About a month ago, Puma, one of the world’s leading clothing brands, was asked by Reuters if the company would end its business relationship with Yonguor Textile of China. This question was raised after Greenpeace published a report profiling the problem of toxic water pollution resulting from the release of hazardous chemicals by textile factories in China such as Yonguor. Puma’s response was that it only used Yonguor only for cutting, sewing and finishing, so the answer is no. Two weeks later Puma changed in mind.
Puma didn’t decide to completely end its relationship with Yonguor, but it did decide to take responsibility. In a statement Puma released on July 26th, the company said it recognizes the urgent need for reducing and eliminating industrial releases of all hazardous chemicals and is committed to “eliminate the discharges of all hazardous chemicals from the whole lifecycle and all production procedures that are associated with the making and using of PUMA products by 2020.”
This was the first result of Greenpeace’s latest Detox campaign. It’s an important achievement and it’s really great to see Puma moving in the right direction, but maybe even a greater achievement of this campaign is that it started an important debate on the level of responsibility we can and should expect from companies when it comes to their supply chain.
Greenpeace found many global brands do business with the two Chinese factories profiled in its ‘Dirty Laundry’ report, but decided to focus only on Nike, Adidas and Puma. The reason as Greenpeace wrote in the report was “that all three have been recognised by external bodies – such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index – as leaders on sustainability issues.” In other words – these are companies that are considered CSR leaders, and as such it makes sense to ask them to be accountable on the actions and inactions of their suppliers.
Sounds reasonable, right? Well, not everyone thinks so. All the three companies had at first the same argument, which was something like ‘It’s got nothing to do with us. We just use their services for knitting/ cutting/ sewing, and we don’t use wet processing such as dyeing or printing, where the majority of chemical use in textile finishing processes occurs.’ In other words – What do you want from us? This is not our fault.
This sort of approach can be understood when it comes from companies that don’t explicitly tout their environmental stewardship because no one expects anything from them. But coming from companies that are supposed to be green business leaders is unacceptable.
Take Nike for example. Their reply was: “To the best of our knowledge, we are not contributing to the pollution of the Yangtze Delta through our factory partners.” Now, let’s think what would have happen if the issue was child labor and not pollution. Would Nike dare to claim that they’re not contributing to child labor because the children are not employed in the specific department that is providing them with services? I doubt it.
Nike is also contradicting Nike. If you look at Nike’s code of conduct for their suppliers, it’s written there: “The contractor protects human health and the environment by meeting applicable regulatory requirements including air emissions, solid/hazardous waste and water discharge. The contractor adopts reasonable measures to mitigate negative operational impacts on the environmental and strives to continuously improve environmental performance.” It says very clearly, ‘the supplier’ and not ‘the specific part in the factory we work with’, but I guess Nike has a different interpretation of its text.
No matter what Nike, Adidas, Puma or the other brands use the Chinese factory for, it seems to me that it is their moral responsibility to ensure their suppliers will eliminate of discharges of all hazardous chemicals. It’s pretty obvious that the lax approach of the Chinese textile factories regarding the discharge of hazardous chemicals helps them keeping their costs low and attractiveness to western brands high. Yet, it is unacceptable just like child labor is unacceptable even if it helps everyone saving money.
Greenpeace also believes the current situation is unacceptable and points out that “none of the brands found to have commercial links with these two facilities have in place comprehensive chemicals management policies that would allow them to have a complete overview of the hazardous chemicals used and released across their entire supply chain, and to act on this information.”
So Puma was the first to go along with Greenpeace’s request, accepting it is responsible when one of its suppliers is discharging hazardous chemicals which result in water pollution. Now Greenpeace is focusing its efforts on Nike and Adidas, which haven’t responded publicly yet, even after Greenpeace escalated the campaign with viral YouTube videos and flash mob dances and striptease outside Adidas and Nike stores in 29 cities around the world.
On one hand it’s a bit sad to realize one more time how much the work of organizations such as Greenpeace is still needed. On the other hand maybe it’s good to have once in a while such a reality check, reminding us all the limits of voluntary CSR policies and how long the road the sustainability is, even when we’re talking about the leaders of the business sector.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.