Archives For pollution

Concern is growing globally about water resources and the potential for conflict in regions where they are scarce. But are investors and businesses in Asia adequately factoring water into risk assessments?

A recent Neilson study showed that worry about water shortages has overtaken global warming as the top issue, with 75 percent of respondents identifying this as something they worry most about. That represents an increase of 13 percent over the previous year.

And the concern is not without basis. Worldwide, almost 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water while 70 percent of industrial waste in developing nations is dumped untreated into waterways, further limiting what is often already stretched supply.

Yet investors and leaders of industry may not be paying attention, considering water challenges simply an environmental problem rather than a fundamental business risk.

In China, the water landscape is particularly stark. We hear much about that country’s economic growth averaging 10 percent over the past 20 years, the massive and wholesale transformation of the economy at rapid pace, but not so much about the horrendous cost to the environment that already weighs heavily on GDP .

We hear much less about the dead and dying rivers, the over-pumped aquifers, the creeping desertification in previously agricultural areas, the thinned soil from over-use of pesticides, the power plants without adequate water to function, the massive and growing health care costs from poisonings and escalating cancer rates.

We hear very little about the growing numbers of protests nationwide linked to pollution incidents.

The government is clearly concerned.  The official response in China has been  a tightening regulatory environment, and a move toward real pricing of the precious resource, or the investment opportunities that an inevitable clean up will bring.

The recently approved, 12th five-year plan for the first time features climate change and energy, sets lower growth targets for the country and favors investment in industries that promote pollution clean up and cleaner processes generally.

Clearly, there are thus significant ramifications across a broad range of industries in China but are investors prepared? Are they staying ahead of the water risk curve, engaging in the due diligence and mitigation efforts needed to survive the inevitable and seismic shifts around water?

China Water Risk (CWR) is ADMCF’s redesigned follow-on from Asia Water Project, the pilot initiative launched 18 months ago to inform investors and companies of both risk and opportunities around water crisis in China.

This initiative, which launches later this month at www.chinawaterrisk.org, is designed to influence capital allocation to industries in China located in water-appropriate regions, with solid mitigation strategies built around water.

A brief portrait of water in China tells the back story.

Per capita global water resources are 6,280 cubic meters on average but people in China have less than 1/3 of that amount at 1.816 cubic meters.

So, the country with 20 percent of the world’s population has access to only 7 percent of global water resources, while an estimated 300 million people in the country are without access to safe drinking water.

And this is not just a problem for rural areas in China. In 2007, research showed that 60% of China’s cities faced water scarcity and 110 cities faced serious water shortages.

Despite already limited access to water in china, horrendous levels of pollutants are allowed to spill untreated into waterways and seep into aquifers from agriculture and industry in China.
Last year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said serious pollution violations numbered on average 10 every month.
In all, an estimated 90 percent of urban groundwater is contaminated with pollutants and the quality of 40 percent of that is getting worse, according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Pollution of groundwater follows from the low urban sewage treatment rate, which was only 73 percent in 2009, according to a recent article in China Business Times. Hundreds of new sewage treatment plants have been built nationwide in recent years and sit idle because of the high cost of operating them.

The Beijing-based Institute for Public & Environmental Affairs in its water pollution map (an inspiration for China Water Risk and a CWR partner) lists hundreds of violations by sewage plants.

According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, 77 percent of 26 key lakes and reservoirs, 43 percent of 7 major river basins are considered unfit for human contact.  Meanwhile, 19 percent of monitored rivers and basins, 35 percent of lakes are reservoirs are believed unfit even for agricultural or industrial use.

The World Bank has warned of “catastrophic “ consequences for future generations if the government does not act to solve quickly the acute water shortage and pollution problems. The report urged new pricing, management and regulatory strategies.

In China, agriculture has been by far the largest consumer of water at 62 percent, and the largest polluter, with pesticides and fertilizers responsible for about half of contamination of waterways.

With water scarcity becoming more evident, waterways increasingly unfit for irrigation coupled with the fact that China holds only 7 percent of the world’s arable land, food security has by all accounts become of national concern.

Part of the problem around agriculture and food security in China has been that regions south of the Yangtze account for 33 percent of the country’s total farmland and 83 percent of the country’s water resources. North of the Yangtze, however, lies 67 percent of national farmland but only 17 percent of water resources

Exacerbating the problem, the country is the globally the largest consumer of pesticides and this has contributed heavily not only to aquifer and waterway pollution but to depletion of farmlands.

Meanwhile, as environmental and labor regulations tightened in the West pushing up prices at home, Foreign Direct Investment has flooded into China, fueling the factories, building the industry that is now feeding, clothing and housing the world.

Last year, FDI was estimated at $105.7 billion, surging 17.4 percent over the previous year. This is also helping build a huge middle class and affluent consumer market in China that is expected to almost triple to 400 million by 2020.

According to a September HSBC report, already next year China will replace Japan as the world’s largest consumer of luxury items – something unthinkable just a decade ago.

A joint report published in 2007 by the World Bank and the Chinese government estimated the combined health and non-health cost of outdoor air and water pollution at approximately $100 billion a year, or about 5.8% of China’s GDP.

Water pollution, meanwhile, worsens China’s severe water scarcity problems, with the overall cost of water shortages estimated at 1% of GDP.

The weight on economic growth is certainly of concern to Beijing, but equally concerning is the growing discontent in China related to pollution incidents and scarcity. In 2005, the last year for which government figures have been released, there were an estimated 50,000 protests nationwide related to pollution incidents.

This comes in response to significant growth of so-called cancer villages, or clusters of cancers invariably located near heavily polluting factories, fast-growing rates of urban cancers and outbreaks of illness or poisonings related to drinking polluted water.

Many of these protests have been centered around specific polluters and in several instances have forced factories or power plants to close. This then involves not just reputational risk but threatens serious economic losses for polluters.

