Campaign group Changing Markets Foundation claims two viscose factories in Indonesia and India used by various UK fashion retailers are causing local air and water pollution
A raft of High Street clothing brands have promised to overhaul their supply chains in response to a report today which claims two major viscose factories in Indonesia and India are polluting their local environments with toxic chemicals.
A number of leading retailers including Asda, Matalan, Next and Burton are accused of sourcing viscose fabric from the two factories in question for use in clothing manufacturing, despite an investigation last year suggesting serious air and water pollution at the sites.
Both factories - one in Madya Pradesh in India and the other in West Java, Indonesia - are owned by Aditya Birla Group, a $50bn global firm based in Mumbai believed to be one of the world's biggest producers of viscose, according to campaign group Changing Markets Foundation.
Aditya Birla Group, which has in the past been commended by non-profit groups for its deforestation policies, did not respond to BusinessGreen's request for comment on this article, but has in the past denied the campaign group's claims and has said its air and wastewater emissions are up to standard.
But in a follow up report today the Changing Markets Foundation claims conditions have not markedly improved at either factory since its initial investigation last year. It is now urging the firm and the clothing brands it supplies to adopt a set of sustainable viscose sourcing policies it has developed in partnership with several retailers over the past year.
Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at the NGO, said lab tests of air close to the India factory and water next to the Indonesia facility demonstrated that chemical pollution from both facilities was adversely affecting the local environment and human health. "Brands buying from the company should look beyond the green spin to understand what is really happening on the ground, where local residents' and workers' lives are blighted by pollution on a daily basis," she said in a statement.
Other brands the campaign group claims have sourced viscose from at least one of the two factories include Levi Strauss, H&M, ASOS, Marks & Spencer, Zara, Burton and Debenhams. Several brands contacted by BusinessGreen have responded to the claims, explaining that while developing solutions is complicated, they are working on improving their viscose supply chain policies.
Sometimes known as rayon, viscose is a soft semi-synthetic fibre commonly used to make lighter clothing, and is the third most-used fibre in the textiles industry after polyester and cotton. It is created from cellulose that is chemically extracted from trees, a process that requires hazardous chemicals.
Changing Markets Foundation argues that if managed properly, viscose has the potential to be a "largely sustainable fibre" as it is made from plant matter and is biodegradable.
The NGO said it engaged with a number of retailers following its 2017 investigation - including H&M, Zara, ASOS, M&S, Tesco, Gap, Levi's and John Lewis - with a view to developing a responsible viscose sourcing roadmap, which it has today launched.
It is therefore calling on Aditya Birla Group and brands it supplies to incorporate the 12-page 'Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing' into their supply chain policies and improve transparency and inspection of their operations.
So far, the Roadmap has secured the backing of Tesco, H&M, ASOS, M&S and Zara, via its owners Inditex. The firms have all today committed to adding the Roadmap into their sourcing policy according to the Changing Markets Foundation.
Phil Townsend, sustainable raw materials specialist at M&S, said the retailer was the first to launch a chemical compliance policy 20 years ago and it continues to work within the industry globally to improve the sustainability of its supply chain. "We support the principles of the Changing Markets Roadmap and we're committed to achieving zero discharge of hazardous chemicals from the manufacture of our textile and apparel products by 2020," he said in a statement.
H&M, meanwhile, is looking at potential alternatives to viscose, and has a goal to use 100 per cent recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, including man-made cellulosic materials.
An H&M spokesperson said the firm was also "fully committed" to the Roadmap and had already taken the first steps towards its implementation in collaboration with its supply chain and other brands. "The viscose production process is a challenge for the whole industry, which is why collaboration is key," the company said in a statement. "Focus is on creating guidelines and a verification system for viscose producers to ensure responsible production as well as innovation pilots and continuous improvement projects."
A number of US brands have also reportedly sourced viscose from the factories, although none have so far signed up to the Roadmap, according to Changing Markets. One of the named firms is jeans brand Levi Strauss, which did not respond to BusinessGreen's request for comment at the time of going to press, but has previously committed to achieving zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.
Moreover, Levi separately announced yesterday a new plan to eliminate "thousands" of chemical formulations from its supply chain as part of a "major sustainability breakthrough".
The new operating model aims to create a cleaner supply chain by replacing manual techniques to automate the jean production process, the firm explained. This will allow the company "to reduce the number of chemical formulations used in finishing from thousands to a few dozen," it said.
"Thirty years ago, jeans were only available in three shades: rinsed, stonewashed and bleached," said Bart Sights, vice president of technical innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. "Today those three shades have exploded into endless variations, all produced with very labour-intensive jobs and long lists of chemical formulations. We're designing a cleaner jean for the planet and the people who make Levi's jeans, and we're doing it on a scale that no one else has achieved to date."
Matalan, Zara, Debenhams and Arcadia Group, which owns Burton, as well as a number of US retailers, were still considering requests for comment at the time of going to press.
However, several UK retailers which have not yet committed to the Roadmap did nevertheless offer a response to today's report. Asda said it was reviewing the report's findings and would "take action where appropriate", while a spokesman for Next said the fashion retailer was looking to collaborate with others in the sector towards finding a solution to a "complex" problem.
"Next was first in contact with Changing Markets Foundation over nine months ago, concerning its report into the Aditya Birla Group," a Next statement said. "The issues are both complex and very real - and therefore cannot be solved by any single party acting alone. Next is therefore seeking to join with others in the retail sector to work collaboratively on a long term solution."
In the contemporary world of business and retail - particularly in the fashion sector - supply chains are under the spotlight more than ever before, while brands are increasingly having to respond to growing demands for transparency from consumers.
Today's report underscores the willingness of most retailers to engage with the issues, with companies increasingly seeing collaboration as the key to building a sustainable, ethical and low-risk supply chain. But it also underscores the challenges still at large in the supply chains of the fashion world.
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