High social cost of buying cheap clothes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2011, 12:00am

When choosing clothing, we usually think about style and price. We rarely think about where the item is made, who has made it and whether they were treated fairly, or whether the manufacturing process used is clean or polluting.

In other words, we generally ignore the environmental or social costs that add to the 'true' cost of manufacturing. That bill is left for future generations and governments in environmental clean-up, health care and other support.

But should we be buying in abundance without knowing how our clothes are made and the damage they do in the process? Should we not look for labelling that tells us our clothing is produced fairly and without damage?

Chances are, that T-shirt or pair of jeans we covet comes with a 'Made in China' tag. Last year, the European Union purchased 22 per cent of all textile and clothing exports from China, according to the China National Textile and Apparel Council, while 41 per cent of US imports last year came from China. But many of these clothes are highly polluting to produce at the low cost-point. According to the World Bank, 17 to 20 per cent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.

In a report released late last year, Greenpeace detailed testing in two textile towns in Guangdong province: Xintang, the 'jeans capital of the world', and Gurao, a town with 80 per cent of its economy devoted to the manufacture of bras, underwear and other clothing.

Greenpeace found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from Xintang and Gurao. In one sample, cadmium exceeded China's national limits by 128 times.

Xintang produces over 260 million pairs of jeans every year, equivalent to 60 per cent of China's total denim production.

That's a real problem for the textile industry: in China, polluted water causes 75 per cent of diseases and almost 100,000 deaths annually, the World Health Organisation has said. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.

Estimates are that 70 per cent of lakes and rivers in China are polluted, as well as 90 per cent of the groundwater.

There are environmental and health laws in China, of course, but problems with enforcement and corruption often allow factories and textile mills to pollute at will.

The result is irrationally cheap clothes, to which we are now hooked. Prices of fabric and clothing imported to the US have fallen 25 per cent since 1995, partly because of the downward pricing pressure brought by discount retail chains, according to one report.

The World Bank in a 2007 report estimated China's environmental costs to be US$100 billion a year.

So those clothes we like to buy in abundance are a real problem for the environment, for workers who make them and ultimately for China. As consumers, do we not have a responsibility to think about how much and how we are consuming while we wait for labelling to guide us?

Lisa Genasci is CEO of the Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation