Major retailers’ garment waste burnt to fuel Cambodian kilns

A new investigation conducted by Unearthed, a journalism project by Greenpeace UK, has found that clothing waste made in Cambodia is incinerated for brick-making – ‘driving emissions and exposing bonded workers to toxic fumes’.

chimney smokeThe investigation found labels, footwear, fabric and garment scraps from major – including Nike, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Reebok, Next, Diesel and Clarks –  at five different kilns.

According to Unearthed, the scraps are mostly from Cambodian factories manufacturing clothing for fashion brands. Although the factories usually dispose of this waste at a landfill or ‘elsewhere through licensed waste disposal companies’, the investigation highlights that some of the waste is being sold to kiln owners as cheap fuel.

This sale ‘breaches environmental laws and regulations’ – pollution that endangers ‘human bodies or lives’ violates Cambodia’s environmental law, which issues fines over almost £10,000, as well as five years’ imprisonment, to ‘egregious offenders’.

The manufacturing of brick consists of dried clay placed into kilns, burning for a couple of days at temperatures of up to 650C. In order to maintain these temperatures, the kilns require the burning of fuel – for instance, garment waste and wood.

Yet, as Unearthed highlights, a high percentage of textile waste consists of synthetic material like plastic – releasing toxic chemicals when burnt. The project points towards the local air pollution created as a result of burning garments in kilns, as well as the effect it has on the carbon footprint of clothes ‘destined for Europe and the US’.

Black smoke from kilns also endangers the health of vulnerable workers – Unearthed’s investigation reports health impacts such as coughs, colds, flu, nose bleeds and lung inflammation. According to Greenpeace, it is not unusual for the Cambodian brick sector to see reports of human rights abuses, including debt-bondage, which the United Nations (UN) has identified as a form of contemporary slavery.

Despite Cambodian kiln fires most commonly being fuelled by wood, a 2020 survey conducted by a local union and Dr Laurie Parsons of Royal Holloway University found that 23 out of 465 kilns burnt textile waste.

As its biggest employer in the country, Greenpeace says that the apparel industry has been a vital element of Cambodia’s economy, hiring over 700,000 predominantly female workers. Simultaneously, it has been the biggest industrial waste producer, generating 90,000 tonnes of garment waste per year.

Brands identified by the Unearthed investigation as having offcuts at the kilns for incineration have also committed to ‘ambitious social and environmental sustainability targets’. These findings call into question their anti-modern slavery statements, as well as pledges to eliminate waste and carbon emissions across supply chains.

Unearthed highlights the supplier codes of conduct of Nike, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, ‘which at the very minimum require factories in Cambodia to respect local environmental laws and dispose of waste in line with applicable regulations’.

The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles

The EU has made a move towards finding solutions to textile waste, proposing its Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles on 30 March. The legislation urges that as many textile products as possible are made out of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, and produced in respect of social rights and the environment.

Specific measures include ecodesign requirements for textiles, clearer information on textiles through a Digital Product Passport – which stores and shares information throughout a product’s life cycle – and a mandatory EPR scheme. It also foresees measures to tackle the unintentional release of microplastics from textiles, ensure the accuracy of green claims, and boost circular business models, including reuse and repair services.

The European Waste Management Association (FEAD) responded to this strategy, declaring its ‘strong support’ for the measures.

‘Hundreds of tonnes of garments burnt every day’

Commenting on the Unearthed investigation, Dr Laurie Parsons said: “The burning of acrylic garments, especially when combined with plastic bags, hangers, rubber and other waste as occurs in Cambodia, releases plastic microfibres and other toxic chemicals into the immediate environment which compromise the health of workers and neighbours on a short and long term basis.

“The human impacts, in particular, are substantially worse than burning wood and have been highlighted in a recent UK parliamentary report as a major problem in the industry.”

Viola Wohlgemuth, a circular economy and fashion waste campaigner at Greenpeace, added: “It’s sickening to see fashion waste from leading brands being turned into toxic pollution in kilns employing modern-day slaves.

“Scorching heat, poisonous fumes, and appalling working conditions – this is a hellscape that should have no place in any 21st-century industry.

“Many of these brands have been trumpeting their efforts to cut waste and carbon emissions, yet they have failed to stop these awful practices from happening on their watch. This is rank hypocrisy. The fashion industry keeps churning out mountains of waste at both ends of its supply chain, and all too often it’s poorer communities in the global South that end up stuck with it.

“If Nike, Clarks and other corporates mean a word they say about waste and human rights, then they should finally question their wasteful business model and clamp down on any form of modern-day slavery and environmental destruction anywhere in their supply chain.”

“And they were in most cases burning several tonnes a day. So we’re looking at hundreds of tonnes of garments being burned every day.”