There are also additional considerations around political risk.  Concern is that as climate change potentially exacerbates the country’s water shortages, the government sees the need to exert further control over domestic water resources with far-reaching consequences.

Of the 261 International rivers globally, 15 originate in China, including the Mekong, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers. These international rivers span 16 nations and China has no formal agreements or treaties regarding the use of these rivers with any of its neighbors.

What is patently clear, is that no investor or business leader can step into China without carefully considering the water challenges facing each industry and then positioning to mitigate risk.  At the same time, don’t investors and business leaders want to position themselves to take advantage of potentially huge opportunity?

Today is World Ocean Day and marine conservation organization, Bloom, seized the opportunity to launch a playful new short film, “A Shark’s Fin.”

Half animation and half live-interview format, the film tries to lightheartedly illustrate the problem with eating shark fin soup and let people know just what that apparently simple act of consumption means for our oceans.

Made by Hong Kong writer director, Crystal Kwok, executive produced by Elaine Marden and featuring actor Michael Wong as well as two adorable Hong Kong primary school students, the film targets the younger audience, with the view that they will educate their parents.

Please share the film – the more views, the more education and hopefully fewer bowls of shark fin soup will be consumed.

Remember, 73 million sharks are killed each year, mostly to  satisfy demand for shark fin soup and 50 percent of the global trade passes through Hong Kong. We can take a stand: Honor our oceans by refusing to eat shark fin soup before we lose  the majestic predators to extinction.

I keep hearing about how expensive sustainable fashion inevitably is and that since we are used now to so-called fast fashion, it’s just not practical to think we will easily give up cheap apparel. But is greener fashion really more expensive? And how can we educate consumers  on this topic? These were two issues discussed during a panel I moderated last week as part of the Redress Forum in Hong Kong.

Among other featured topics during the day of presentations were, the business of sustainability, eco-labelling, best practice and inspiring the next generation.  The sense after a day of conversation was that there is still far to go in terms of really producing apparel that is truly sustainable for a mass audience and that the myriad eco-labels are often confusing to the buyer, designer AND the consumer.

In terms of waste, there is little that helps a consumer understand the recycled content of clothing and Hong Kong-based Redress announced it was introducing a new consumer-directed label that would help. A major fashion brand will be introducing this label shortly along with a new eco collection that includes a high percentage of recycled textiles – an exciting development here!

Although in the UK, for example, the sense among younger designers is that sustainable is the future, in Hong Kong, whether to wear fur even in summer seems more of a concern than sourcing green clothing, according to HK Tatler fashion editor, Arne Eggers. In the land where luxury is king and brands are everything, even the Tatler Green issue struggles for advertising, he said.

Still, also on my panel, “Educating and Engaging Consumers” was Tobias Fischer, regional CSR  manager Far East for H&M and he said that for his company sustainable equalled cost-saving. He became irritated every time sustainable fashion was described as more expensive, pointing out that sustainable involves saving costs on energy, water, chemicals, textiles etc.

“Current manufacturing is not factoring in the true cost of production,” said Filippo Ricci of UK’s From Somewhere and co-founder with Orsola de Castro of Estethica, established five years ago to showcase young designers committed to working eco sustainably as part of London Fashion Week.

And of course he’s right. In developing nations with few enforced regulations, the factory dying process causes untold damage to rivers and downstream populations when waste is simply pumped into waterways. Meanwhile, excessive chemicals used to grow cotton pollute the topsoil, groundwater and again damage the health of agricultural workers.

Heavy use of energy, often from coal, to produce apparel that satisfies our seemingly uninsatiable appetite for clothing means power plants must pump out waste emissions that pollute our air. Excessive consumption of water, particularly in already water-scarce regions (many of these in China) further limits supplies for future generations.

With consumption of clothing 60 percent higher over the past decade and the cost of clothing lower than ever, it just is not realistic to think that factories can continue to pump out product that doesn’t factor in any of the social or environmental costs of production. Already, with labor prices in China rising as living standards improve and regulation there tightens, inevitably costs  even of fast fashion will have to rise.

Meanwhile, however, many brands are simply taking their business elsewhere – looking to Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia among others to maintain the rock bottom prices we have come to expect, particularly from discount stores such as Target and TJ Max in the U.S.

Last week we spent some days plowing through one of the most important areas of tropical rainforest in Borneo,  central Kalimantan’s Sabangau, looking for Orangutans, gibbons, Langurs and other primates as well as learning about the ecology of the peatland habitat.

For two days we started at 4:30 am in the dark, wearing headlamps, looking for the elusive apes. Although boards (built on a former logging railway) run for some kilometers through the 45-hectare grid within which the researchers we were visiting spend most of their time, much of the forest walking was through deep peat swamp that occasionally reached mid-thigh! See the photo above of  intrepid ADM Capital partner Robert Appleby taking the measure of the peat’s depth!

The walk, more often a run, as over hours we chased to reach the spot where a gibbon grouping or orangutan had been spotted by the Dayak or foreign teams working the forest, was often a challenge but incredibly rewarding nonetheless.   Seeing the majestic creatures in the wild was truly breathtaking. The gibbon photo above was taken by the OuTrop crew.

We were visiting Oxford Primatologist Dr. Susan Cheyne who along with other senior wildlife conservationists leads a team of young researchers working out of an old logging camp situated in the designated Sabangau “Natural Laboratory” about an hour and  a half by road, boat and foot from Palangka Raya. The Laboratory sits within the 500,000 hectare Sabangau National Park, which actually is not yet officially a national park.

This year ADMCF has provided support to Dr. Cheyne through Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU), which also backs the conservation and research effort. Dr. Cheyne and her team monitor the distribution, population status, behaviour and ecology of the forest’s primates, carry out biodiversity and forestry research, and work with local partners to implement conservation solutions.

