Aug. 15, 2022

The Pollution of Jeans: Environmental Investigation into Two Textile Townships

January 21 2011

Source: The Bund,
In the river running through the residential area the water is usually dark red. It looks like gasoline – it is the color of a duster that has never been washed. The whole watercourse gives off a terrible stench. Although local residents always wear masks, every time they approach the riverside the smell of the water makes them feel dizzy and sick; they even feel like they are suffocating. Xintang Township and Gurao Township in Zencheng, Guangdong province – the first famous for producing jeans, the second for producing underwear – have paid a heavy price for polluting the environment while developing their “Black GDP”. At the end of last year, staff from Greenpeace chose eleven spots at random in places such as Xintang and Gurao and took samples of water and sediment. An independent laboratory found that the volume of heavy metals such as lead, copper and cadmium contained in the samples exceeded the national standard. However, with 133 “textile enterprise clusters” across the country, “Jeans Town” and “Underwear Town” are merely the tip of the iceberg.
In the river, large patches of dark blue embellished with light blue streaks and thick white flowing foam, transform into various colorful shapes. At first sight it resembles a lively abstract oil painting. In fact, this is the wastewater emitted by a denim clothing factory in Xintang, Guangdong province. The wastewater has never been processed and is poured directly into the winding river that surrounds the village. This water will eventually flow into the Dongjiang River and join the Pearl River.
The photographer Qui Bo has taken many photos of the river water in Xintang and Gurua, but one could not compare the landscape they capture with a beautiful painting. The water running through residential districts tends to be dark red and looks like gasoline, the color of a duster that is used all year round without being washed. Viewed from a distance, the parts of the river that are wider, deeper and more placid form a great black flow that appears rather solemn, almost tranquil. The entire watercourse gives off a terrible stench: “This is unlike the smell of the oil leak in Dalian Bay which I photographed. The smell there was filled with oil, but here the chemical smell of acid permeates the air, like the sour, rancid smell of something rotting and fermenting,” said Qiu. Local residents essentially never forget to put on masks. Whenever they approach the river, they put on specially made thick masks, because otherwise the stench of the river causes them to feel dizzy, sick and even like they are suffocating.
The rivers in Xintang and Gurao are just like this. The two famous “specialized towns” are known for intensive jeans and underwear manufacturing. The former produces over 60 percent of the jeans that are made in China, while the latter can make 200 million bras in one year. However, behind this fashionable front lurk serious environmental problems. On November 30 last year, Greenpeace released a report entitled “Fashion Pollution: An Environmental Investigation into Two Textile Towns in China.” Through onsite research, as well as interviews with locals and staff from the pollution control authorities, Greenpeace found that severe pollution exists in these two towns.
Invited by Greenpeace, Qiu Bo went to Xintang and Gurao in April and August last year and recorded the river pollution behind the boom of “Black GDP”, as well as documenting the helplessness of local residents. “I once took pictures of water pollution in specialized townships in Hangzhou, Xiaoshan and Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. Factories in Zhejiang usually lay pipes under the ground, so they are very well concealed. Some of them extend as far as 13 kilometers directly to the Qiantangjiang River and the sea. However, specialized townships in southeast China like Xintang and Gurao are relatively unusual, as they tend to channel wastewater in the open air into the Donjiang and Lianjiang Rivers, which are a mere stone’s throw from residential districts. This means that residents of Xintang and Gurao suffer from more serious pollution”, said Qiu Bo when interviewed by The Bund.
Recording “Fashion Pollution”
Early in the morning, Qiu Bo sneaked into the local Xiapu Industrial Zone when most factories in “Jeans Town” had not yet opened for work. Near an open-air waste pipe behind a factory, he saw a sturdy middle-aged man who was half-naked and using a long bamboo pole to look for something in the waste pipe. Hearing the sound behind him, the man looked around over his shoulder and revealed a huge mask filled with thick sponge. As the whole sponge covered both nostrils, he had to prick holes in the mask. The man, named Luo, had left Hubei Province for Xintang to take a job as a garment worker. He told Qiu that his work in the morning was to scoop up stones from the wastewater; these could then be used to polish jeans. Since he has to stoop down while working in a foul-smelling environment, the mask is necessary. He also needs to use a bamboo pole as a tool because the wastewater is not only dirty but also poisonous. “Touch it and the skin will itch, even fester.”
