Fashion waste from Cambodian factories is fueling brick kilns that are choking workers with toxic plumes and driving up emissions that contribute to climate change, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism arm claimed in a report on Monday.
Reporters with Unearthed said they found the singed remains of footwear and clothing from Clarks, Diesel, Michael Kors, Next, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Reebok at five kiln clusters across the fast-growing Southeast Asian nation, which relies on a steady domestic supply of bricks to support its booming construction efforts.
But the industry is also underpinned by a multigenerational workforce of debt-bonded adults and children who create so-called “blood bricks” in violation of national laws and international human-rights treaties, experts say.
Kiln owners frequently consolidate the debts of struggling farmers, who are then compelled to live and work on-site until they pay off what they owe brick by brick, according to a 2018 report from Royal Holloway, part of the University of London.
Conditions are grueling: temperatures in these massive ovens can reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Kiln workers often report respiratory illnesses, including lung inflammation, that are triggered by exposure to kiln fumes and brick dust without protective equipment. Limb amputation can also occur from dangerous clay-loading and brick-molding machinery. Any added medical expense that results from their labor only plows them deeper into debt.
On the rare occasion when a worker is allowed to leave temporarily, family members, including children, are used as collateral to ensure the person returned, researchers said. When workers die or are no longer capable of working at the kiln, their debts are passed onto their children, creating a “carceral space” from which there is almost no escape.
The use of pre-consumer garments to keep kiln fires stoked contributes to the “dynamic relationship between modern slavery, environmental degradation and climate change,” the report noted. A follow-up survey by Royal Holloway and a local workers’ union found that 23 out of 465 kilns collectively burned several hundred tons of garment waste every day.
“The burning of acrylic garments, especially when combined with plastic bags, hangers, rubber and other waste as occurs in Cambodia, releases plastic microfibers and other toxic chemicals into the immediate environment which compromise the health of workers and neighbors on a short- and long-term basis,” Laurie Parsons, a lecturer in human geography and a co-author of the study, told Unearthed. “The human impacts, in particular, are substantially worse than burning wood.”
The use of fashion scraps as cheap fuel is verboten at Cambodia, where companies burning solid waste, including garment and fabric scraps, can be fined $250. Pollution that endangers “human bodies or lives” also violates Cambodia’s environmental law, which imposes on the worst offenders more than $12,000 in fines and five years imprisonment. The country’s legal working age is 15 and employers are required to maintain a work environment that ensures the health and safety of their staff.
Many of the brands incriminated through photos obtained by Unearthed say they have rigorous codes of conduct that require their Cambodian suppliers to dispose of waste according to local environmental decrees. They’ve also pledged to slash waste, curtail greenhouse-gas emissions and root out modern-day slavery from their supply chains.
“We are concerned by these allegations and are investigating to ensure that our suppliers are continuing to comply with our strict operating standards, including our protocols for waste management,” a spokesperson from Ralph Lauren told Sourcing Journal, referring to guidelines that also emphasize safe and healthy working environments, voluntary employment and the absence of child labor.
Clarks said it is undertaking a “thorough” probe of the situation though it believes it has pinned down a “potential” source for the leakage of its materials.
“We are conducting a thorough investigation and we believe we have identified the potential source,” a spokesperson said. “We believe this incident to be an exceptional occurrence. Our ongoing investigation has led us to believe that in accordance with our code of practice for suppliers, waste from the relevant Cambodian factories was provided to a government-approved waste services company. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure any waste from our products is disposed of appropriately.”
A representative from Next told Unearthed that its suppliers are not allowed to dispose of rejected, seconds, excess, samples or canceled stock unless it’s sold through official clearance routes. It blamed this “breach” on the possibility that factories in Cambodia are not “adhering to the policy.”
While Diesel no longer manufactures garments in Cambodia, parent company OTB Group said an internal review with its only active supplier in the country in 2021 found no evidence that its off-cuts were feeding kilns. Authentic Brands Group, which acquired Reebok from Adidas in March, said it was trying to identify whether Unearthed’s claims involved counterfeit or third-party-sourced items.
A Michael Kors spokesperson said that it will be reiterating to its Cambodian suppliers its expectations around “proper collection and disposal” of garment waste.
“Our code of conduct expressly requires that supply chain workers are provided a safe and healthy work environment, and are not subject to hazardous conditions,” the Capri Holdings brand said. “We additionally strive to produce our products in an environmentally responsible manner, and to partner with our suppliers to reduce emissions, waste and other environmental impacts of our products.
Only Nike did not respond to requests for comment, though it too has supplier stipulations about forced and child labor, emissions mitigation and waste handling.
Viola Wohlgemuth, a circular economy and fashion waste campaigner at Greenpeace, said it was “sickening” to see fashion castoffs from leading brands being turned into “toxic pollution” in kilns employing “modern-day slaves.”
“Scorching heat, poisonous fumes, and appalling working conditions—this is a hellscape that should have no place in any 21st-century industry,” she said. “Many of these brands have been trumpeting their efforts to cut waste and carbon emissions, yet they have failed to stop these awful practices from happening on their watch. This is rank hypocrisy. The fashion industry keeps churning out mountains of waste at both ends of their supply chain, and all too often it’s poorer communities in the global South that end up stuck with it.”