Langsey Company's Li Zhang is your insider industry guide to all things China. Here, she tackles sustainability.
Recently, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) launched a new "blue sky" protection campaign.
This campaign aims to control air pollution in key regions of China from June 2018 to April 2019, to reduce air pollution and "make skies blue again."
While this is no doubt good news for the environment, what does it mean for Chinese factories? How will the manufacturing industry be impacted by the “blue sky” campaign?
Introducing the Blue Sky Protection Campaign
According to a media release by the MEE on 20th June, “China has held hundreds of local officials accountable for environmental problems following the latest round of investigations by central inspectors. Inspectors have accepted more than 10,000 reports from the public about inefficiency in local government work of rectifying environmental problems since the end of May.
“Of these, around one-third had been dealt with by Thursday. Authorities have issued fines of 58.07 million yuan (about 9 million U.S. dollars), detained 58 people, and held 630 local officials responsible in 10 provincial-level regions including Hebei, Inner Mongolia, and Heilongjiang.”
The media release also added that “with central inspection as an important means, China has stepped up efforts to stop environmental violations amid a shift to a development path that is more environmentally friendly.”
How the Fashion Industry Affects the Environment
Before we go on, let’s take a look at the impact of the fashion and textile industry on the environment.
As fashion sustainability expert Clara Vuletich says, “most of us don't realise how environmentally intensive it is to make a single article of clothing. Textile supply chains are some of the most complex of any manufacturing sector… When you think about one garment, how it's got to be on your back, it's gone through so many different suppliers and production processes."
The processing of fibres is usually a very energy and pollutant-intensive process, often involving the use of bleaches and dyes. Textile manufacturing also uses huge amounts of water because the yarn has to be constantly washed and put through chemical processes.
Overall, the apparel and footwear industries currently account for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumers are being encouraged to shop more ethically and sustainability to prevent this figure from growing higher.
The Impact of Blue Sky on Manufacturers
As you can see, there are important reasons behind China’s new laws and regulations, that will help to protect the planet and all people.
No one disagrees that it is a great thing to make the global fashion industry more environmentally-friendly. At the same time, for those of us in the industry, we also need to be realistic and aware of the impacts we are facing.
We can already see the impacts of environmental inspections on China’s manufacturing industry. Factories that are involved in polluting activities (primarily metal auto parts manufacturing, home appliance components, and chemical related products) are at risk of being closed down.
Has the fashion industry spared? The answer is no. Most fabric mills release untreated waste water, which is very harmful to the planet. This means that the fashion manufacturing industry is a key area to be inspected and controlled. In some areas, almost all of the local fabric mills have already been closed down temporarily.
How Will Fashion Companies Be Affected by New Regulations
Fashion companies have to prepare themselves for a higher supply chain cost and probably longer lead time. Be aware that your current supplier will probably ask for a price increase soon.
This is because waste water treatment and other related actions cause extra costs for the factories. And because some factories have already been closed, the surviving factories (who are supposed to be more environmentally-friendly) will face higher market demands. Higher demands and smaller capacity leads to price increasing and production delaying.
Don’t think you won’t be affected if you manufacture your fashion products in other countries. China’s higher costs and lower capacity will push more fashion companies to move their production to other countries, which means your suppliers will also receive more orders and select better priced ones.
My Recommendations for Manufacturers
My key recommendation is, don’t think about escaping from China. We have always cried out for a sustainable fashion industry – now here it comes, and you escape?
The global market should share the cost to welcome a better industry. And as mentioned above, even if you move to other countries, the cost in those places will increase accordingly very soon. What’s more, if your new option is south-east Asia, you are taking the risk of working with an unsustainable and unethical supplier.
So what can we do then, if we have decided to stick to the Chinese suppliers?
Always Ask for Environmental Documentation
I recommend that you always ask your (potential) supplier to show you any relevant documents to prove that they have passed the government’s environmental inspection.
Even if they haven’t been selected by the government for inspections yet, you can still ask as many questions as you want to have a sense whether this factory owner cares about environmental problems and whether they have done anything to meet the government’s standard. This will also protect you from the risk of being informed by the factory one day that “sorry customer, we are closed by the government and can’t fulfill your order now.”
Another thing you should keep in mind is, try to avoid working with unreasonably low-cost suppliers. If a thing seems too good to be true, it probably is. If a supplier’s price is too low to be true, well, it probably has an environmentally unfriendly factory, who will find themselves in trouble with the government very soon.