The “fast fashion” industry has produced lots of cheap, short-term use clothes but at enormous cost to the environment.
Decades of cheap labour and capital, and a unique close-knit supply chain of cloth, dyeing, sewing, fasteners, trimmings, labels and logistics, have delivered so-called fast fashion – rapidly shifting style from the catwalk to the mass market at prices that make garments almost a disposable commodity.
“Customers are happy because clothes are even cheaper than a decade ago, and retailers can benefit from low costs,” said Felix Chung, a Hong Kong legislator representing the textile industry.
“But the result is massive waste – and the brands will need to pay for it in the future.”
After decades of almost unbridled industrial growth that left China with a legacy of rampant pollution, shrinking aquifers (ground water reserves) and soaring water prices, the government is cracking down on big industrial users, and the fast fashion textile industry is in the front line.
Cloth-making ranks third in China for the amount of waste water it discharges – three billion tons a year – after chemicals and paper, according to a 2015 report by New York-based non-profit group Natural Resources Defense Council, which has an office in Beijing.
With that model coming under fire for its environmental record, top brands like H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB, Target Corp. and Gap Inc have adopted water quality standards for their suppliers and monitor them to protect their reputation with consumers.
In 2015, China’s government released its Water Ten Plan, ushering in stricter waste-water regulations. It sets out 10 general measures to control pollution discharge, promote technology and strengthen water management, with a 2020 deadline to meet its goals.
The stricter water rules are part of China’s actions to increase enforcement in environmental measures. Penalties for environmental violations by the country’s manufacturers rose 34% in 2015, from the previous year, according to China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation.
Owners of brands including H&M, Zara, Nike and Adidas are among those that have committed to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in production by 2020.
The problem is how to achieve better environment and labour standards without raising prices for consumers who have become addicted to cheap fast fashion.
“We talk about social responsibility, but people are not willing to pay for it,” said TAL’s chairman Harry Lee. “Stricter regulation requires manufacturers to upgrade their facilities. It’s good, but it requires capital.” – Bloomberg
One textile company is looking for a super bacteria that can help clean the loads of waste water it generates.