The team is sponsored in Indonesia by the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), which is responsible for conservation of the important 50,000 hectare peatland forest.

That involves mostly ranging and firefighting, although there is also an ongoing effort to dam the many canals built through the forest that were used to transport the illegal logs to the river and are now drying up the swamp. Estimates are that the peatland, as deep as  19 meters in some spots, is sinking with the lowered water table and this of course threatens the trees and amazing wildlife, which is just beginning to recover from logging.

Sabangau was turned over to conservation  in the late 1990s after Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) research managed to document the incredible biodiversity of the forest and establish clear records of substantial populations of primates, clouded leopards and other endangered species.

Previously Sabangau was a logging concession, although luckily it was only selectively cut. More destructive though was the illegal logging that followed in the late 1990s – when the canals were cut through the swamp and more of the forest was chopped. Still, the research team has shown that surprisingly primates are returning to the peatland forest, which also has regenerated well.

Estimates are that the Sabangau previously hosted populations of about 14,000 orangutans and 40,000 gibbons and now numbers of each are at about half that amount, according to Dr. Cheyne.

Along with Dr. Cheyne, two other senior OuTrop primate researchers work from the Setia Alam camp: Simon Husson and Helen Morrogh-Bernard, who were among the first to identify the orangutan populations in  Sabangau and set up the camp with CIMTROP early last decade. OuTrop has been excellent at attracting paying volunteers and research interns to help survey the primates and biodiversity in the peat forest. Each individual seems to play a strong role in helping to build a portrait of the unique ecology of Sabangau. Certainly, more help is always needed for this important work, which is critical to inform conservation and indeed learn about the behavior of the animals.

To illustrate the importance, previous research establishing that the populations of apes lived in the forest was enough to persuade the Indonesian government that the area should be conservation forest. Now, new research is showing that adult male orangutans might need much larger range areas than previously believed, while gibbon family groupings perhaps also need more dispersal space in order to establish healthy populations.

The teams also believe that because food (flowers and fruits)  in the acidic peat swamps is not as plentiful as in regular tropical forest, apes may develop sophisticated mental maps of so-called “destination trees” and return to these in season to maximize their travel efficiency. The concern is that if these large feeding trees disappear so will the feeders.

Out of curiosity, we visited Block C of the Mega-Rice project. Which was indeed a sorry sight: So many kilometers of barren land subject to annual and devastating fires on the peatland where nothing now grows but scrub.

In the last days of the Soeharto era, Indonesia’s corrupt leader apparently handed logging concessions equal to about 1.4 million hectares to two sons and declared an ambitious plan to convert the Kalimantan peatland forest into rice padi, to be farmed by migrant workers from Java. The idea was to make Indonesia self-sustainable in rice production.

But the Project was a failure because acidic peatland was completely unsuitable for growing rice. Huge canals were built in the peat, ostensibly to control water-levels but instead drained the once-flooded swamps. Of course, the sons profited handsomely from the logging concessions, which many believe was the real motivation behind the Project.

In a major drought in 1997 the peat dried out entirely, caught fire and burned for months. This resulted in a smoke haze that covered much of south-east Asia and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning forests in Indonesia are largely responsible for the country’s designation as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The former Mega-Rice area continues to burn annually during the dry season and is considered one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters. Luckily the Project was stopped before the Sabangau Forest itself was drained and cleared.

A Greener Apple: SCMP Op-Ed April 7, 2011

When Apple announces profits for the second fiscal quarter this month, analysts expect record figures amid a slew of new products. The previous quarter was already a record for Apple, which posted revenues of US$26 billion and profit of US$6 billion. The question we should ask, then, is: does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost?

The well-documented poisoning of workers and violation of environmental regulations at some of Apple’s key suppliers shows there is an obvious gap in environmental and socially responsible management throughout the company’s supply chain.

Over the past nine months, Chinese environmental organisations have pushed global and local IT brands to recognise social and environmental problems within their supply chains and resolve them. Among the 29 brands targeted, Apple was the only company to be evasive, if not completely unresponsive.

Recently, Apple admitted that 137 workers were poisoned but continues to place the blame with the supplier, Wintek.

Throughout their lifecycle, from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal, electronic products have the potential to affect human health and the environment through the release of chemicals and energy consumption. Printed circuit boards and battery production, in particular, create heavy metal pollution.

Part of the problem, of course, lies with the consumer, whose demand for cheap goods means the purchased item doesn’t reflect the true cost of production – the toll on the environment,and on public and worker health.

Furthermore, information technology companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in – meaning we consume endlessly, looking for the latest product. Who should bear those costs? In the case of poisoning and pollution incidents, the violating supplier has a responsibility, as does the government department where a lack of supervision may have caused the incident.

However, a company such as Apple cannot avoid its own responsibility either. Amid economic globalisation, Apple has not retained any of its own factories and even the production of parts as small as screws has been outsourced. That does not mean pollution and occupational injuries during the manufacturing of Apple products have disappeared.

We must remember that suppliers who violate environmental standards and ignore workers’ health do this to cut costs. Analysis of the distribution of profits in the supply chain for the iPhone 4 has shown that, for each iPhone 4 selling for US$600, Foxconn and other Chinese assembly companies receive only US$6.54. Apple’stakings for each iPhone 4, on the other hand, is up to US$360.

With power comes responsibility. Is it really fair for Apple to grab most of the profit yet shirk responsibility for environmental pollution and worker poisonings in its supply chain?

Apple claims that “we require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made”. But environmental protection groups have found that Apple has seriously violated its own promises. Yet, the company is deeply involved in supply chain management – from the choice of materials to the control of dust levels in the production process.

At present, China’s environmental-information disclosure is expanding, meaning that many companies’ environmentalviolation records can be acquired by the public. Brands have already started using this information to ensure suppliers are not in violation of local environmental laws.

