Urska Trunk of Changing Markets Foundation says pollution by India’s Aditya Birla Group is only getting worse after last year’s exposé on the fashion industry, despite its membership of numerous sustainability certification schemes
Last June, Changing Market’s Dirty Fashion report revealed that, despite its potential to be a sustainable fibre, most viscose is still being produced using heavily polluting processes reminiscent of the dark days of rayon manufacturing in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century (See Fashion brands 'failing to heed warnings on viscose production').
An increasingly popular textile used in high street fashion and couture tailoring, viscose is produced from wood pulp and is biodegradable, making it a potentially more sustainable option than pesticide-intensive cotton or oil based synthetic fibres. This is particularly relevant in the context of the fashion industry, which contributes more to greenhouse emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. However, irresponsibly produced viscose can pose a serious threat to people and the environment around production sites.
In stark contrast to the certification schemes vouching for Aditya Birla’s sustainability, stories from the ground demonstrate gaps in transparency
Our investigations at factories across Asia have highlighted how the use of highly toxic chemicals and inadequate water treatment is harming the health of workers and people living in the vicinity of viscose manufacturing sites and destroying livelihoods by causing lasting damage to crops and fish stocks. Reactions to our Dirty Fashion report told a tale of two sides: on the one hand, some clothing brands and producers were galvanised into action, pledging to move towards cleaner viscose production. However, on the other, the world’s largest viscose producer, Aditya Birla Group (ABG), rejected our findings outright and resisted calls for action – despite its stated commitment to sustainability.
Our recently published follow-up report, Dirty Fashion Revisited: spotlight on a polluting viscose giant, confirms that Aditya Birla Group, which accounts for about 20% of the world’s viscose supply and sells viscose to major high street brands including Asda, Next and Burton (part of Arcadia Group), is still not taking appropriate action to address the environmental damage and other supply chain risks we identified last year.
An ABG owned factory in Indonesia (Credit: Muhammad Fajar Fauzan)
Our investigation team revisited Aditya Birla Group viscose factories in Madhya Pradesh, India, and West Java, Indonesia, where first-hand witness accounts and air and water tests at independent laboratories revealed continued rampant air and water pollution by the company and serious concerns about worker safety.
In India, conditions were found to be “markedly worse” around Aditya Birla’s Grasim Industries plant than during our previous investigation. Locals believe that pollution from the Grasim factory is behind water contamination that has left many villages without access to drinking water and has wiped out most forms of agriculture in the area. Villagers are suffering from cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases, while frequent accidents and even workplace deaths are reported to be commonplace. Test results from an air sample taken outside the factory showed levels of carbon disulphide, a toxic solvent linked to health problems including Parkinsonism, heart attack and stroke, at 125 times the World Health Organization guideline value.
Despite a proliferation of labelling schemes, there is no single scheme holding the industry to account on pollution from viscose manufacturing
In Indonesia, illegal wastewater discharges from the company are often observed by people living in villages surrounding ABG’s Indo Bharat Rayon plant. Samples taken outside the viscose plant revealed that water surrounding the factory discharge pipe is highly polluted and does not even comply with “worst-in-class” Indonesian water quality standards. This means it should not even be used for irrigation, let alone drinking or bathing, yet investigators found children bathing close to the discharge pipe.
The failure of ABG to implement even basic legal requirements at its viscose plants is particularly alarming in light of its alleged high sustainability credentials. Aditya Birla is a US$50bn corporation, which uses sustainability as a calling card with the major brands and retailers.
Labelling schemes are not holding the industry to account on pollution.
The company is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an industry alliance for sustainable production. Its factories have been awarded labels such as ISO 14001 and ISO 9001, sets of standards related to environmental and quality management, and forest certification systems such as Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
In its communications with brands, Aditya Birla claims that its viscose is produced “with minimal environmental impact”. This is based on its commitment to CanopyStyle, an initiative developed by the Canadian NGO Canopy Planet, which sets high standards for brands to stop sourcing wood pulp from ancient and endangered sources. Aditya Birla was ranked number one among 11 producers in Canopy’s Hot Button Report in 2017 for minimising the risk of unsustainable sourcing. However, the scheme does not address challenges further down the viscose supply chain, such as fibre manufacturing; a fact overlooked in Birla’s sustainability claims.
We have developed a roadmap that provides a blueprint for brands, retailers and producers to move towards closed-loop manufacturing
In stark contrast to the certification schemes vouching for Aditya Birla’s sustainability, stories from the ground demonstrate that there is an obvious gap in the textile supply chain in terms of transparency and accountability and point to the failure of certification schemes to address the full scale of issues. Certifications addressing only one part of a supply chain can give an unrealistic view about a company’s overall sustainability performance, while those providing clear or unambitious criteria are slowing down the transformation towards greater sustainability. This has given an opportunity for companies like Aditya Birla to hide behind the labelling schemes and proclaim their sustainability efforts.
Despite a proliferation of labelling schemes in the textile industry, there is no single scheme holding the industry to account on pollution from viscose manufacturing process, let alone the entire supply chain. Because of the existence of this gap, the Changing Market Foundation has developed a Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing, which provides a blueprint for brands, retailers and producers to move towards closed-loop manufacturing, a system that ensures emission controls and that chemicals are captured and reused instead of being released into the environment.
Children bathing near discharge pipes.
Important to note that this is not a certification scheme, but a list of measures that retailers and brands can plug into their own responsible sourcing policies and hold their suppliers accountable. The roadmap includes a move towards the closed-loop manufacturing, proper chemical management, reducing carbon emissions and improving health and safety for workers and local communities.
In the wake of our recent report, high street giants H&M, Marks & Spencer, Inditex, Tesco and ASOS have publicly pledged to integrate the roadmap into their sustainability policies, sending a clear message to viscose manufacturers such as ABG that they expect the industry to move in a more responsible direction. Other brands and retailers can join these efforts by also pledging to support the roadmap and clearly stating their expectations of cleaner viscose to their suppliers. This week we will be sending them our report and the roadmap and asking them to come clean on viscose, by being transparent about their viscose supply chain and incorporating the principles of the roadmap into their own sourcing policies.
In order for Aditya Birla to become a part of the solution, Changing Markets has called on the company to develop an action plan to move towards closed-loop manufacturing and to engage with local communities and workers on how to improve their situations. The recommendations also include Birla transparently reporting on its emissions levels to air and water, supported by third party verification; hiring an external auditor to investigate workers’ health and safety; and establishing an independent and transparent grievance mechanism for workers and local communities.
Urska Trunk is an environmental campaigns and policy specialist who works as a campaign adviser on sustainable fashion at Changing Markets Foundation.
Sustainable Apparel Coalition FSC PEFC viscose Canopy Planet garment supply chain Marks and Spencer Asda Next H&M India CSR