How the fashion industry can avoid its own Foxconn

[Editor's note: Companies with limited visibility into their supply chains face huge reputational risks should it be discovered that their products are made in factories that violate environmental and labor laws. Take Apple's China scandal, for example. In this article, Susan Egan Keane explains why brands must aggressively make environmental compliance a priority for their suppliers -- or face a potential public relations nightmare.]

More than 6,000 water pollution violations from apparel factories in China – that is just one revelation in a stunning new account of water pollution from the Chinese textile industry, from noted Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun and his Green Alliance of activist partners. The violations included serious threats such as illegally dumping untreated toxic wastewater into rivers and streams.  And these are the just violations we know about! Given the general lack of enforcement of environmental laws in China, there are likely many more violators out there that simply did not make the official record books.

The IPE report comes on the heels of a well-publicized report by Greenpeace several months ago that also focused on water pollution problems in the textile industry in China.

Clearly, with the publication of these two reports, the days of the ‘”anonymous” supply chain operations are over.

Retailers and brands can no longer realistically hope that problems at their manufacturing facilities around the world will remain quietly local; the curtain is rising on these operations, and the public is becoming savvier about linking international businesses to the environmental problems they are experiencing from these factories.

After nearly five years of work on pollution problems in China’s apparel industry through NRDC’s Clean By Design initiative, it comes as no surprise to me that some of these polluting factories are making clothes for well-known international retailers and brands. Clean By Design is an NRDC effort to work with clothing retailers and brand to improve environment performance of their suppliers. While many companies, including ones we’ve worked with, have made very public efforts to improve sustainability in their operations, we’ve seen that their reach into their supply chains is often not as thorough as it needs to be to make real change.

It is common for companies to have a business relationship only with factories at the "end" of the chain, that is, the ones actually stitching together the clothes. They have little to no contact with factories further "up" the supply chain, that is, the ones who spin, knit, dye and finish the fabric before it becomes a garment.  Unfortunately, these factories "up the chain" are where the most serious pollution problems occur, because of their intensive use of water, energy and toxic chemicals. That’s where the action is, so that’s where any multi-national apparel corporate responsibility programs needs to focus.

It’s also where business decision-making needs to focus. Sourcing departments in these firms must start to include environmental compliance as one of the factors considered when deciding where to place orders. Without these real business consequences of poor environmental performance, all the sustainability reports in the world will not make a difference.

To protect their brand reputations, (and to make truly sustainable products), international companies must take much more aggressive steps to ensure that the factories that make their goods are not polluting the communities where they are operating. Companies can start by mapping out their full supply chain, and checking for compliance problems by making routine checks of IPE’s database and other public sources of information. If the factories have problems, the retailers and brands should require them to inform the public and to work to resolve the problems quickly. Responsible companies need to walk away from places that are in chronic non-compliance with environmental laws. To move even further ahead, the companies need policies that give their suppliers business incentives to go beyond simple compliance, and adopt innovative and efficient ways to make clothes that use less water, have a smaller carbon footprint and use nontoxic dyes and materials.

But requiring basic compliance is the most important first step in the right direction.

This article originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission. Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

Image CC-licensed by Flickr user Marc Oh!