Viscose Pressure Paying Off

An NGO called Changing Markets released a report in June 2017 bringing to light the social and environmental impacts of viscose production. The report named several major brands such as H&M, Inditex (parent company of Zara) and online retailer ASOS as large purchasers of viscose. Using evidence of water pollution from major production sites, Changing Markets put pressure on these brands to encourage their suppliers to clean up their act. Changing Markets released a roadmap in February 2018 to promote good brand practice and mitigate the damage caused by the chemical-intensive process of viscose production.

The primary objective of this roadmap is to move towards a closed-loop manufacturing system. In order to achieve this, Changing Markets’ roadmap contains a series of elements designed to limit social and environmental impacts::

  • “Brands should ensure that their suppliers have all requisite environmental permits and comply with relevant national and local regulations.”
  • “Producers should introduce plans for appropriate chemical management systems, including waste water treatment and measures to prevent/reduce emissions to air, with the ultimate goal of moving towards closed-loop production.”
  • “Measures should be in place to protect workers and local inhabitants from exposure to dangerous chemicals.”
  • “Energy efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals should be set.”
  • “Environmental damage in the surrounding environment should be remediated.”

A total of 8 leading brands and retailers (Inditex, ASOS, H&M, Esprit, M&S, Tesco, C&A and Next) have committed to following Changing Markets’ roadmap as of November 2018. But not everyone is on the same page- China’s Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV) released its own sustainability roadmap incorporating international manufacturing standards and tools such as ZDHC and Higg Index FEM 3.0. CV’s roadmap has over 50% of the world’s staple viscose fibre production pledged to it, in the form of two trade associations and twelve viscose fibre suppliers.

CV’s roadmap allows its members to select which certifications and self-assessment tools to implement. Changing Markets has criticised this approach along with CV’s failing to set standards in line with the EU BAT. Not only does CV’s roadmap lack in ambition, but it also suffers from a lack of  transparency when it comes to monitoring and verification.

Despite these criticisms, Zhang Zixin, Secretary General of CV, has said they will release the first sustainability report in March 2019, which should provide more insight into whether CV members are really moving forward on their commitments.

What Changing Markets seems to have missed is that this is a positive shift from usual manufacturer behaviour- typically, their default response has been to hunker down and wait for issues to blow over. CV deserve credit for engaging in such a substantive manner. Zixin has yet to comment on whether or not we will see more convergence between CV and Changing Markets aspirations going forward, but the good news is that environmental improvements in the viscose supply chain are likely to move relatively quickly as a result of the competing campaigns.