The textile industry is one of the major industries that has large opportunities to improve on water treatment, air emission reduction and reducing amounts of solid waste. Occupational health and safety risks persist in the industry, considering workers are prone to hazardous chemicals, hot temperatures, heavy machinery, indoor air pollution and wet working conditions. Although awareness of these factors has been raised years ago, the implementation of sustainable practices remains difficult, due to the sheer size of the industry and limited enforcement by host countries.
In September 2018, Arcadis began to develop a program to support textile manufacturers on their sustainability journey by focusing on dye houses, places where workers dye materials for garments marketed around the world. Sponsored by the Government of the Netherlands via their Foreign Policy Support Program (POBB Fund) and supported by the secretariat of the Dutch Agreement on sustainable Garment and Textile (AGT), and the Dutch Consulate General in Shanghai, Arcadis targeted the Chinese supply chain of Dutch clothing brands. We visited 9 dye houses to date, to gain insight into their current environmental, health and safety (EHS) practices.
After visiting sites in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, it became apparent that even though the Chinese government is increasing pressure on proper EHS management in different industries, there is still significant room for improving wastewater discharge and worker safety. The Arcadis Dye House Improvement Program found several problems that could be resolved by improved management practices and greater awareness among staff.
Recurring challenges were seen in chemical management, primarily around inconsistent implementation of checks and policies. Checks pertaining to restricted substances were absent, spill prevention was inconsistently implemented and chemicals were stored in unlocked areas together with other incompatible chemicals and without complete safety data sheets.
These practices are cause for major concern, considering that chemicals can end up in surface and groundwater, and unauthorized personnel can access chemicals without understanding the risks and appropriate handling procedures. Often these issues are not properly addressed due to a lack of awareness and understanding. By creating awareness on implementing simple solutions, dye houses can significantly improve their chemical management.
Excessive water consumption is another issue in dye houses under greater scrutiny by the Chinese government. The government is reducing the maximum water spend thresholds on dye houses and implementing fines for not reaching those targets. Reducing water consumption often means replacing outdated dyeing and washing machines, which requires significant investment.
The Arcadis program also found that dye houses have difficulty to make other incremental changes that could significantly reduce their water consumption. Taps are left running, leaks are not fixed, metering is applied to a limited extent and uncontaminated water is not reused. Considering the Shanghai region and surrounding provinces are prone to Water Stress, the importance of making small changes to conserve water should be a high priority.
Lastly, employees are exposed to serious health hazards including indoor air pollution, improper chemical handling, wet working conditions and dangerous machinery. There are control measures to mitigate such risks, but they are not properly implemented in many dye houses. Faulty technology is often to blame for mismanagement, and is usually a result of low budgets.
This has recurrently been an issue for properly reducing indoor air pollution. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn by a limited number of workers, whilst at times the PPE that is worn is not commensurate to the risk (think of dust masks, used for protection against the inhalation of spray/gas substances). Dye houses show that PPE may have been provided to personnel, but workers find it unpleasant to wear, which in combination with unawareness about health hazards and lack of enforcement by management, results in a workforce prone to illness and injury.
Dye houses are not solely to blame for these health and safety risks. While large multinational companies usually have the funds to support and educate their supply chain, smaller companies give less attention to EHS management. The same applies to budgetary constraints that smaller facilities face compared to their larger counterparts, impeding their ability to make necessary improvements.
The Arcadis program is supporting a selection of dye houses in making incremental changes to improve EHS management and will look for ways to stimulate sustainable and ethical behaviour among a wider group. A stepwise approach will start with proper risk identification and assessment, from which a prioritisation can be made on the main items to solve first. A set of supporting materials and support from our consultants in China will ensure that dye houses are aware how they can make these changes and will provide room for discussion when there is unclarity.
With the above, the program tries to implement these incremental changes, that can mean a lot to reducing the environmental, health and safety impacts that persist at this moment. However, to solve the multitude of issues facing the textile sector, brands, suppliers and dye houses should work together to solve their shared challenges. Participating clothing brands in the Dye House Improvement Program are trying to incentivize and support dye houses where they can, so together they can make the change that is necessary.
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