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China Shutters 80,000 Factories in Pollution Crackdown

China has been cracking down on pollution in an effort to improve the country’s poor air quality, and now that crackdown has led to more than 80,000 factories being shut down at one point or another.

Last month, interviews with industry insiders and factories in China pointed to the pollution problem impacting the apparel industry perhaps only minimally, but that may not be as accurate as it seemed.

[Read more about China’s pollution problem: Importers Concerned Over China’s Pollution Crackdown]

Apparel factories, including a denim dye house in Yiwu in China’s Zhejiang province, have been shut down throughout the last year by China’s environmental bureau, which has been cutting electricity and gas supply to determine who’s been following China’s environmental laws and who hasn’t. In the past year, reports estimate that China has dispatched inspectors in as many as 30 provinces around the country and 80,000 factories—roughly 40 percent of the factories in China—have been fined, charged or closed because of their emissions.

“It had a big impact on our business,” a boss at the denim factory told NPR on condition of anonymity. “We couldn’t make the delivery date since we [were] shut down. It’s not just our factory. All the factories out here had this issue.”

Other factories have said similar things, alluding to blue skies meaning they could deliver a client’s goods on time, grey skies meaning there might be delays upward of a week’s time, and black skies meaning there was no telling whether the product could be delivered at all. When the air quality becomes exceptionally poor, truck drivers can’t go outside to make their deliveries.

“It’s mainly some dyeing factories and some finishing factories closed because they cannot control the pollution problem,” said Wang Hua, general manager for China’s Ningbo Dragonsilk Fashion Co., speaking in September at Apparel Sourcing in Paris. The problem, he said, is mostly with garment washing and those are what’s causing the delays. “Sometimes some orders will ship delayed one month because of the pollution problem. Because some dyeing factories are closed, the good factories…need more time.”

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All over China, industrial regions are being shuttered in spates for temporary periods until air quality improves—something that would often happen before major events in the country like G7 meetings or anything else that might cast China in a better light if skies were blue rather than the more common grey and hazy.

Now, it seems, these sporadic closings won’t cut it if the country ever really wants to curb its pollution problem.

“So, basically, you’re seeing these inspectors go into factories for surprise inspections,” Gary Huang, founder of 80/20 Sourcing, an agent for China, told NPR. “They’re instituting daily fines, and sometimes—in the real severe cases—criminal enforcement. People are getting put in jail.”

Last week China said it would cut the concentration of PM2.5 hazardous fine particle matter—essentially air pollution from particles that can get into people’s lungs and even bloodstreams, causing serious health problems like heart disease, lung cancer, low birth rate and premature death—to 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2035, down from the current 47 micrograms. By comparison, the average level in Los Angeles is 20 micrograms, according to the World Health Organization. In New York City, that number hovers right around 12 micrograms, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The problem with the latest commitment, is that 2035 is a ways off and 35 micrograms of air pollution particles is still high.

“It will be very difficult to reach the goal, and we need to make greater efforts to achieve it,” China’s Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie said at a press conference earlier this week, according to Xinhua news.

For now, it remains to be seen how exactly China’s pollution problems will impact global supply chains, but it’s not expected to be a small matter, especially in the lead up to the holiday shipping season.

As Michael Crotty, president of MKT & Associates, which exports textiles from China, told NPR, “Short-term, the disruptions are pretty significant, and the timing, quite frankly, is difficult.”