When The Truth Fits In China, US Consumers Will Pay

From truth can come change for the better. US consumers and business leaders have just gotten a big dose of it from Wall Street Journal. In a lengthy report, the Journal has thoughtfully explained the role of US consumers in causing the severe environmental impacts stemming from contract textile making in China. After several decades of blaming US retailers for the problem, its time for we 'greens' to face the facts. Performance auditing by US branded companies has not driven Chinese textile and clothing factories to sufficiently invest in pollution prevention and advanced wastewater treatment technology. Management systems just aren't in place. Only a Chinese version of what the US calls the "Clean Water Act," and tailored Best Practicable Treatment definitions, backed by a legion of black belt enforcers and extensive technology transfer programs, can bring that about. The article makes clear that the upshot of that scenario would be increased cost of Chinese export manufacturing, much of which would deservedly be passed on to US consumers.

We often wonder if the Chinese government and local officials are up to the task. Equally important is the question of whether US corporations have the lobbying power and will to support such positive change; whether US consumers would be willing to pay the long term price increases; and, whether the US government is willing to help the Chinese fashion an effective regulatory regime. After the repeated gutting of USEPA budgets and loss of senior staff in recent years, the latter seems unlikely. That leaves more of the issue, from the US end, in corporate hands. From the referenced WSJ story:- In China, "...prices on fabric and clothing imports to the U.S. have fallen 25% since 1995, partly due to the downward pricing pressure brought by [US-based] discount retail chains. One way China's factories have historically kept costs down is by dumping waste water directly into rivers. Treating contaminated water costs about 13 cents per metric ton, so large factories can save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by sending waste water directly to rivers in violation of China's water-pollution laws.

"Prices in the U.S. are artificially low," says Andy Xie, former chief economist for Morgan Stanley Asia, who now works independently. "You're not paying the costs of pollution, and that is why China is an environmental catastrophe."

Toxic runoff from China's booming textile industry is one reason why many of the nation's largest rivers resemble open sewers and 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water."

If you lived in China, which would be more important for you personally, which choice would engage your political interests most: making surface water safe enough for irrigation and drinking or reducing C02 emissions? What would you think about outsiders telling you that climate change is what matters most when those same outsiders are demanding products that foul the water? (Remembering that many Chinese likely grew up never having seen clear water.) Obviously, taking clean water more seriously on the US end would open up a better dialog on climate change. For that we must pay a price.

Although somewhat dated, A USAID program seems to still host a United States - Asia Environmental Partnership program with a textiles industry focus. More of that is exactly what is needed.

Via: "Downstream Effect: U.S. Retailers Impact China's Water Pollution" - WSJ Online, by subscription only. Image credit:: Author + Filmmaker Greg Spotts, "First Month of Quota-Free Textile Trade is a Bonanza for China"

Tags: China