viscose, China, India, Zara, H&M, fashion, fast fashion, circular economy, business models, recycling, reuse, Indonesia, health impacts, water pollution, wasteless future, waste prevention, apparel industry, cotton

Last month, investigators for the Changing Markets Foundation visited 10 manufacturing sites in China, India, and Indonesia, and found severe environmental damage including water pollution from untreated contaminated waste, and air pollution. According the report, the brands responsible for this pollution incidents include H&M, Inditex (the owner of Zara), Marks & Spencer and Tesco.

Viscose, an increasingly popular man-made fibre, prized by high street brands and high-end designers alike, is not inherently unsustainable. There are published studies that estimate that viscose clothes are greener than similar cotton clothes, especially because they need less energy for cleaning, drying and ironing. However, when manufactured irresponsibly it can have a devastating impact on workers and people living in areas surrounding manufacturing plants. As a plant-based fibre, viscose is generally speaking a ‘green choice’ for consumers but, as this report shows, most viscose on the market today is in fact produced using a highly chemical-intensive process. While much has been written about the problems caused by the production of cotton and oil-based synthetics, consumers are less aware of the negative impacts of the production of viscose and other semi-synthetic fibres, which are derived from the organic compound cellulose.

Central to the process is carbon disulphide, a highly volatile and flammable liquid. The report cites evidence that carbon disulphide exposure is harming both factory workers and people living near viscose plants. The substance has been linked to coronary heart diseasebirth defects, skin conditions and cancer. Historically its use was found to cause severe mental health problems in rubber factory workers exposed to high levels of the toxin.

The Changing Markets Foundation visited six manufacturing plants in China and said investigators found evidence of water and air pollution and severe health impacts on local communities. The report cites evidence in Jiangxi, a province in the southeast of China, that viscose production has contributed to the pollution of China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang, killing aquatic life. The foundation is calling for carbon disulphide to be completely eradicated from the viscose production process, and for all viscose production to occur in a closed loop system which eradicates chemical discharge and prevents harm to workers and the environment. Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets, blames fast fashion’s emphasis on volume and quick turnaround on product lines. “Clearly the viscose producers themselves have a huge responsibility here, but what has become increasingly clear is that retailers are putting huge pressure on producers and asking them to cut costs, cut delivery times – the pressure coming from the brands themselves is creating an unsustainable situation both on a social and environmental front.”

The case of viscose demonstrates that the real barriers to circular economy are not technological but the ones involved in the dominant fast fashion business model. Although many companies, including H&M and Levi Strauss Co, have introduced interesting recycling initiatives, the efficiency of those initiatives is limited by the fast fashion model that stimulates short life cycles of clothes. As a relevant Mc Kinsey & Co report highlights “Sustainability and rapid business growth are not compatible; to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous”.

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