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Inside China's plan to clean up its textile industry

May 28, 2022
topics: Sustainable Development
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China
tags: China, consumerism, fashion, recycling, sustainable clothing, textile industry

Green clothing brands and efficient recycling systems are only a part of what needs to change for fashion to become less polluting.

With sustainable clothing brands slowly emerging in China, Chinese consumers are gaining eco-consciousness about the source of the fabrics they wear. The budding awareness coincides with Beijing’s ambitious green plan to become carbon neutral by 2060, and recently, it announced a new goal to tackle the notoriously polluting textile industry. 

China has been the world's top textile exporter, churning out over 20 billion pieces in 2020 - over half of textiles in the world. In that same year, China produced roughly 22 million tonnes of textile waste, with only 1.5 million tonnes recycled - which accounts for about 20 percent of the total waste. 

In April, the Chinese government set a new goal to increase 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 consumers' and producers' awareness about recycling.

Beijing said it plans to promote low-carbon textile production, encourage using sustainable fibers, strengthen producers’ social responsibility, improve the current textile recycling system and raise investment in research and development for textile recycling technology, among other steps. 

How dirty is the textile industry?

A study showed that Chinese textile enterprises account for over 6 percent of the carbon emissions of all industrial enterprises in 2015. Up to 60 percent of the global fiber production goes to the fashion industry, which is estimated to produce about one-tenth of global carbon emissions. In China, textile manufacturing 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 infamous for its massive water usage. The production of a tonne of textile requires the use of 200 tonnes of water, with cotton production consuming up to 95 percent. China’s textile industry consumes over 850 Mt of water - approximately 6.3 percent of the total national water consumption. A pair of jeans can consume over 3,700 liters of water and produce over 33kg of carbon. 

Textile factories in China also generate over 15 tonnes of hazardous waste during production. Sludge takes up over 40 percent of the waste, but only about one-third of that was recycled. About 28 percent of the waste comes from food or human activities, but only 20 percent of those were recycled, data from 2015 showed. 

An expert in China told state media China Daily that the use of each kilogram of recycled textile waste can help reduce carbon emissions by 3.6kg and save 6,000 liters of water. 

On the demand side, however, only less than 1 percent of the post-consumption fashion items were recycled in China. Many of the discarded fashion apparels are sent to landfills, incinerators or waste-to-energy plants. And although about 19% percent of Chinese people sell their clothes to recycling stations in an informal practice, the low recycling prices have sometimes prompted informal recyclers to refuse accepting them.   

Challenges to a greener system

Post-industrial waste is relatively easier to tackle than post-consumer waste in China’s textile industry, according to Dr Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and a lecturer on global supply chain operations and sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania. 

"Post industrial waste, waste generated in the manufacturing process, is easier to deal with. These are essentially new, unused materials that can be collected and sorted by composition and colour," Dr Keh told FairPlanet. "These materials are relative high value and there are multiple recycling technologies that can be deployed to either mechanically or chemically reprocess these back into yarns or other useful materials."

The expert added that the logistics for post-consumer waste, however, can be complex and expensive. 

"Given the creativity of our fashion industry, there is lot of variety; this will not be easy," he said. "Post-consumer apparel will also be in different states of use. Some maybe reused as is. Others are damaged, soiled or contaminated and cannot be used as is. These will need to be broken down and processed into other useful materials."

"To complicate matters, most of the garments we wear today are made from blended materials. So there will be a mixture of cellulose, cotton being the most common, protein materials, like wool and silk, and petroleum derived materials like polyesters," he added.

What needs to change

Dr Keh warned that a few green fashion brands will not be sufficient in order to significantly slash pollution and waste in China’s textile industry. He believes the 30 percent target is ambitious, but feasible.

He suggested that the government push forward legislation and tax incentives to change consumer behaviour and that businesses experiment with different models, including subscription and rental services.

In some communities in China, people are taking action to encourage sustainable fashion. A zero-waste shop like The Bulk House in Beijing, for example, sells products made from organic materials like cotton bags, while the e-commerce platform JD.com  collects donated clothes to local charities with no extra charge. 

"For consumers, we need more point-of-sale educational tools and transparency about what our purchasing decisions are doing to our environment," Dr Keh added. "Just like food nutrition labels or energy usage guides on appliances, we need more information."

Ultimately, Dr Keh believes that they way in which consumers view clothes will have to change, too. 

"We are one of the first generations in civilization to think of our clothes as disposable consumables. Our parents and their parents think of clothes as durables. They take care of clothes, they repair clothes, they hand their clothes off to the next generation. We have to change how we look at our clothes."

Image by Chau Doan.

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
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China
Employees sort used clothing at a facility operated by the second-hand clothing trading firm Baijingyu in Hangzhou, China.
© Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Green Carpet Fashion Awards, a sustainability-focused Italian industry award, has come to China for the first time.
© Hu Chengwei/Getty Images
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