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Fast Fashion’s Uncertain Place in China’s Future

As China engages in pollution reform, will fast fashion continue its damaging hold on the nation’s economy and environment?

According to a recent China Water Risk report, “Today’s Fight for the Future of Fashion,” the textile industry is one of China’s top polluting and water-intensive industries. While China works to conserve its meager water resources, fast fashion is the culprit for the nation’s slow sustainable progress, despite the fact that it hasn’t contributed greatly to its GDP of late. In the coming years, it will be up to China to stick with cheap clothing or drastically alter the global fashion supply chain.

Two years ago, Premier Li Keqiang said the nation was undergoing a “war on pollution,” and in 2015 the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s (MEP) State of Environment Report demonstrated that China’s total environmental quality had decreased. The country’s seven major rivers remain toxic and water resources are highly limited. Despite a call for nationwide clean up, the textile industry still contributes hazardous chemicals to waterways and four times more water is used for cotton clothing material than crops, such as rice.

China’s environmentally-friendly initiatives also bring many short term and long term risks for fast fashion.

Released in April 2015, China’s “Water Ten Plan” is a temporary set-up for textile factories to engage in national compliance standards. Over 90 percent of textile factories would be at risk for shutdown should this plan go through, due to constrained deadlines on capital expenditure requirements (CAPEX) and increased operating costs (OPEX).

Main textile hubs are also impacted, including the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) vicinity, where more than half of global chemical fibers are manufactured for apparel. Considering almost three-quarters of textile wastewater remains unrecycled, this may be an instant solution but complicate international clothing markets.

Fast fashion is also missing from the “Beautiful China” mission. The State Council omitted the textile industry from its transformation list, which could pose as a long-term risk. Furthermore, high raw materials exposure also poses a threat. Although apparel brands have gradually been moving their operations away from China, up to 75 percent of key fashion materials, including cotton, chemical fibers, wool and raw silk are still exposed to the nation’s production and import activities.

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At the moment, fast fashion is still in a complicated relationship with China. With sourcing transparency on the rise and the emergence of Chinese green-conscious consumers, the country’s quest to become a financially and environmentally stable world power may not involve inexpensive garment manufacturing. It will be up to China to weigh on fast fashion’s good and bad attributes for its future prosperity.