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Changing markets foundation

Major high street brands linked to polluting factories

Zara, M&S and other stores are sourcing viscose from manufacturers across Asia that were found to be contaminating local water sources

A string of major fashion brands have been linked to material made in polluting factories, found to be contaminating local water sources and damaging health.

New reports by the Changing Markets Foundation found Zara, Marks & Spencer and H&M, among others, were buying viscose from factories with questionable working practices in Indonesia, China and India. Viscose is said to be an ethical and sustainable alternative to other materials like cotton or polyester, touted as such because it’s a plant-based fibre, but the ‘toxic run-off’ has been found to be contaminating local water supplies and increasing cancer risks. 

“Cheap production, which is driven by the fast fashion industry, combined with lax enforcement of environmental regulations in China, India and Indonesia, is proving to be a toxic mix,” the report detailed.

While investigating 10 manufacturing sites across Asia, the Changing Markets Foundation reported that water pollution from untreated contaminated waster and air pollution were serious problems. One spot in Jiangxi, southeast China, had seen the water in a lake turn black from viscose productions. Local wildlife had also died, and crops were failing.

In the Indian province of Pradesh, birth defects and cancer had risen, reportedly after soil and water had been contaminated by viscose waste. Locals in Shandong in eastern China told researchers their water from wells had been made undrinkable.

Changing Markets campaign manager Natasha Hurley told Retail Gazette: “This report reveals that some of the world’s biggest brands are turning a blind eye to questionable practices within their supply chains.

“With water pollution increasingly being recognised as a major business risk, shifting to more sustainable production processes should be high on retailers’ agendas.”

Hurley added that “transparency doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with more sustainable production”.

A need for transparency comes from such environmental abuses, as well as threats to the human rights of local workers. We’ve seen several instances of shoppers at stores like Primark claiming to find notes from factory workers looking to escape horrific working conditions. There’s also the devastating Rana Plaza Factory collapse, which killed 1,135 workers and injured 2,515 in 2013. 

A spokesperson for H&M told the Guardian the brand was concerned about the findings, and it would “follow up with mentioned viscose producers that we source from.” 

H&M has previously committed to more sustainable, environmentally friendly production.

An Inditex spokesperson (that Zara’s a part of) affirmed they are consistently looking to improve their working conditions and practices. The spokesperson said the brand would “publish our preferred viscose supplier list, according to compliance with our standards, at the end of this year.” 

Changing Markets Foundation report that 10 companies control about 70 percent of the worldwide viscose production, so there’s a “clear opportunity for rapid and transformational change across the sector”. Its report challenges the brands pulled up to buy viscose that’s produced in an ethical way, and to reach out to their manufacturing partners to see this through.