Inside China’s plan to clean up its textile industry

With the slow emergence of sustainable clothing brands in China, Chinese consumers are becoming environmentally conscious about the origin of the fabrics they wear. The burgeoning awareness coincides with Beijing’s ambitious green plan to become carbon neutral by 2060, and it recently announced a new goal to target the notoriously polluting textile industry.

China was the world Top textile exporter, which will produce over 20 billion pieces in 2020 – more than half of all textiles in the world. In the same year, China produced about 22 million tons of textile waste, of which only 1.5 million tons were recycled – accounting for about 20 percent of the total waste.

In April, the Chinese government determined a new goal Increasing the recycling rate of textile waste from 20 percent to 30 percent by 2030 through a relatively “more comprehensive” recycling mechanism and a campaign to raise awareness among consumers and manufacturers about recycling.

Beijing said it plans to promote low-carbon textile production, promote the use of sustainable fibers, strengthen producers’ social responsibility, improve the current textile recycling system and increase investment in research and development for textile recycling technologies, among other things.

How dirty is the textile industry?

A to learn showed that Chinese textile companies caused over 6 percent of the CO2 emissions of all industrial companies in 2015. Up to 60 percent of global fiber production goes to the fashion industry, which is estimated to cause around a tenth of global CO2 emissions. Textile manufacturing in China relies heavily on coal-based energy and is estimated to have a 40 percent larger carbon footprint than textiles made in Turkey or Europe.

The textile industry is also notorious for its massive water consumption. 200 tons of water are used to produce one ton of textile, and up to 95 percent for cotton production. China’s textile industry consumes over 850 mt of water – about 6.3 percent of the total national water consumption. A pair of jeans can consume over 3,700 liters of water and produce over 33 kg of carbon.

Textile factories in China also generate over 15 tons of hazardous waste during production. Sludge makes up over 40 percent of waste, but only about a third of that has been recycled. About 28 percent of waste comes from food or human activities, but only 20 percent of that has been recycled. Data from 2015 shown.

A China expert said state media China Daily that using every kilogram of recycled textile waste can help reduce CO2 emissions by 3.6 kg and save 6,000 liters of water.

On the demand side, however, only less than 1 percent of used fashion items have been recycled in China. Many of the discarded fashion items end up in landfills, incinerators or incinerators. And although approximately 19% percent of Chinese informally sell their clothes to recycling stations, but low recycling prices have sometimes led informal recyclers to refuse.

Challenges for a greener system

Post-industrial waste is relatively easier to manage than post-consumer waste in the Chinese textile industry, according to Dr. Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and Associate Professor in Global Supply Chains and Sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Post-industrial waste, waste that is created in the manufacturing process, is easier to manage. These are essentially new, unused materials that can be collected and sorted by composition and color,” said Dr. Keh to FairPlanet. “These materials are relatively high quality, and there are several recycling technologies that can be employed to turn them back into yarn or other useful materials, either mechanically or chemically.”

However, the expert adds that the logistics for post-consumer waste can be complex and expensive.

“Given the creativity of our fashion industry, there is a lot of variety; it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “Post-consumer clothing will also be in different states of use. Some may be reused like this. Others are damaged, dirty, or contaminated and cannot be used as such. These need to be dismantled and processed into other useful materials.”

“To complicate things further, most of the clothes we wear today are made from mixed materials. So there will be a mix of cellulose, most commonly cotton, protein materials like wool and silk, and petroleum-derived materials like polyester,” he added.

What needs to change

dr Keh warned that a few green fashion brands would not be enough to significantly reduce pollution and waste in China’s textile industry. He considers the 30 percent target to be ambitious but feasible.

He suggested that the government push laws and tax incentives to change consumer behavior and that companies experiment with different models, including subscription and rental services.

In some communities in China, people are taking action to promote sustainable fashion. For example, a zero-waste shop like The Bulk House in Beijing sells products made from organic materials like cotton bags, while e-commerce platform collects free donated clothing for local charities.

“For consumers, we need more educational tools at the point of sale and transparency about what our purchasing decisions are doing for our environment,” added Dr. Add. “Just like food labels or energy consumption guides on appliances, we need more information.”

Ultimately, according to Dr. Kee are also changing the way consumers view clothing.

“We are among the first generations in civilization to consider our clothing disposable. Our parents and their parents see clothes as commodities. They take care of clothes, they repair clothes, they pass their clothes on to the next generation. We need to change how we look at our clothes.”

Image by Chau Doan.

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