China’s Textile Industry: How Dirty Are Your Jeans?

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Workers at the Dadun Village (Getty)

If you’re a bit of a slob like me, you are wearing jeans to work today, and if, like me, you’re a bit of a slob who doesn’t manage hedge funds, your jeans are fairly run of the mill. My H&M specials today were made in Pakistan. But most of my other jeans are made across Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in southern China, and may very well have been made in Xintang, the so-called Blue Jeans Capital of the World.

Xintang is one of many industrial towns on the booming Pearl River Delta, and one of 133 textile centers that have sprung up in China in the past decade. The specialty in the villages of Xintang is denim. A lot of denim — the town makes about 260 million pairs of jeans annually, roughly equivalent to 40% of the jeans sold in the U.S. in a year.

Textiles are a dirty business. Many fabric dyes contain hazardous chemicals like mercury, cadmium and lead, and in the Pearl River area, the industry has been criticized for years for dumping its wastewater into waterways. Xintang’s local government, which is responsible for monitoring the environmental impact of its industry, has cracked down on polluting textile factories in recent years. But, as a Greenpeace China report released today reveals, simply moving the factories to new locations has only relocated the problem, not solved it.

The report, which examines the textile industry’s impact on two towns in Guangdong province, found that when the dying and washing plants were shut down and relocated from Dadun, one of the first villages in Xintang to start in the denim trade, to the village of Xizhou, the environmental impact moved with it. As the waters around Dadun have started to lose the stink of dye and factory discharge, the river encircling Xizhou, which flows into a tributary of the Pearl, has become unusable since denim moved to town. “Older people used to drink from the water and drink from it and swim in it,” says Mariah Zhao, a Greenpeace campaigner who helped conduct the report’s field research from April to October. “We talked to a teenager and she couldn’t remember the river being clean.”

Greenpeace submitted water and sediment samples from Xintang and another textile town, Gurao (China’s bra capital), to an independent laboratory for heavy metal analysis. In 17 of the 21 samples submitted, heavy metal traces were found. In one sediment sample from Xintang, cadmium concentrations were 128 times above China’s environmental standards. Cadmium exposure, at its worst, can cause lung disease, kidney disease and other forms of cancer.

Greenpeace did not encounter inordinately high rates of cancer in Xintang or Gurao, as are found in other some other industrial areas throughout the country, but those living and working in close proximity to the denim plants attributed health problems from persistant skin rashes to infertility to the jeans business. Chinese migrant workers who come by the millions to work in the Pearl River Delta’s factories are the worst affected, exposed on a daily basis to the chemicals in their rawest forms in their workplace, and then going home at night to sleep and eat in the closest proximity to the highly polluted waters. As one Xintang worker from the central province of Sichuan told Greenpeace: “Everyone says that people who work in dyeing and washing have reproductive fertility problems. My cousin once worked in a dyeing plant. He died of pleurisy [a lung disease.]”

Zhao of Greenpeace says jeans factories have options, such as using dye subsitutes that do not contain harmful chemicals and upgrading their waste disposal systems. She also says the local government could be doing more to give residents and workers better information. “The local government is responsible to regularly sample and monitor these factories, and from our point of view, they are also responsible to get the information of how much and what kind of chemicals are released in the production process and to disclose the information to the public,” Zhao says. “They are not doing enough. There are thousands of factories in that area. The information out there is quite limited.”

See photos of the world’s most polluted places.