The guest author of this feature is Dr Detlef Kalweit, owner of Qera Consulting in Lörrach, Germany and its philosophy “Our Philosophy: Quality, Environment & Regulatory Affairs = QERA”
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Here are the exclusive reflections by Dr Kalweit, offering food for thinking:
In late August 2017, two interesting articles appeared in the internet editions of the journals news.com.au and theguardian.com about 11 stray dogs with blue coloured fur in the streets of the industrial town Taloja near Mumbai.
This story was initiated by local activists, which have posted a number of pictures on social media showing dogs exhibiting a bright blue fur. According to environmentalists and authorities, this observed discoloration is caused by chemical pollutants in the local Kasadi River, which flows through an area with hundreds of factories.
According to data obtained by the NGO Watchdog Foundation, there are 977 chemical, pharmaceutical, engineering and food processing factories in the Taloja industrial area. A nearby factory has been blamed for dumping untreated industrial waste and dyes, including some types of cerulean dyes, into the Kasadi River. An animal welfare agency managed to capture one of the dogs and tried to wash off the blue dye. Fortunately, the dye is possibly water based and when it was washed off after two regular baths the animal seemed unharmed in all other ways.
Finally, the contamination of the Kasadi River by this huge collection of industrial plants has serious consequences not only for bathing dogs as described here, but also for a multiplicity of other animals and of course for the local residents, who also use this water for their personal needs.
The two above mentioned articles have caused a great response within the Xing-GDCh* working group, an internet portal for an exchange of ideas among chemists. Numerous panellists commented these reports, and finally, different considerations arose. I am also a chemist and have followed this discussion with great interest. In the following I would like to present the different views that emerged during this very interesting change of ideas.
Europe’s situation at the beginning of the 20th century
At the beginning of the discussion, one participant pointed out the environmental situation in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, especially with the focus on the chemical and textile industry. One has to be aware that at that time most of all industrial wastewater was discharged into the rivers without any wastewater treatment. Only after the serious environmental impact became obvious, the first signs of environmental awareness evolved in Europe. Starting from the middle of the 20th century, increased efforts were made to clean wastewater or to reduce air pollution. Of course, the wastewater treatment or the installation of exhaust air cleaning filters cost much money and at the end, such measures increase the selling prices of commercial products.
Working conditions and supply chain
In addition to the environmental aspects, of course, we have to consider the working conditions in such factories. With the view to the Indian factories at the Kasadi River, it is not surprising that the working conditions are often harmful to health and serious damages to health cannot be excluded. Another aspect concerns the often-found miserable building substance of many factories. From time to time we get the information from the press or television of collapsed fabric buildings for example in Pakistan or India and in most cases factory workers were killed during those accidents.
Not to be neglected is the long production and supply chain. In addition to dye producers and dye houses we have to be aware that the supply chain includes numerous of other connecting links. For example, starting from the cotton pickers, followed by fibre processing, weaving and sewing steps we have also to consider the long-distance transportation and the retail trade at the end of this long chain. And finally, every participant of this production chain will earn money.
The end users’ aspects
And now the end user comes into this play with his customer wishes. Many of these customers, especially in Germany, expect textiles with the highest quality standard, but also at extremely low prices. Excesses of these customer requests are well known. For example, several retailers offer packs of 3 T-Shirts for EUR 9,99 or Jeans for EUR 15 and in the view of the above mentioned long production chain everyone should ask, how such selling prices come about? After all, it´s obviously that something does not quite fit together!
But how we can solve this problem? Following the GDCh discussion forum, which was mentioned in the beginning of these reflections, finally three interesting possible solutions emerged. To do this, we have to consider three pillars:
1) the behaviour of customers,
2) the industrial production and
3) the national authorities.
The behaviour of customers
Today, unfortunately many people don´t know how much work is necessary to produce a T-Shirt or Jeans, through how many hands it goes, how many processing steps it takes and how much resources are needed. With other words, fashion must be valued more again and this core message finally must reach customers! Anyone, who is aware of this issue, should avoid such so called bargain prices. In summary it must be emphasized that high-quality textiles have their prices. In this context high-quality means: no chemical pollution within the final textiles, sustainable and environmentally friendly production as well as the compliance of social working conditions.
The industrial production
But at the end, we as consumers really have the guarantee that expensive textiles have been produced under environmentally friendly and social acceptable conditions? As far as the quality of textile garments is concerned, this can be checked very quickly at home, for example after repeated laundry cycles. If an expensive T-Shirt or a Jeans lose their colour or their fit, then such garment is not worth its price and the high selling price only serves the margin profit, usually for the final seller. In this case, a quality assessment is not difficult. But what is about the chemical pollution of toxic ingredients within the textiles? At home from the customer side, in most cases it´s not possible to check this. In this case the sense of responsibility of the industry is in demand. In fact, many companies are certified by standards such as ISO 9001 (Quality management) and / or ISO 14001 (Environmental management) und use these awards for their promotional purposes. There is nothing wrong using this procedure so long as these ISO awards are not empty words. But it is by far not sufficient to ensure quality standards in the sense of ISO 9001 internally in the own company and asks suppliers about confirmation letters in the view of toxic chemical ingredients. Many of us know the nicely designed confirmation letters with their numerous stamps and signatures. However, can we really trust those letters? Finally, it must be ensured that the suppliers within the production chain also comply with the required standards. To ensure this, internal audits (1st part audits) as well as external audits (2nd part audits) are necessary to check this. To ensure a higher objectivity, in many cases it makes sense to consult external auditors. Furthermore, in the sense of ISO 9001 (see the chapters about the company policy and the context of a company), the Code of Ethics plays a central role. Of course, this topic affects the working conditions of the company employees.
The national authorities
And this brings us to the third point, namely to the role of national authorities. Questions about minimum social standards such as salaries or occupational safety can be detected by supplier audits, but changes can only be achieved by regulatory requirements and national authorities. As to the factory in the Taloja industrial area, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, after the publication of the stray blue coloured dogs the corresponding company was closed by Indian authorities. Wearing of clothes is one of the basic human needs and consequently, lawmakers must also ensure that both quality and environmental standards as well as social conditions are initially defined and after then also be followed within the production chain. But the citizens of the affected countries also can put pressure on the local authorities to achieve better living conditions in this way. Nothing is worse for authorities or governments than angry citizens.
To conclude this discussion, I would like to mention the following note: Not everyone has the opportunity to buy expensive clothes, many people worldwide live in abject poverty and they don´t have enough money to buy high-quality textiles, which meet all ecological, toxicological and social conditions. Nevertheless, it should be a commitment for all of us, that everyone can buy clothes with a good conscience, regardless of their financial ability. Finally, the practice of the frequent change of fashion styles, sometimes detectable several times during a fashion season, should be mentioned. Such a development is certainly pleasant for the fashion-conscious customer, but finally promotes the production of inferior textiles and consequently, the rapid disposal of the elaborately manufactured goods. Sustainability looks different. Due to the special focus on the life cycle of products (see also the cradle-to-grave-principle) the ISO norm 14001 (Environmental quality) gives a clear position towards to the sustainability of products. Let´s hope that many companies will implement this norm for a better environment, worldwide.
I would be glad if this article, which indicates different perspectives about our handling of textiles, can arise the awareness for this complex topic to many of the readers.
*GDCh: Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker [Society of German chemists]
The cited original articles: news.com.au (23.08.2017): http://www.news.com.au/technology/science/animals/stray-dogs-in-an-industrial-neighbourhood-in-indian-are-turning-blue/news-story/c46199c50abc9802cf42545a508c4a8b
The guardian.com (22.08.2017):