With the rapid growth of China’s economy, textile exports tally about US$212 billion, accounting for 34 percent of total market share. Accompanying this development is (quite literally) an unwanted byproduct: wastewater—approximately 2.5 billion tons annually, according to one report.

This issue is drawing more attention this week because of a new report by Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental affairs, who was just named a Goldman Environmental Prize winner today. (Ma Jun was also a speaker at the BSR Conference 2011.)

The report (available in Chinese, with an English press release), which Ma Jun issued in collaboration with other Chinese NGOs, found:

  • Textile companies discharge significant volumes of wastewater, and the reuse rates are quite low, especially in the Yangtze and Pearl river deltas. These are key production centers and export bases in China.
  • Excess emission violations are not special cases but are common throughout the industry. Some suppliers have committed repeated violations in past years.
  • The response is quite different among brands and their suppliers involved in the report. Fifteen of the 48 companies the environmental groups reached out to responded; others have been relatively quiet.

Ma Jun and his team are not the only ones to document this problem. The nonprofit organization Greenpeace spotlighted the same issue in a July 2011 report, and has previously published three other reports on the same subject. Combining these reports, other trends emerge:

  • International and local brands experience similar problems regarding wastewater, but their attitudes are totally different. In general, local brands still have a gap in mindset and action regarding CSR.
  • Some enterprises have repeatedly violated wastewater emission regulations, but have made no obvious improvements to fix their protocols. Ma Jun’s report indicates that government should strengthen regulatory scrutiny of enterprises, but the truth is these enterprises are often key taxpayers and have close relationships with the government. The central government should take more action to evaluate local government performance when dealing with water pollution.
  • Communities in various parts of the world can be negatively affected by water pollution from the textile industry. In its own tests, Greenpeace found that chemicals in garments can contaminate rivers and other waterways after the garment has been washed. In a way, one could argue that customers unknowingly contribute to water pollution.

Perhaps in part due to these reports, awareness about the problem is on the rise. One survey published by “China Tweeter,” indicates that more than 80 percent of people will choose products from enterprises that take more environmental responsibility. Similarly, ImagePower’s 2011 Green Brands Survey indicated that 96 percent of Chinese consumers would spend more for a green product. These consumers can be the hope and drive for improvement in wastewater management in the textile industry.