Apple needs to change its opaque supply chain and social responsibility management system, and work to overcome problems in its supply chain

Ma Jun is director of Beijing’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs

ADMCF recently spent time in Patna, in India’s Bihar state where we were looking at how we might work effectively with the Musahar community, which ranks at the bottom of the dalit or untouchable caste.

We found that there is apparently relatively little concrete information about or assistance given to the Musahar, whose name translates quite literally as the “rat-eaters.” Estimates of their numbers in Bihar and other states range from 2 million to as high as 5 million.

The Musahar fall so far down the well of the Indian caste system that by all accounts its people live in modern India much as they did 2,000 years ago. In an initiative that was perhaps telling about the regard in which the community is held, in 2008 the Indian government acted to help the Musahar by allowing the commercialization of rat meat.

A brief portrait of their situation gleaned from what is available online and through conversations in Bihar: In the villages around Patna in Bihar state, India, child marriage at 13 or 14 is still common, although illegal in India.

In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year.  Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily.

The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent for the women. Yet it is cast discrimination rather than parents that keep Musahari children away from schools. That said, the schools to which they have access apparently offer so little in the way of education that perception among the community is that schooling doesn’t offer them anything. And it is certainly true that even if they do manage an education certificate, discrimination means few manage to find jobs anyway.

By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar, the most severe form of Leishmaniasis, are prevalent.

Besides eating rats, the Musahars are known for producing a good and cheap alcohol so not surprisingly alcoholism is rampant among the community, particularly the men.

Government development programs provide very little support to the Musahars. They are not recipients of housing schemes because generally they do not possess title deeds for their land. They are also the lowest number of recipients of loans from revolving funds within government schemes.  Thus the social support system bypasses them, as do private donations since so little is known about them.

The Dalit community in Bihar as a whole suffers frequent and often unpunished human rights violations. In the ten years before 2003, for example, 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in police stations, including 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse.

Into this picture walked Sudha Varghese 26 years ago, a nun who wanted to give voice to India’s dalits. The Musahars were the least advantaged of the dalits she could find and she moved into their community to truly understand their needs and way of thinking.

her organization, Nari Gunjan, was born to give voice to the Musahar women in particular. The organization now runs 72  primary education centres and a residential hostel/school for girls. Nari Gunjan promotes social, political, and economic empowerment for the women and girls. Beyond education, some of the centers provide vocational training and assist with micro-credit for Musahar women.

A decade ago, recognizing the need also to represent Musahar women in the courts, Sudha sent herself to law school and returned armed with a new skill set she has used to pursue the prosecution of ten rape cases that without her would have gone unpunished. In each case, she lead a column of Musahar women to the police stations to persuade officers to make the right arrest and in each case she has succeeded in putting the perpetrators behind bars, she says.

Known as the “bicycle nun” Sudha visits the various communities on her bicycle, and her fragile appearance belies a ferocious determination to provide Musahar children with education, self-esteem and purpose, its women with hope. For her courage, India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri.

During a visit, the difference between children who attend her education centers and those who don’t was immediately apparent. Still, like any organization working in difficult circumstances that has been around for some time, achieving a constant flow of funding, even at the modest scale Nari Gunjan requires, is extremely hard. Some of the education centers have gone unfunded for 10 months although the teachers continue to work and the children appear.

Hong Kong vegetables, mostly imported from the mainland, contain high levels of lead and traces of other metals, including cadmium, according to research released last week by the Hong Kong Baptist University. This followed last month’s revelation by Chinese government scientists that 12 million tons of Chinese rice are contaminated with heavy metals.

The Baptist University tests were of 93 vegetables imported from the mainland and bought at local Hong Kong street markets or supermarkets, as well as of produce grown on Hong Kong farms, between September and December last year.

The most contaminated vegetable was apparently mainland-grown choy sum, which is also one of Hong Kong’s most consumed vegetables.

An article in the South China Morning Post on Friday showed that although the levels of lead in the study were 2.8 times higher than the global standard, they were acceptable under Hong Kong regulations. Traces of Cadmium also were found in some vegetables.

According to the SCMP, Hong Kong’s standards are shockingly 20 times less stringent than those of the World Health Organization, the European Union or Australia.

Author of the study, Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-Chung of Baptist University’s Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre told the Standard that ninety percent of vegetables in Hong Kong were imported from the mainland.

“The result demonstrates that lead pollution in mainland farm produce is serious,” he was quoted as saying.

In China, heavy metal pollution in crops comes mostly from contaminated irrigation water, pesticides or excessive application of chemical fertilizers and hormones as well as direct heavy metal contamination of the soil as a result of emissions from nearby factories.

Long-term consumption of vegetables polluted with heavy metals can contribute to cancers as well as damage the nervous system. Excess cadmium can also cause kidney stones, while excess lead can affect brain activity in children.

Wong pointed out in the SCMP article that leaf vegetables such as choy sum and spinach were more likely to absorb heavy metals. He suggested people alternate between these and fruit vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants.

China has recognized that food security is a real issue for the country, following scandals over melamine in baby milk and many others that have caused unrest in many parts of China following discovery of contamination.

In February the SCMP reported that government scientists revealed millions of acres of Chinese agricultural land and 12 million tons of grain, or about 10 percent of the country’s rice crop, were contaminated by heavy metals. China’s southwestern provinces, where much of the country’s export manufacturing is concentrated, were particularly contaminated, according to the article.

Potential economic losses from the contaminated rice, which is enough to feed more than 40 million people, hit 20 billion yuan or HK$23.66 billion a year, the China Economic Weekly said, citing 2007 statistics from the Ministry of Land and Resources.

China is also confronting a serious and potentially costly health crisis, with clusters of “cancer villages” springing up downstream from factories and near mines.

At  the annual plenary session of China’s parliament this past week, soil contamination was a topic of urgent discussion.  In a news report on China.org Jia Kang, a CPPCC National Committee member and head of fiscal science at the Ministry of Finance, called for legislators to begin drafting a soil protection law.

Jia was quoted as saying that land pollution already threatens the sustainability of economic growth and social stability.

Meanwhile, the same site quoted Health Minister Chen Zhu as saying that comprehensive evaluations of health risks from soil pollution are underway. Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian in recent months has said he will work to curb soil pollution during the period of the current, or 12th, Five-Year Plan – a framework for China’s economic development over the period.

The most recent plan, introduced at the parliamentary session this past week, calls for China to step away from exclusive focus on rapid economic growth to a more balanced development model that includes more benefit sharing and recognizes the environmental challenges the country faces.

The annual parliamentary gathering generally sets the country’s political tone and government priorities.

Let’s hope that food security stays at the forefront of China’s agenda and that we see action from officials both on the mainland and in Hong Kong to protect public health.

Greenpeace photo of worker and wastewater textile discharge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That trendy shirt or pair of jeans, the underwear we buy these days mostly comes with a “Made in China” label.  When choosing clothing presumably we think first about style and second about price. Can we afford the style and quality? We rarely think about the environmental or social cost of the item, the “true” cost of manufacturing a coveted dress.

We don’t know about the dye that washes into the local rivers where the item is made, the chemicals spreading downstream from manufacturing plants, contaminating water supplies and making local people sick. We want, we can afford, we buy. But should we without knowing how our clothes are made and the damage they do in the process?

Last year, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, Americans spent about $340 billion on clothing and shoes, accounting for 75 percent of the global market. Of that, 99 percent of shoes and 98 percent of clothing was made abroad, where environmental and social laws are less stringent and enforcement of those that do exist is significantly looser.

The trouble is, many of the clothes we wear, particularly the cheapest, are highly polluting to produce at the low cost-point. According to the World Bank, 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, and there are at least 72 toxic chemicals in our water that originate solely from textile dyeing. Of these, 30 cannot be removed.

That’s a real problem for the textile industry: In China, Polluted water causes 75 percent of diseases and over 100,000 deaths annually, the World Health organization has said. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.

Estimates are that 70 percent of lakes and rivers in China are polluted, as well as 90 percent of the groundwater. In all, an estimated 320 million Chinese do not have access to clean drinking water – more than the entire population of the United States.

It used to be that clothing was made close to home, so we knew when a textile mill or garment manufacturer was polluting the local water or air and U.S. mill towns experienced some of the same problems China now faces, with local rivers often fetid and colored by dye. With greater awareness of the hazards, then years of battling, government regulatory authorities set tougher environmental and labor standards to make sure production wasn’t exploitative or damaging to our air and water. Manufacturers were forced to comply, installing capture equipment on smokestacks and treating any wastewater before pumping it into rivers.

But that made clothing more expensive to produce and then with the opening of China in the mid-1970s and the growing availability in the 1980s of cheap labor along with manufacturing capability, most of the production process gradually shifted there. Eventually, environmental and social laws were put in place in China too but often local enforcement is limited and corruption rampant.

That has meant many factories and textile mills have been able pollute at will. When they have been fined for violations, the fines are often insignificant relative to profit. That, and the fact that an abundant migrant labor force comprised of some of the hundreds of millions who previously lived below the poverty line and were willing to work for cheap, meant clothing could be produced at prices that didn’t factor in either the real cost of labor or the environmental damage.

Those costs were left for future generations to cover in health care, clean-up and other forms of support.

The result is that we are all now hooked on the irrationally cheap. Prices on fabric and clothing imported to the U.S. have fallen 25% since 1995, partly due to the downward pricing pressure brought by discount retail chains, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Still, in China, the future is now. While migrant workers, now with a better standard of living, want fair wages and benefits such as health insurance, the Chinese government recognizes that the holy grail of economic growth at the 10 percent plus levels seen over the past two decades is unsustainable if the rampant environmental degradation continues apace.

Unrest has been growing across the country, particularly around perceived labor and environmental violations, with tens of thousands of mostly small protests annually, many of them unreported.

Besides the cost of cleaning up contaminated water, land and air, pollution will cost China billions in additional health care, lost productivity and early mortality, dragging down growth, the government recognizes.  The World Bank in a 2007 report estimated China’s environmental costs at around $100 billion a year, or about 5.8 percent of GDP, including the impact on mortality.

So any way you look at it, those clothes we like to buy in abundance, and have been taught in recent years to purchase and throw away without thought because prices are so cheap and styles constantly new, are a real problem for the environment, for workers who make them and ultimately for China’s economy.

In a report released in December, Greenpeace recounted time spent in two textile industry towns in Guangdong province:  Xintang, the “Jeans Capital of the World,” and Gurao, a manufacturing town 80% of whose economy is devoted to bras, underwear, and other clothing articles.

Greenpeace testing found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang and Gurao. In one sample, cadmium exceeded China’s national limits by 128 times.

Xintang, known as the “Jeans Capital of the World”, produces over 260 million pairs of jeans annually, equivalent to 60% of China’s total denim production, and 40% of the jeans sold in the United States each year.

Gurao, “the capital of sexy,”  in 2009 produced 200 million bras, or enough for every third woman in China to have one. But this prosperity has come at the cost of the degradation of the local river, the Xiao Xi.

Villagers told Greenpeace that the dirty, fetid river is no longer fit for drinking or laundry. Fish no longer live in the river and people living nearby complain that they must endure the stench from the wastewater. When the river overflows, their yards and homes are flooded by wastewater.

Unfortunately, Gurao and Xintang are not unique, representing just 2 out of 133 textile manufacturing cluster towns where there exists unregulated or at least tolerated hazardous chemical use and release – all in the name of economic growth and jobs.

