Target, Zara, and others have agreed to map their Chinese factories’ pollution in real time

On the map.
On the map.
Image: Courtesy of NRDC/IPE
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Hidden thousands of miles from the view from Western shoppers, Chinese textile mills producing for major US and European clothing brands have been some of the worst polluters in the fashion industry. For years, many have dumped toxic chemicals used for dyeing and finishing fabrics directly into waterways untreated, turning them unnatural colors, and causing health problems for wildlife and nearby residents.

If you’re a concerned consumer, it’s generally impossible to know whether the brands you’re buying from are part of this dirty process. What’s worse, the brands themselves often don’t even have a firm grasp on how bad their supplier factories are, and don’t necessarily trouble themselves much to find out.

A new joint project by the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE)—a leading environmental NGO in China—and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is making it easier for clothing labels, and eventually even shoppers, to keep an eye on that pollution. It’s a map showing the official supplier factories for brands that have signed onto the effort, and the pollution each is producing, practically in real-time.

IPE brand map
Show me the data.
Image: Courtesy of NRDC/IPE

The project is still in early stages, but the goal is to make it so anyone can quickly see which factories are frequent violators, and which brands they’re supplying. In theory, the brands could use the information to move more of their business to the good performers, and to pressure underperforming factories to clean up, or risk losing them as clients.

“Even well-established brands right now often don’t know the details of their own supply chain, which keeps them from evaluating their basic environmental performance,” says Linda Greer, senior health scientist for NRDC. “To me, the low-hanging-fruit opportunity for brands to reduce their carbon impact and their water impact and these other impacts is for them to begin to benchmark their suppliers, in ways that this map and this data allow them to begin to do, and then to reward market share to good performers.”

That financial leverage could be effective, considering the size of the brands involved. Those that have joined so far include Target, Gap, Esprit, New Balance, Puma, and Inditex (the parent company of Zara and one of the world’s biggest clothing retailers). The IPE is already talking to several other clothing brands as well, and to other industries. Greer says IPE has also been actively pursuing electronics companies—another big polluter in China—and a few are poised to sign on.

The data behind the map come from a project initiated by China’s government, which has been working to address the grave pollution problems in the country. It uses probes to monitor the pollution of thousands of Chinese factories. They’re similar to the kind you probably used in high-school chemistry class to measure a solution’s pH level, Greer explains. They sit wherever the factory’s wastewater discharges, and send readings automatically. The Chinese government gets that report every two hours, so that’s how often NRDC’s and IPE’s map gets updates.

It’s a big step in the right direction. Though NRDC and IPE have to rely on the brands to provide their factories, and Greer admits they can’t track subcontracting, which she says commonly occurs in China’s garment industry. ”It’s just such an opaque industry right now with such a complicated supply chain, and that has allowed it to conceal all of its negative impact for decades,” she says. “But thanks to the internet and tools like this one, I can really see that era coming rapidly to a close.”

Right now, their map also shows a lot of technical data, and can be a little slow to load. They plan to add features that make the data understandable for non-experts, too, in the near future.

IPE and NRDC hope the project will spread to other countries such as Vietnam, where more textile mills are popping up as labor costs in China rise. That way, these countries could head off pollution before it becomes as widespread as it did in China. It just requires brands and their suppliers cooperating—and now they have a valuable tool to do so.