The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) this week announced the stunning latest results of its Clean by Design program, a global model for sustainable manufacturing that is working with multinational apparel brand partners Target, Gap, Levi Strauss and H&M. According to NRDC’s latest analysis, the program’s production efficiency measures have enabled significant reductions in pollution, water and energy use, and chemicals at over 30 Chinese textile mills that create clothing for the brands, and delivered $14.73 million (92 million RMB) to the mills in total reduced operating costs (NRDC notes that participating mills invested $17.3 million in total one-time upfront costs to achieve these savings, with a payback time for the whole program of only 14 months.)
“Although apparel manufacturing is among the largest polluting industries in the world, it doesn’t have to be,” said Linda Greer, Ph.D., NRDC senior scientist and director of Clean By Design. “There are enormous opportunities for the fashion industry to clean up its act while saving money, and Clean By Design offers low-cost, high-impact solutions to do just that.”
Chinese textile manufacturing — particularly the dyeing and finishing of fabric — is extremely water- and energy-intensive; it uses up to 250 tons of water for every ton of fabric produced — two or three times higher than that of the more efficient factories in the industrialized world — and nearly 6 tons of coal per ton of product, 2.5 times higher than that of the US in the 1990s, to generate the large quantities of steam and hot water necessary to dye and finish fabrics.
Textile manufacturing also discharges extremely high volumes of wastewater and pollutants, and uses a large variety of toxic chemicals in manufacturing; approximately 25 percent of the chemicals manufactured globally are applied in the textile industry, and China is the largest consumer of textile chemicals in the world.
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NRDC says Clean by Design, launched in 2009, reduces the environmental footprint of textile mills — particularly energy and water use — with a business-friendly model that focuses on increasing production efficiencies, which saves the factories money.
The core of Clean by Design is a set of Ten Best Practices to reduce the industry's environmental footprint. Based on initial research by international experts at five Chinese textile mills, and then piloted at a dozen more, the Ten Best Practices are comprised of "low-hanging fruit" opportunities to improve environmental performance. They are easy to implement, low-cost, quick-return, and profitable, have an established track record of success in other textile mills, and are routinely updated to reflect the program's ever-expanding implementation experience.
In the new report, The Textile Industry Leaps forward with Clean by Design: Bigger Profits Through Less Environmental Impact, NRDC details how it worked with its four multinational brand partners to take the Clean by Design program to two locations in China with high concentrations of textile mills: Shaoxing City in Zhejiang Province, and the Guangzhou metropolitan area of Guangdong Province. The NGO says it trained engineers and managers from more than 100 mills to develop their own implementation plans, providing additional expert assistance upon request.
The 33 mills that completed the program provided initial benchmarking information, hosted expert consultations, submitted implementation plans, undertook improvements, and completed reports from which NRDC evaluated the results. More than 90 percent of the 231 individual projects proposed for implementation by the mills were completed in 2014. In total, the program saved more than:
- 3 million tons of water: Water savings averaged 9 percent, with the top five mills reducing water consumption by more than 20 percent.
- 61,000 tons of coal: Energy reduction averaged 6 percent, with the top five mills reducing energy consumption more than 10 percent.
- 36 million kWhs of electricity: Electricity reduction averaged 4 percent, with the top five mills reducing their electricity by more than 6.5 percent.
- 400 tons of chemicals: Mostly dyes.
- $14.7 million in operating costs: The annual return per mill averaged $440,000, with the top five performing mills saving more than $800,000.
“Apparel brands can use their buying power to reduce the environmental footprint of their manufacturing while enhancing the bottom line,” said Greer. “Without a doubt, the 21st century conscious consumer rewards brands and retailers that embrace responsible manufacturing and value triple-bottom line solutions. This practical and replicable action plan provides a proven blueprint for companies to drive a sustainable transformation of the fashion industry.”
NRDC says the resource reductions and economic returns of the Clean by Design 2014 class reflect permanent improvements that will continue to accumulate in the coming five to 10 years and beyond, multiplying their impact substantially.
In 2015, NRDC says Clean By Design will further expand, moving next to the greater Suzhou area, in Jiangsu Province, another Chinese city with a high concentration of textile mills. It will solicit broadened brand participation though alignment with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an association representing more than 40 percent of global apparel production.