NRDC: sustainability saving Chinese textile mills money

China's fast economic growth had led to thick air pollution. 

On its fast-track path to global leadership in manufacturing, China had not until recently factored in environmental costs, and Mother Nature finally has come to collect.

Nearly one third of the country’s rivers are designated as too polluted for any direct human contact, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). An alarming 100 of China’s cities are experiencing water scarcity issues. China’s capital of Beijing has been made nearly uninhabitable by air pollution; and the Union of Concerned Scientists ranks the nation as the highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world.

Although last year’s U.S.-China climate change agreement plus China's big investment in solar give reason to hope the country is beginning to turn the page on its polluting past, it all will be for naught without the buy-in of China’s manufacturers — especially its textile producers.

China currently makes more than 50 percent of the world’s fabric, totaling more than 80 billion meters annually, according to the NRDC. Textile manufacturing — particularly the dyeing and finishing of fabric — is very water and energy intensive as the process consumes up to 250 tons of water for every 10,000 meters of fabric produced and burns 110 million tons of coal every year. Its textile industry also ranks as the third largest discharger of wastewater and the second largest user of chemicals in the country.

But a new NRDC report, released today, suggests that there may be a growing business case for China’s textile manufacturers to change course.

The report claims that 33 Chinese textile mills — many of which create clothing for major high-volume apparel brands and retailers such as Levi Strauss, H&M, Target and Gap — collectively are saving $14.7 million annually by adopting simple efficiency measures in their production processes.

The mills are part of NRDC’s Clean By Design program, launched six years ago as a global model for manufacturing sustainability that works with major fashion retailers and designers to green the fashion supply chain industry-wide.

At the initiative’s core is a set of “Ten Best Practices” comprised of low-hanging fruit opportunities to improve environmental performance. NRDC says these opportunities are easy to implement, low-cost, quick-return and profitable.

As such, these improvements have reduced the pollution generated by participating mills, cutting water waste, energy use and electricity consumption, as well as removing at least 400 tons of chemicals.

Saving water through reuse

All but two of the 33 mills undertook efforts to reduce their water use, the NRDC report says, with a total of 53 projects. This resulted in an average 9 percent water savings at each mill, and each of the top five mills reduced water consumption by more than 20 percent.

The most successful mill reduced water by as much as 36 percent by collecting slightly polluted rinse water at the mill and reusing it after a simple treatment process of sedimentation and filtration. The mill also shortened its dyeing process, which reduced water waste. The mill’s initial investment of $7,600 paid for itself in only 3 months.

Efforts targeting the reuse of process water and grey water yielded the largest and most cost-effective reductions, the report says.

Reducing energy use through heat recovery

Every participating mill reduced its energy use through 173 individual projects, according to the report. The average energy reduction for the mills was 6 percent, with the top five mills reducing by 10 percent or more. In addition, more than half the participating mills reduced their energy use by 5 percent or more.

The best-performing mill reduced its energy use by nearly 22 percent through a project that captured and reused the heat from its hot dyeing water. Although this project had a high up-front cost of around $500,000, it yielded nearly $650,000 per year in returns, and it paid itself back in only 9 months.

Overall, efforts recovering heat from exhaust gas, water, and oil yielded the largest and most cost-effective reductions, the report says.

Modest reductions in electricity use

Only ten of the mills undertook projects aimed at reducing their electricity use, and the average electricity reduction was a meager 4 percent, with the top five mills reducing their electricity by more than 6.5 percent.

NRDC says the wide variance in electricity savings initiatives comes from the fact that many fall outside the scope of the program’s “Ten Best Practices.” It plans to evaluate the best of these as potential future additions to the program.

The most impactful electricity project contributed to a 9 percent reduction of the total electricity use at one mill, the report says, with an unusually inexpensive project on its compressed air system. The project cost $1,275,  paid for itself in less than a month and now is delivering more than $21,000 per year in savings.

Clear economic benefits, but time to scale

The average annual return for each mill was $440,000, the report says, and more than half of the mills are saving more than $150,000 per year. The top five mills saved more than $800,000 annually.

The most successful mill saved more than $3.5 million with 12 projects increasing motor and lighting efficiency, process water reuse, heat recovery from exhaust gas, among others.

Some of the most profitable projects were expensive and took more than a year to pay themselves back. But other highly profitable initiatives paid for themselves quickly, such as initiatives to recover heat from heating oil, reuse heat from hot water and recover heat from setting machines.

Encouraged by these results, NRDC says it plans to aggressively expand the Clean by Design initiative to the greater Suzhou area, in Jiangsu Province, another city with a high concentration of textile mills. To do so, it will solicit corporate participation through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which represents more than 40 percent of global apparel production.

With an estimated 15,000 textile mills in China alone, scaling up sustainable manufacturing practices won’t be easy. This is complicated further by the industry’s migration to countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, where NRDC fears things could get even worse.

But there also is a mounting business case for apparel brands to invest in more sustainable textile mills in China and beyond — Levi Strauss in 2014 saved an estimated $1.6 million in costs of goods sold from its “waterless” jeans program, Water<Less, which involves a set of production processes that eliminate up to 96 percent of the water used in the finishing process.