Global fashion brands including H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer are buying material produced in factories that harm people’s health in Indonesia, China and India, an investigation has found.
The report, commissioned by campaign group Changing Markets Foundation, said the toxic run-off from the manufacture of viscose, a fibre used to make clothes, had polluted water supplies with hazardous chemicals.
Also known as rayon, viscose is made from cellulose or wood pulp, which means it has sometimes been promoted as an ethical choice for consumers. However, most viscose is currently produced using a highly chemical process, according to the report.
Central to the process is carbon disulphide, a highly volatile and flammable liquid, which has been linked to coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions and cancer.
Other toxic chemicals used in the production of viscose include sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid, according to the Centre for Sustainable Fashion.
The investigation and subsequent report found evidence that viscose manufacturers were dumping untreated wastewater into local water supplies and carbon disulphide exposure was harming factory workers and people living near viscose plants.
The report cited evidence in Jiangxi, China, where investigators found the production of viscose had turned the water of a local lake black, impacting the health of local communities, killing wildlife and fish and stunting crop growth.
In another instance in West Java, Indonesia, locals were found washing viscose products in the river, directly exposing themselves to toxic chemicals contained in the fibre.
In Madhya Pradesh, India, which is home to a large viscose plant, families were found to be suffering cases of cancer and birth deformities after their groundwater and soil were contaminated by industrial pollution from the plant.
Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets, told the Guardian cheap and fast production driven by the fast fashion industry was to blame for the situation.
“Clearly the viscose producers themselves have a huge responsibility here, but what has become increasingly clear is that retailers are putting huge pressure on producers and asking them to cut costs, cut delivery times—the pressure coming from the brands themselves is creating an unsustainable situation both on a social and environmental front,” she said.
The organisation also calculated that 10 companies control around 70% of global viscose production, meaning there would be a “clear opportunity for rapid and transformational change across the sector”.
In response to the report, H&M told Retail Gazette that they were concerned with the findings and would follow up with the mentioned viscose producers that they source from.
“We are aware of this being an industry problem … therefore, together with an external consultant, developed a tool to evaluate the different viscose producers fibre production processes in their different production facilities,” the company said.
“Firstly we want the viscose producers to improve their viscose process to be more sustainable but if the producer is not willing to meet our expectations on sustainability we will stop sourcing from them.”
An M&S spokesperson said they already encouraged suppliers to produce more responsibly by incentivising them with M&S accreditation.
“We know that there is much more to do though and we are currently working on an approach for the fibre manufacturers who supply our suppliers that would bring them within scope of our environmental and chemical policy,” they said.
A spokesperson for Zara’s owner Inditex said traceability was the company’s first priority.
“With others we continue to work to address their environmental impacts – a requirement to remain as an Inditex supplier – and we will publish our preferred viscose supplier list, according to the compliance with our standards, at the end of the year.”
Hurley said that although brands were being transparent about where they source from, they were not going far enough to ensure sustainable production.
“What we’ve seen with our investigation is that transparency doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with more sustainable production,” she said.
“[Transparency] hasn’t translated into the factories they’re sourcing from being to a standard that we would expect.
“The whole reason for transparency in the first place is to stamp out human rights and environmental abuses.”
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