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Report: China’s Plan to Clean Up Viscose Lacks Ambition, Transparency

China’s plan to clean up viscose production falls short of expectations, according to a new report released Tuesday.

In “Dirty Fashion: Spotlight on China,” Changing Markets Foundation claimed that a three-year roadmap established by the self-regulating Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV) lacks “ambition, clarity and transparency.”

Constituted this year by 10 of China’s biggest viscose manufacturers and two textile trade associations, the CV frames its platform as a way for companies to achieve sustainable viscose supply chains while helping their customers deliver on their sustainability commitments.

But the plan doesn’t allow its members to attain the highest level of the Chinese Clean Production Standard for viscose, which the Chinese government recommends for companies selling to the international market, or a standard that aligns with the European Union’s best available techniques (BAT) directive, Changing Markets said.

Instead, CV gives members a choice of certification standards and industry self-assessment tools that have been criticized by non-governmental organizations for being unambitious—such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), which Greenpeace has dubbed “fake forest certification”—or for taking a myopic approach by certifying only a part of the supply chain or the quality of the end product to the exclusion of everything else. 

Not only does the roadmap fail to provide publicly available information about how it will be enforced, monitored or verified, Changing Markets added, but it doesn’t mention whether it will sanction non-complying members either. 

“At a time when major fashion brands such as Next and Inditex are sending a clear message to their suppliers to commit to responsible production of viscose, it is hugely disappointing to see such shortcomings in the CV roadmap,” Urska Trunk, campaign advisor at Changing Markets, said in a statement. “It is a weak attempt to clean up the Chinese viscose industry and much more needs to be done to ensure that Chinese producers are aiming for the same level of ambition as other industry players. In its current format, brands and retailers should not consider membership of the CV initiative and commitment to the CV roadmap as proof of good environmental performance.”

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Changing Markets drafted its own roadmap after a 2017 investigation by the group found that viscose factories in China, India and Indonesia were dumping untreated wastewater in lakes and rivers, exposing local populations to cancer-causing substances and “ruining lives and livelihoods” by destroying subsistence agriculture through toxic run-off. Communities living in the vicinity of some of the plants complained about the lack of access to clean drinking water, along with “sickening smells” that made life unbearable.

The group’s findings roused Asos, C&A, Esprit, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer and Tesco to pledge to integrate Changing Markets’ plan into their sustainability policies. Next joined their ranks not long after. 

“The Changing Markets roadmap sets the viscose industry on a pathway to closed-loop manufacturing in line with what are currently the most ambitious guidelines for cleaner viscose manufacturing: the EU’s BAT,” the organization said. Lenzing and Aditya Birla Group, the world’s top viscose manufacturers, it noted, have committed to achieving EU BAT.

Viscose is the third most commonly used textile fiber in the world, according to Changing Markets. Worth $12 billion dollars today, the global viscose market is projected to reach $15.9 billion by 2021. With China seizing a generous 63 percent slice of the global viscose market, the country’s rapid growing textile industry has “become one of the biggest threats to its environment,” it added.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a biodegradable fiber, viscose has the potential to be a sustainable alternative to “oil-derived synthetics and water-hungry cotton,” Changing Markets said. Viscose manufacturers just have to adopt responsible sourcing and production methods. 

“Committing to the ambitions of the Changing Markets’ roadmap towards responsible viscose is crucial,” said Felix Poza Peña, chief sustainability officer at Inditex. “By working together towards these goals, we are able to align our expectations of viscose manufacturers and build the critical mass necessary to accelerate positive change across the industry.”