Severe environmental pollution in the production of viscose

Photo: viscose pulp factory. Source: Pavel P, flickr.com

The manmade fibre viscose, first produced in the early 20th century, is predominantly used in the clothing industry.1. It is particularly popular for light and colourful summer clothing as the fabric can easily be coloured and printed. A study by the Changing Markets Foundation shows that the production of viscose severely damages the environment. The use of highly toxic chemicals like carbon disulphide, hydrogen sulphide and sodium hydroxide does not only expose workers and local residents to serious health risks but also leads to severe air and water pollution. Approximately 83% of global viscose fibre production takes place in China, India and South Asia. According to the study, the conditions of production sites in the aforementioned countries were similar to conditions seen hundred years ago2. The Changing Markets Foundation verifies that European fashion companies like H&M, Zara and Marks& Spencer source their materials from these production sites.

One of the world largest viscose producers is the Chinese company CHTC Helon Co., Limited. At its production site in Weifang, China, the company is well-known for their excessive air pollution and has paid multiple fines to the local government3. Despite repeated requests by the Chinese authorities to reduce the pollution, local residents state that nothing has changed. The drinking water from the well is polluted and there is a constant smell of chemicals. Researchers were able to show that the amount of carbon disulphide in the air exceeded permitted levels by a factor of three. Local residents report that there have been an unreasonable number of cancer cases within the community in multiple occasions leading to death4. However, so far it has not been possible to establish a link between the pollution by CHTC Helon co. and the illnesses of local residents.

Similar conditions can be found in Indonesia where the company PT Indo Bharat Rayon (Aditya Birla Group) produces viscose. Over the past two decades the company has repeatedly come under scrutiny for pumping sewage into a local river. In June 2016 the company paid 673,000 Euro in fines4. Observers report that there is a constant potent smell from the river and that riverbanks are covered in yellow sulfur residues. Due to the river contamination, it is not possible to bathe, it has also damaged the livelihoods of fisherman as fish stocks have decreased dramatically. Instead, local residents earn money by collecting viscose from the riverbanks, drying the collected residues and selling them to companies. One woman states that she earns a daily wage of 5.40 Euro for this dangerous work. The workers do not receive any protective clothing, even though the residues are covered with toxic chemicals4.

Unfortunately, these two examples are not isolated incidents in the viscose industry. In all of the twelve researched production sites, the Changing Markets Foundation observed similar conditions and based on their report it is reasonable to hypothesize that there are other production sites where pollution harms workers, local residents and the environment. The study illustrates the importance of supply chain transparency as this is the only possibility to raise public awareness in order to offer the consumer a better informed choice between products.


  1. http://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2013/01/Stoffe-Zukunft-Baumwolle-Knappheit []
  2. http://changingmarkets.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/UPDATED_CHANGING_MARKETS_DIRTY_FASHION_REPORT_WEB-SPREAD.pdf []
  3. http://wwwoa.ipe.org.cn//Upload/IPE-Reports/Green-Stocks-Phase-II-EN.pdf []
  4. http://changingmarkets.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/CHANGING_MARKETS_DIRTY_FASHION_REPORT_SPREAD_WEB.pdf [] [] []
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