True, the rise of China over the past few decades has been startling, and the achievements not to be forgotten. In no other time in history has one government accomplished a similar feat: Pulling some 300 million people out of poverty. The questions remain, however, around the price of that transformation and how the government will choose to address this looking forward.

Indeed the 12th five-year plan, unveiled in March, includes provisions for reform that involve working to rebalance China’s Economy and improve livelihoods.  The government is keen to shift the growth model from export and investment driven to domestic consumption drive, and will focus on the quality of economic growth, not just the growth rate itself, perhaps reducing GDP targets to around 7 percent. There will be additional investment in alternative energies and a push toward promoting less-polluting industries, with a shift away from more polluting producers.

As wages rise in China, however, this is a trend that is already underway, with some of the dirtiest factories moving to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam, where regulations are even lighter and costs less. Once again, rather than cleaning the supply chain and charging higher prices to reflect cleanup costs and higher wages, some brands are just looking further south.

Luckily, this is not universally the case. There are retail brands that are looking to improve their own supply chains and influence the industry more broadly.

In March a coalition of retail companies, apparel and shoe manufacturers, fashion houses, non-profits, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a new organization that seeks to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothing industry worldwide.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which includes Wal-Mart, Hanes, J.C. Penney, Nike, Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, and Patagonia, among others, will help to develop improved sustainability strategies and tools to measure and evaluate sustainability performance. The group of thirty organizations began working on this informally last year.

The group announced it was developing a database of the environmental effects of every manufacturer, component and process in apparel production, with the aim of using the gathered information to give the garments a sustainability store.

Part of the problem for the apparel industry is the complexity of the supply chain. There are many bits and bobs that go into producing our clothes and each piece may be produced in a different factory and then assembled in yet another. That means accounting for the environmental impact of any one item of clothing, tracing the zippers, the buttons, the natural fabric, the dyed fabric, is quite a feat.

Still, for the new coalition, tracing the various parts that make up one jacket or pair of trousers is the goal, along with conveying that information to the consumer. The idea is that eventually there is a label that allows shoppers to see how well their coveted item of clothing is produced and learn about its impact on both the planet and people.

And as consumers we all have a responsibility to think about how much and how we consume. Are our expectations around price and how long we use an item of clothing unrealistic?

Greenpeace last week released the results of its third-annual green electronics survey – a look at how leading electronics manufacturers companies are doing. All but Apple and Phillips of the 21 companies contacted agreed to be ranked on three criteria; removing toxic substances, responsible take-back of their end-of-life products and energy efficiency.

The survey was motivated by the fact that throughout a product’s lifecycle – from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal – electronic products have the potential to impact human health and the environment through the release of dangerous substances and energy consumption.

China is the world center for processing IT products and that country’s environment is paying the price. Printed Circuit Board and battery power production especially create heavy metal pollution.

Part of the problem is consumer demand for cheap products that don’t reflect the true cost of production – they don’t reflect the toll on the environment, on public and worker health.

Furthermore, IT companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in, which means we consume endlessly looking for the newest or better product, boosting company revenues but at huge environmental and social cost, that, again, is not reflected in the price we pay.

The Greenpeace survey found a general improvement in green features compared to the previous two surveys in 2008 and 2007, including a significant decrease in use of hazardous chemicals and almost all products met or exceeded energy efficiency standards.

But lifecycle management was still the weakest point, with very little use of recycled plastic, varying take-back practices and few marketing efforts to prevent fast obsolescence of products.

Generally, also, Greenpeace found that electronics companies were becoming more transparent in the amount and type of product information provided to customers, often listing product’s chemical make-up and performance details.

Apple and Philips, however, once again refused to disclose any information to Greenpeace. Of course this reluctance to provide information is disappointing and not limited to probing by Greenpeace.

Beijing-based IPE, led by environmental activist Ma Jun, has also over the past year focused on the IT sector for its significant contribution to environmental degradation in China.

IPE has also contacted electronics companies about environmental violations and Apple is among those refusing to address questions about noxious emissions by factories producing its products.

Writing in a Guardian blog earlier last year, Ma Jun said 34 Chinese environmental organizations, including Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Green Beagle, questioned heavy metal pollution produced by companies in Apple’s supply chain in a letter sent to CEO Steve Jobs. Last week Ma Jun said that the only response from Apple has been a demand for proof that the polluting factories are producing electronics for Apple.

“The links between these companies and Apple are clearly established,” Ma Jun said last week. “We are working now to provide the company with hard evidence. Their unwillingness to release information about their production processes reminds me of Nike in the 1990s,”

By contrast, in an interview with Asia Water Project last year Ma Jun praised Hewlett Packard and Samsung for duck disclosure and movement toward greener products. Indeed, HP and Samsung were among the companies singled out in the Greenpeace survey for the producing some of the greenest products.

Why single out Apple, as IPE has done? Does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game, for producing innovative, quality and well-designed products, have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost? Shouldn’t Apple be a leader also in its production processes and not a laggard?  Should we as consumers not demand more from the companies that sell us our products?

Fortunately, consumers ARE beginning to taking note. Companies that fail to adapt are poised to suffer huge reputational and revenue losses as a consequence.  A game-changing opportunity awaits those companies that choose to meet this challenge.

 

The world’s problems are too vast for philanthropy or governments alone to solve. The US$300 billion spent by U.S. philanthropists last year is just not enough to make a significant dent, while foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of global gross domestic product.

The reality is that only by harnessing the markets, large-scale private and institutional capital, will we even begin to meet the challenges posed by massive population growth, meet our many needs, address issues around water scarcity, our depleted resources as well as our polluted air and water.

Philanthropy can help spur innovation, it can be used as risk capital, to develop models for social benefit that can then be scaled. Governments can help take that innovation to scale but they can’t do it all. Only markets have the potential to bring about real change at the scale and speed we need that to happen.

