Greenpeace's 'Dirty Water' Shows Benefits of Antagonistic Campaigns

Detox campaign at Beijing Nike store © Liu Fei Yue/Greenpeace

Greenpeace launched its campaign on toxic water discharges from the Chinese textile industry this month with a signature move: activists hanging signs and holding court at company locations.

In this case, Greenpeace targeted Nike and Adidas with actions at company stores in Beijing, even though they are only two of more than a dozen companies Greenpeace found are linked to textile facilities that are polluting rivers in China.

Like the cliche of only hurting the ones you love, Greenpeace say it's putting the spotlight on the bigger companies because of the positive potential they hold.

"Nike and Adidas are the ones that can move the whole sector if they accept the challenge," said Martin Besieux, toxic campaigner for Greenpeace International. "We think they are the leaders to bring us to a toxic-free future."

Puma, one of the other companies named by Greenpeace, sees the campaign as providing useful information that companies might not always be able to find out on their own, particularly when dealing with deep and complex apparel industry supply chains.

"You can't be everywhere at the same time," said Reiner Hengstmann, Puma's global director of environmental and social affairs. 

Greenpeace's "Dirty Laundry" report is based on a year-long investigation that found two facilities, the Youngor Textile Complex and the Well Dyeing Factory Limited, were found to be discharging hazardous and persistant chemicals, some with hormone-disrupting properties, into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Converse, H&M, Lacoste, Nike and Puma are among the apparel companies that have had products made at either of the locations. And although Nike and others say they don't use wet processes -- the stages that contribute to water pollution -- at the facilities, Greenpeace says the pollution policies of all the companies are are lacking.

What Greenpeace wants is for companies to set public goals for their supply chains to contribute zero hazardous materials discharges, and create transparent plans for disclosing discharges and reducing them. "We want fundamental system change, starting in China," Besieux said.

Adidas, one of the companies that said it doesn't use the wet processes at the Youngor Textile Complex -- it does use nearby cut and sew facilities run by the Youngor Group -- released a statement saying it has asked the company to look into Greenpeace's report and "take immediate steps for remediation," if the claims are accurate.

Puma also said it doesn't use any of Youngor Group's water-polluting operations. Hengstmann said the details of Greenpeace's investigation could nonetheless lead to changes in its supplier standards, which currently say wastewater should not be discharged into bodies of water without being treated and ban some persistant and toxic chemicals.

Campaigns like this can help companies rethink their standards, Hengstmann said, adding that Puma holds stakeholder dialogue sessions with non-governmental organizations and other groups, some of which campaign against Puma. "We have to collaborate and we have to find ways of working together," he said.

Besieux said that companies are admittedly dealing with different situations in places like China as opposed to the United States and Europe, where there is more control over water emissions. "(The companies) work in an environment where the legislation is different, the inspection is different and even the auditing is different," Besieux said.

Regardless, he added that company actions can lead to systemic, and legislative, changes. "That is the new world we are living in," Besieux said. "It's not about politicians who are making laws. It's companies who are making laws."

And company actions, whether they're setting goals and standards or looking for new companies to do business with, have ramifications further down the chain.

"Suppliers have to react simply to stay in business," Puma's Hengstmann said.

Detox campaign at Beijing Nike store © Liu Fei Yue/Greenpeace