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Activists Go Undercover to Expose Toxic Factory Pollution

Greenpeace East Asia

By Monica Tan

Last year the Greenpeace toxics team went undercover to infiltrate factories that were releasing hazardous chemicals into China's waterways. Campaigner Zhang Kai looks back on the challenges and successes of the Detox campaign—a campaign that sent reverberations throughout the nation's textiles industry.

Which part of the campaign work left the deepest impression on you?

We spent about one year carrying out the investigation on the textile plants, covering factories along the Yangtze River and in the Pearl River Delta. Our investigators had to work undercover and conceal their identity. For example, we had some workers pretend to apply for work at the factory so they could take photos of the plant secretly, and others gathered information by just chatting to factory workers.

Also, two weeks after we released our report, Puma came out with its promise to eliminate toxic substances from its supply chain. When we heard that, we were overjoyed. Since then Adidas, H&M, Nike and Li-Ning have all followed suit.

Which part of the Detox campaign was the most challenging?

The most challenging parts were the investigations into the production process and the supply chain. This included investigating the effluent from the suppliers' sewage pipes and the precise relationship between the brands and the suppliers. In mainland China, factories don't clearly mark their effluent pipes, so we needed to confirm which pipe belonged to which factory and then we needed to make at least five sampling trips for each factory pipe. This was one of Greenpeace's most complex investigations because the relationship between textile plants and the big brands was often opaque, and it was vital to our campaign that we established the relationship clearly.

What do you hope to achieve in the next few years?

We will continue to pressure the big clothing brands to commit to eliminating toxic chemicals and we'll engage with the China Textile Industry Association, research bodies and the environmental bureaus to promote clean policies and standards.

We look forward to the day that the reckless behaviour of multinational companies no longer endangers the health of Chinese people by turning their waterways into rivers of toxic poison. By continuing to monitor the operations of these clothing companies and their suppliers, holding them accountable to the promises they have made, as well as facilitate other companies to likewise make the "detox" switch, we hope to see a detox revolution move through the entire textile industry.

In 20-25 years time, we hope the entire textile industry will have eliminated the use of hazardous chemicals.

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