In other words, we urgently need to take social investments out of the realm of just doing good and plant them firmly in business models in order to make our world fit for our children and grandchildren.

But how does that happen?

A new report released last week by J.P. Morgan and the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the Global Impact Investing Network  (GIIN) attempts to advance this discussion.

The report argues that impact investments are emerging as an alternative asset class, thus allowing the sector to be considered alongside any other as part of an investment portfolio.  Impact investments in this instance are defined as investments intended to create positive impact beyond, although not to the exclusion of, a financial return.

“With increasing numbers of investors rejecting the notion that they face a binary choice between investing for maximum risk-adjusted returns or donating for social purpose, the impact investment market is now at a significant turning point as it enters the mainstream, ” the report states.

It addresses questions such as what defines and differentiates impact investments, who is involved in the market and how they allocate capital. Also considered is what makes impact investment an emerging asset class, how much return investors are expecting and receiving,  how large is the potential opportunity for investment in this market and what does risk management and social monitoring involve?

The report analyzes five sectors that serve bottom-of-the-pyramid populations (the global population earning less than US$3,000 annually): Urban affordable housing, rural access to clean water, maternal health, primary education, and microfinance.

For just these segments of the impact investing universe, the report identifies a potential profit opportunity of between $183 and $667 billion as well as  investment opportunity between $400 billion and $1 trillion over the next decade.

Many impact investments will take the form of private equity or debt investments, the report says, while other instruments can include guarantees or deposits.  Publicly listed impact investments do exist, although as a small proportion of transactions.

B-Lab differentiates Impact Investing and Socially Responsible Investing, which has been around for some time, defining SRI (estimated at $2.7 trillion in 2007) as primarily negative screening, or investment in screened public equity funds that avoid so-called ‘sin stocks’ or seek to influence corporate behavior.

The core of the II asset class is that the model of the business (which could be a fund management firm or a company) into which the investment is made should be designed with the intent to achieve positive social or environmental impact, and this should be explicitly specified in company documents.

There are a handful of investment funds established to finance businesses that address social problems, especially in the developing world. Examples of funds working in these space include Acumen Fund, Root Capital, E+Co and IGNIA, among others.

A significant challenge identified in making impact investments is sourcing transactions. Many impact investment recipients are small companies and the majority of deal sizes analyzed from our investor survey are less than US$1m.

Particularly for investors based in different regions, the costs of due diligence on these investments can often challenge the economics of making such small investments.

Another, of course, would be setting the reporting standards needed to establish just what constitutes a social or environmental return on an investment. This is something on which GIIN and B-Lab are working hard.

It’s great to see a mainstream financial institution dipping into this discussion.

Last week,  I participated in a panel discussion at INSEAD, Singapore on impact investing and many of the points above were discussed at length. In particular, we spoke of the  challenges of II in a developing world context where this is urgently needed.

 

We recently hosted a forum with the Asia Foundation on Philanthropy and Climate change.  We hoped to encourage Asian funders to draw the lines between climate change (something that seems often hard for the individual to grasp) and the more tangible and immediate air pollution, forestry degradation, water scarcity etc.

We also hoped to then get them to think beyond the environment to a wider philanthropic portfolio and to consider the impact of climate change on livelihoods, health, education – even how funders in the arts might get involved to build awareness around the need to act.

Why? We feel that given the enormity of the problem, it’s often hard for the individual funder, the family office foundation, to see how they might act in any way that is impactful.

But what we found was remarkable energy in the room. Rather than despair, we felt that participants left informed and energized by our panelists and keynote speaker, Stephen Heintz of Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has an excellent environment and health, southern China program, managed by Shenyu Belsky.

Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and head of the New York’s NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, provided an overview of climate science – setting the scene for discussion. Dr. Hansen, an advocate for a carbon tax, spoke of our inertia in the face of an emergency, the possible extermination of species, receding glaciers, bleaching of coral reefs, acidification of the ocean, basically that we are a planet out of balance.

Heintz also spoke about urgency, describing climate change as a “planetary threat that knows no bounds.” He emphasized the particular threat in Asia – that of 16 countries facing extreme risk, five are in in this region and they are among the most impacted, low-lying Bangladesh for example.

In all, he said, global warming could cost southeast Asia 6-7 percent of GDP. Clearly, Asia is squarely at the intersection of climate and development and he emphasized the need for new ideas and new ways of thinking, something that accurately reflects current realities and anticipates new needs.

It is easy, Heintz pointed out, to be discouraged by the science, yet philanthropy, government, civil society and the private sector all have roles to play. In reality , it is imperative that we act because, inevitably, climate change will impact every other issue that we are working on.

Global grant-making, Heintz said, has increased dramatically over the past decade yet environmental issues are way behind, receiving only 5 percent of funding. Resources targeting climate change specifically, of course, are far less.

The philanthropy sector, Heintz said, can play a crucial catalytic role, take risk, experiment, support advocacy to change public policy and trigger larger systemic change. Important will be innovative public-private partnerships, helping to develop emerging models of low-carbon prosperity. His was an excellent speech.

Our three panelists, Runa Kahn of Bangladesh’s Friendship, Dorjee Sun of Carbon Conservation and John Liu, an environmental filmmaker and journalist based in Beijing, spoke of the practicalities of working effectively within this context – and they also were inspiring.

Runa spoke about making life possible for the 4 million people living  in impossible circumstances in Bangladesh’s northern chars, John Liu on a massive ecological restoration project in China and showed the results, Dorjee on carbon, community and market solutions for saving forests.

The entire session was expertly moderated by the Asia Business Council’s Mark Clifford who managed to draw together the discussion, keeping an often amorphous and difficult topic moving toward practical solutions and away from fear.