Mr Luo showed the photographer his big, swarthy, and coarse hands – typical worker’s hands. The difference is that Luo’s ten fingers had been dyed blue by cloth and seemed to be peeling. For a long time, he had been used to constantly feeling itchy. “Compared with the environment here, that of my hometown is certainly better. As for being allocated to work by wastewater, I have no alternative either. I was terrified by the smell when I had just arrived here, but later I grew accustomed to it, became numb to it.”
Located in the Pearl River Delta, Xintang Township lies south of Zengcheng in Guangdong Province and is only an hour’s drive from Guangzhou. Like many rapidly developing industrial towns, Xintang has bustling streets; they are lined with signs for the many different clothing factories, each sign flashier and more eye-catching than the last. Throughout the year, all kinds of blackboards and whiteboards hang on a deserted column in the center of the town displaying employment opportunities such as workshop management and zip insertion. Below the blackboards one can usually find the small print: “Salary can be paid in advance or on a monthly basis.” This indicates that there is a serious shortage of local workers and that clothing factories are even willing to employ temporary and part-time workers.
Xintang is currently the most famous “Jeans Town” in China. According to local government statistics, Xintang produced more than 260 million pairs of jeans in 2008, accounting for over 60 percent of China’s total jeans production. Its products are sold to countries and areas such as Russia, the United States, and the European Union, representing 40 percent of national jeans exports. A local taxi driver told Wang Yamin, a member of Greenpeace, that some big jeans factories also manufactured goods for the well-known American brand GAP.
Qiu Bo made a special trip to the local international jeans wholesale market. “The jeans are definitely cheap. Some sell for only 40 Yuan, others for as little as 25 Yuan.” Qiu recalled that this was a fairly modern market, where rows of samples were so neatly arranged that they were even quite pleasant on the eye. However, the moment Qiu thought of the water he had seen, as dark and opaque as these jeans, he simply had no desire to buy any.
A similar thing has happened to the Gurao Township in the northwest Chaoyang District of Shantou City.
Gurao is an affluent town. During rush hour, there is always a continuous flow of people and vehicles. Various sexy underwear advertisements line the streets and instantly grab people’s attention, hence the town being dubbed a “Sexy Hub.” In 2009, around 200 million bras were made in Gurao, accounting for about one third of national production. As early as 2004, the China Textile Industry Association named Gurao a “Chinese Town Famous For Knitted Underwear”.
In stark contrast with the “sexy” underwear industry however, are several putrid ebony rivers. Opposite Gurao Middle School in Shantou, the wastewater in the ditches is channeled into a stream. The stream flows through Gurao Middle School and neighboring Ximei Vilage before finally joining the Lianjiang River. A “mother river”, closely related to the lives of those who live in the Chaoshan area, the Lianjiang River has been seriously contaminated in recent years, and its water quality is worse than Grade V according to the environmental authorities’ statistics.
Qiu Bo’s pictures recorded the living conditions of local children. Inside a textile factory in Gurao Township adults were busy working while a baby was left sleeping soundly in the corner of the factory building. Opposite the main gates of Gurao Middle School there is an incineration plant which operates twice a day. It starts burning garbage at 7:30 a.m. which happens to be rush hour, when students go to school. At that time none of the students riding past were wearing any kind of mask; zigzagging forward, they all held their handlebars with one hand and covered their mouths and noses with the other.
Born after 1990, these children belong to a generation that grew up playing by ponds littered with rubbish. Only the memories of their parents’ generation can give them the vague sense that there used to be a clean creek here. The stream at that time was so clear that it reflected the blue sky. The river boasted schools of fish and flocks of wild ducks, while the banks were dotted with flowers all year round.
