhaustion generally with the promotion of international frameworks to make sweeping change toward environmental progress.

Those just have been too hard to achieve in our economically challenged world that doesn’t yet seem to link better development, protection of our natural world and an improved economic environment.

like the posh buses, the main conference venue itself is a reflection of misunderstanding of the challenges we face. The huge Riocentro is two hours in traffic from Ipanema and Copacabana, where most participants are staying.

There, air conditioning blasts through huge buildings that are no model of efficiency – either in space or energy consumption.

At the same time, Rio Plus 20 is largely white and male – at least this is particularly true of the official and business delegations. Amongst the NGO community, women are better represented.

At the alternative youth summit in Flamengo, three hours from Riocentro in traffic and closer to Rio’s pulsing centre, the situation is considerably different.

Here, the youth and community-connected people are basing themselves, including many of the smaller NGOs – and diversity is evident in the variety of national dress, skin hues and music that accompanies many events.

In a long stretch of tents, people gather for animated discussion or to listen to seminars on topics related to conservation and sustainable development. Here, the environment is very much present although it’s hard to see where, concretely, the discussion will lead.

Official delegations are noticeably lacking these communities – the NGOs and youth. This is despite the final text emphasizing wide agreement among business, NGOs and government.

Perhaps one bright light here in Rio seems to be the talk on many levels of the importance of valuing our natural resources. Companies, NGOs and governments alike seem to recognize the need to bring environmental value into economic decision-making.

And engaging the private sector, governments, communities in this important dialogue, in partnerships to achieve results, is key to real change.  As always in large gatherings it’s the back-room learnings and discussion that are the real drivers for change.

 

 

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.

Another 32 brands including Marks & Spencer, Esprit, Calvin Klein, Carrefour, Armani and China-based Anta and Youngor have yet to respond, according to the report.

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.

Previously, IPE targeted the IT sector, also with information gleaned from the institute’s violations database. We have written about Ma Jun’s efforts here and here.

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.