The forum was a private side event to the C40 Climate change conference early this month organized by the Civic Exchange and supported by the Hong Kong government and Jockey Club Charities Trust.

It would be great to hear about other experiences linking climate change with a wider philanthropic portfolio, about nudging funders into action in this arena.

Global environmental damage from human activity cost the world US$6.6 trillion last year, according to a new UN study.

That amounts to 11 percent of global GDP and amounts to 20 percent more than the US$5.4 trillion decline in the value of pension funds in developed countries caused by the global financial crisis in 2007/8.

The study, by UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and UNEP Finance Initiative, estimates that the world’s top 3,000 public companies were responsible for one-third of the damage, or US$2.15 trillion.

Other takeaways from the study:

  • Environmental harm could affect significantly the value of capital markets and global economic growth
  • Global environmental damage is estimated to cost $28 trillion by 2050

Why should investors care? The study warns that as environmental damage and resource depletion increases, governments will start applying a more vigorous“polluter pays” principle.

That means the value of large portfolios will be affected through higher insurance premiums on companies, taxes, inflated input prices and the price tags for clean-ups.

As a result, workers and retirees could see lower  pension payments from funds invested in companies exposed to environmental costs, says the study, conducted by Trucost, the global environmental research company.

Sectors most responsible for the damage, including air and water pollution, general waste, resource depletion and greenhouse emissions, included: Utilities; oil and gas producers; and industrial metals and mining. Those three accounted for almost a trillion dollars’ worth of environmental harm in 2008.

Why are investors still not providing leadership on this? Clearly, environmental externalities generated by one company have the potential to affect their portfolio. There is every incentive.

Already in China, low estimates are that Water scarcity and pollution alone represent 2.3 percent of that country’s GDP, according to the Asia Water Project. And China has said that, overall, environmental pollution costs the country 10 percent of GDP annually.

A sustainable global economy means we MUST stop drawing down our natural capital.

 

 

With air pollution at critical levels, the Hong Kong government fails to act to protect public health. After years of study, public consultation and dithering over what to do, there still is no action to revise air quality objectives, last rewritten in 1987.

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Mountains of garbage in Mumbai

Mountains of waste

 

We hear about climate change all the time now, we know it’s bad, we understand much of the science behind the phenomenon. But what can we do? No really, what CAN we do? How does this broad concept connect with our daily lives? 

We turn off and unplug appliances, we try to take public transport where possible, we use fewer resources, turn down the air conditioning in summer and heat in winter, we buy less bottled water. 

But often we don’t stop to think about the rest of our lives. We still want to eat strawberries in winter, meat flown in from the U.S. We (or our children) still buy clothes where often quantity and price reigns over quality. 

We look for lower prices (because we’re hooked on cheaper is better) and then don’t have to think so hard about whether or not that particular cheap item that clearly is not taking into account the environmental or social cost of  production is actually needed.  

We change our cars regularly, buy the latest Apple gadget (must have the ipad, the latest computer to stay in touch) and think nothing of chucking an iphone, ipod that has lasted only a year. 

What happened to the time in the not so distant past when we romanced a dress for a long time and just one purchase was ok, when we could buy fresh local produce and meat in season, when one car lasted a decade or more, when we didn’t need gadget upon gadget to be happy?    

So back to climate change: All of that consumption, flying goods around, needs energy. Production and energy (produced largely by coal in China) at least at the moment lead to air pollution and climate change. Sometimes we forget the connections. 

 In Hong Kong this week Clean Air Network has been good to remind us  with its tongue-in-cheek Fresh Air video what we face if we don’t change our bad habits:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmH3xCpOSW8

Hong Kong’s air quality is among the world’s worst for a city of comparable income levels. Here, the pollution we breathe negatively affects everyone. Not surprisingly, the poor are disproportionately impacted because they are unable to move out of some of the city’s most congested, polluted areas.

Since 1987, the World Health Organization has issued Air Quality Guidelines (”AQG”) to help governments protect public health. These AQGs are periodically revised to take into account the latest scientific research on the health impact of bad air. Currently, however, Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives (“AQO”) permit emissions that exceed the WHO’s latest AQGs by two to four times.  The AQOs, which are non-binding, were last updated in 1987. This year, the Government is reviewing the AQOs for the first time in more than 20 years.

Over the past two decades there has been insufficient action to mitigate air pollution in Hong Kong. We have often heard from government officials that there is little that can be done to change the quality of our air because much of the pollution drifts across the border from Guangdong.

Yet, research by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has shown that 53% of the time (192 days per year in 2006), most pollution affecting Hong Kong is from LOCAL SOURCES.

Some alarming facts about Hong Kong air pollution:

  • By WHO standards, Hong Kong’s air is only safely breathable 41 days a year.
  • Hong Kong air pollution causes three (avoidable) deaths a day, or more than 1,100 per year.
  • Hong Kong’s air is three times more polluted than New York’s and more than twice as polluted as London.
  • Although overall emissions tonnage has fallen in the past 15 years, roadside pollution has not improved. Because of its high concentration in close physical proximity to us, roadside pollution poses the biggest threat to human health.
  • 40% of roadside emissions come from buses.

It is therefore incorrect to believe that Hong Kong-based pollution abatement measures would make no or little difference in improving the local air quality.

We believe the Government could and should act immediately to improve the quality of air we breathe. Many cities worldwide have successfully taken action to clean their air and we believe that with tight AQOs and an appropriate plan of action could similarly clean up our air and improve the lives and health of residents

The Clean Air Network (www.hongkongcan.org) was formed to educate the public about the health impacts of air pollution and mobilize support for clean air in Hong Kong.

CAN is a NETWORK, bringing together and amplifying the voices of individuals, groups and organizations.

CAN’s overarching goal is to work with the Government to implement a stricter and more proactive air quality management regime.

Watch the CAN video here: http://bit.ly/86Md2r

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