The jeans and textile industry of Xintang and the underwear business of Gurao both started in the 1980s. Before the reform and opening up of the local economy, they were known as “the lands of fish and rice” due to their mild climate, fertile soil and favorable weather. Located in Zencheng, Guangdong province, Xintang boasted a particularly good environment and stunning scenery. The quality paddy rice it produced was once renowned as “the jasper of rice.”
Over the past thirty years, most households in Xintang and Gurao have devoted themselves to the clothing industry. Farmers have become bosses, but the price paid for rapid growth in local GDP has been regrettably high. Liu Wusheng (alias), a villager from Gurao Township, said: “When I was little, I could swim in the stream. There were also fish in it. Now my son cannot swim. He has nowhere to learn. The water is so dirty that villagers would not dream of touching it.”
The price of “Black GDP”
Although the locals have suffered greatly from pollution, their attitude appeared very ambiguous when the photographer asked about solving the pollution problem.
Qiu Bo asked a villager: “Do many local people have cancer?”
The villager answered: “Yes, and many also suffer from other strange diseases.”
Qiu went on: “Can you show me some of them?”
“No.” The villager refused and quickly disappeared.
On another occasion, a friendly old woman named Ximei saw Qiu Bo holding his camera and taking pictures by the river. Having seen him, she went over to air her grievances while covering her nose with her hand. They engaged in an animated conversation, and the old lady even made an offer of her own accord: “Do you want to meet the village leader? I can arrange a meeting for you. The leader is a relative of mine.” In the afternoon that same day, Qiu Bo knocked on her door at the agreed time; however, for a long time nobody answered, until finally the old woman’s daughter came out to decline. Qiu then dialed the old woman’s phone number, but she was noncommittal and remained unwilling to meet him again.
Qiu’s analysis suggested that most local residents did not dare to make their voice heard despite their anger. This is because every household contains a “boss” more or less linked with the pollution. They are very aware of outsiders coming to investigate the pollution; often they wish to speak to them but will not on a second thought.
Last August Zhao Yan, director of Greenpeace’s Water Pollution Prevention and Control Project, came to Xintang to collect samples of pollutants. Masks, gloves and rain boots are essential wear when meeting the “stinking river” head-on. This was the third time Zhao Yan had come to Xintang. The first time was in 2005, when she was still working as a journalist in Guangzhou, and her first impression of Xintang was: “How come the water in the river is as dark as the jeans?” The second time was in 2007, when she came to investigate as a staffer at Greenpeace. The river was the same color it had been the first time she came. This time as a sample collector, she had stronger feelings: “There is garbage everywhere, including watermelon rind, disposable lunch boxes and black plastic bags. Before I can take a water sample, I have to walk through a lot of garbage.”
Staff at Greenpeace chose 11 spots at random in Xintang and Gurao, where they collected 21 samples including water and sediment which were then sent to an independent laboratory for testing. Two months later, the results indicated that 17 out of the 21 samples of surface water and river sediment contained heavy metals, with heavy metals detected in all ten samples of river sediment.
In a sediment sample taken from Xintang, the amount of cadmium was 128 times the national limit, and a sample of alkaline surface water with a pH of 11.95 was collected nearby.
In Gurao, eight samples of surface water and river sediment taken from the center of the town and the lower reaches, where factories are concentrated, contained more heavy metals than the two samples collected from the upper reaches where there was little industrial production.
“According to the China National Textile and Apparel Council’s (CNTAC) statistics, China now has 133 ‘textile enterprise clusters’, and the pollution in Gurao and Xintang is perhaps merely the tip of the iceberg when one considers the whole industry,” Zhao Yan told The Bund.
Besides the heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, contained in the dyes, the so-called “Environmental Hormones” (nonylphenol, octylphenol and perfluorooctane sulfonates) are also widely used in textile technology.
In the past thirty years, the textile industry has become an important industry for the Chinese and indeed the global economy; however, in the meantime, it has also become the industry that discharges the third largest volume of wastewater in China.
Zhao Yan said, “Although we cannot confirm the sources of these heavy metals simply by detecting them in the waters of these two places, as the top industry of these localities the textile industry cannot be without blame. During the textile industry’s production process, dyeing in particular, many toxic substances including heavy metals are applied and discharged.”
An Incurable “Chronic Disease”
Last December, Qiu Bo’s photo series entitled “Behind Fashion: An Environmental Investigation into Two Clothing Townships” prompted strong reactions after being posted on The general responses of netizens were: “The environment is being traded for money, the cost is too great, these pictures are unbearable; “What should our offspring do? We’ll pay a heavy price sooner or later!” Furthermore, quite a few netizens pointed an angry finger at local authorities.
As journalists found out, the Environmental Protection Department of Guangdong Province did not simply idle their days away in 2010, yet the results of their work proved to be unsatisfactory.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Department of Guangdong Province announced the credit management assessment results of key pollution sources among 264 enterprises. Two hundred of them were selected as “Green Brand Enterprises” (enterprises acting in good faith with regards to environmental protection), 39 as “Yellow Brand Enterprises” (enterprises who have received a warning over environmental protection) and 25 as “Red Brand Enterprises” (enterprises under strict control over environmental protection). Red Brand Enterprises will possibly be forbidden from participating in the initial public floating of stocks and from making refinancing applications by the China Securities Regulatory Commission.
According to Chen Wentao, deputy director of the Environmental Supervision Bureau of the Guangdong Environmental Protection Department, so as to encourage enterprises to increase investment in environmental protection and to improve pollution control, the Department decided in 2010 to use “Yellow Brand *” and “Red Brand *” to mark those yellow and red brand enterprises which had made improvements. This means that there are now 8 “Yellow Brand *” out of 39 “Yellow Brand Enterprises” and 5 “Red Brand *” among 25 “Red Brand Enterprises.”
With regards to the enterprises that have made improvements, environmental authorities will offer explanations when reporting to the Guangzhou Branch of the People's Bank of China and the Guangdong Bureau of the China Banking Regulatory Commission and suggest that they not carry out punitive measures such as imposing loan ceilings.
Nevertheless, in most cases “chronic diseases” remain chronic despite these delisting measures.
On March 10 last year, a supervisory panel from the Guangdong Environmental Protection Department came to Shantou Shengye Dyeing & Weaving Co. Ltd. Complaints had repeatedly been made about this enterprise, which drew the close attention of officials from the Department. Many previous investigations did not find its covert discharge of wastewater.
Xi Danli, a professor from Donghua University and the author of The Assessment of Emission Reduction and Clean Production in the Textile Industry told The Bund that pollution by Chinese “Textile Enterprise Clusters” is not easy to tackle. Firstly, the Chinese dyeing industry operates on a huge scale, with 90 percent of it concentrated in Guangdong, Fujian, Shandong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. Secondly from a pollution control perspective, an important characteristic of the Chinese textile industry is that there are few big enterprises and many small ones. The First National Pollution Source Census of 2009, led by Prof. Xi, showed that the census could only cover around forty thousand textile enterprises and several thousand dyeing enterprises. The total number of textile enterprises however, will far exceed this number. “This is because small enterprises have not achieved a certain scale and have instead become places where supervision is comparatively inadequate.”
According to Xi Danli, the way of helping “specialized industrial townships” to reduce emissions is mainly by encouraging enterprises to move to industrial parks for unified management, as well as by encouraging big enterprises to reduce and rectify emissions. “Local environmental authorities have to supervise enterprises and at the same time protect them from higher authorities. This is no easy task.”
“In developed countries it is relatively easy for environmental authorities to enforce the law. Although enterprises are occasionally found to have covertly discharged wastewater in an attempt to increase profits, most enterprises do comply with regulations,” said Xi Danli, noting that the ultimate solution to the problem is enterprises’ self-regulation. “A few years ago, some international organizations such as the United Nations conducted investigations which revealed that the Chinese are equally or even more aware of environmental protection than Europeans and Americans. But Chinese people lag far behind in terms of action. This is what now requires urgent improvement.”
Translator: Tong Jun
Proofreader: Samuel Harding,Karen Marshall

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