Linda Greer ranks among the fashion industry’s leading “toxic avengers.” As director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s five-year-old “Clean by Design” initiative, Greer is on the frontline of a sector burdened by high energy and water use and endemic, often catastrophic, pollution. Her Sisyphean task? To leverage the purchasing power of multinational brands and retailers to chip away at the environmental impacts of their manufacturing abroad, beginning with the biggest offender: China. As NRDC prepares to, in its own words, “aggressively expand” the program’s reach, Ecouterre caught up with Greer to learn about her “win-win” strategy, what the early days of Clean by Design were like, and how we can differentiate the “true-gooders” from the “greenwashers” in a post–corporate-social-responsibility world.

How did Clean by Design get its start?

In 2008, the president of NRDC asked me to develop a project that would help to reduce the heavy industrial air and water pollution in China and serve as a model the country could use to accelerate its efforts.

To do so, I first selected an industry with a heavy environmental footprint. Textiles distinguished itself as one of the nation’s biggest water polluters and an “energy hog,” as well. To be effective, I had to conceptualize an initiative that could work in China, where environmental awareness was not so high and government authorities lack the technical capacity and sometimes the political will to require the necessary pollution reductions.

After considerable thought, we decided upon a “green supply chain” initiative that would ask multinational corporations to leverage their buying power and influence over the factories that manufactured their goods. And we developed a business-friendly, win-win model to achieve these reductions with process-efficiency improvements that would reduce impact and save money.

Cleaning up the fashion industry is a huge, daunting task. What were the early days of Clean by Design like?

The first step was to assess the “hot spots” of environmental impact in the industry—where, for instance, were the largest uses and releases of chemicals and natural resources? Textile dyeing and finishing quickly distinguished itself as the biggest area of concern.

“Good solutions on paper aren’t really worth much if no one adopts them.”

With the hot spots in the supply chain in identified, we needed to pinpoint the sources within the factories creating the biggest waste and pollution problems, and then target our search for process efficiency solutions to these largest areas of concern.

This phase was a lot of fun. We undertook a “fact-finding mission” and visited about a dozen textile mills to get an idea of what was going on there. We then brought in international clean production experts to identify the sources of problems within the factories and to propose solutions.

With a lot of work in hand, we did a big analysis and selected “10 Best Practices” that most of the mills needed to do, and then we crossed our fingers that we had picked them correctly.

They’ve worked really well since then so—phew!—what we learned at the outset turned out to be correct!

Perhaps the most daunting part of the work was not the engineering, but figuring out why factories had not already undertaken such relatively simple improvements, what the barriers were, and then how to overcome them. This was key to a successful initiative, since good solutions on paper aren’t really worth much if no one adopts them.  

Linda Greer, NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean by Design, China, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, toxic pollution, toxic chemicals

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Did you get a lot of doors slammed in your face in the beginning?

The hardest part was opening the door the first time. Once inside, we found a range of willingness to reexamine the manufacturing practices in place.

Sometimes mills were very conservative and really didn’t want to take any chances doing anything new at all. Other times, mill owners were more open to change and curious to learn about improvements.

About a third of the way into the program, we decided we needed to use textile experts per se in the work, rather than generic clean-production or energy-efficiency engineers. These people were more credible with mills and had answers to the little details that can really make a difference.

Mills found them to be knowledgeable and credible, and that was the ticket to persuading them to reexamine their practices.

What was the turning point for the program, when you knew it had real legs?

The turning point was when mills began hearing from other mills that had already implemented the program that it really worked. This peer-to-peer communication was solid gold; mills new to the program really believed what they heard from other mills!

“The turning point was when mills began hearing from other mills that [the program] really worked.”

Is there a particular project or experience that stands out in your memory?

Here is a fun story. This story is about leaks in a compressed air system, a serious problem that mills tend to ignore no matter how many times we emphasize it in our visits and trainings.

Compressed air systems deliver pressure to much of the equipment along a dyeing production line, to open and closes valves, etc. Ideally, the leakage rate in these systems should be less than 10 percent.

We had twice suggested to one mill that its compressed air system be investigated for leakage, since the electricity required to compress the air is expensive, and their system appeared to be poorly maintained. But staff did not take action.

On a third visit, however, timing was on our side. Most workshops were not running that day because of a holiday. Since no compressed air was required for production at that time, any flow measured in the system would be from leakage.

Our engineer found that more than 50 percent of compressed air was being wasted through leakage in that system, a finding so shocking to everyone that we ourselves measured four times, and mill engineers measured twice.

The mill addressed the problem immediately and quickly lowered its leakage rate. The repairs, which cost a mere $1,600, reduced the total annual electricity consumption of the mill by nearly 2 percent in a single, simple project and delivered savings of more than $6,000 annually, paying itself back in only three months.

Linda Greer, NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean by Design, China, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, toxic pollution, toxic chemicals

What are your thoughts on Greenpeace’s “Detox” initiative? Is there any synergy between the two programs?

Greenpeace’s initiative is very important and has procured commitments from a large number of prominent apparel companies to achieve zero discharge of toxic chemicals in fabric manufacturing by 2020.

There are good opportunities for synergy between the actions companies will take to meet this commitment and the Clean by Design program, since some chemicals, particularly those used in scouring and de-sizing fabric, should be replaced by others that require less hot water and less rinsing, as well.

We admire the Greenpeace initiative for the speed in which it motivated brands to respond.

How can consumers differentiate companies with genuine motives versus those who are just greenwashing themselves in the media?

It is very difficult. We need labeling, as we use for food, to help people distinguish. Until something like that is in place, I would recommend that concerned consumers consult Ceres, which scores companies for their environmental responsibility in a pretty comprehensive way, though it doesn’t give as much weight to problems in global supply chains as I think it should.

“Most companies operate quite happily with an opaque supply chain…[it gives them] plausible deniability.”

Also good: NRDC has worked with a Chinese non-governmental organization named Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs to rank the supply chain responsibility in China for 33 mostly very well-known apparel retailers and brands. The latest rankings are found in Appendix B of our Clean by Design report.

If you could go back in time to the start of Clean by Design, what advice would you give yourself?

When I first started the program, I assumed that the prominent multinational apparel retailers and brands that had a significant CSR presence would already be auditing and evaluating their suppliers for their environmental impact, and that, at the very least, egregious polluters would be disqualified for business. It was one reason that I focused on energy and water use instead of pollution at that time.

I soon learned, however, that most of these companies operated quite happily with an opaque supply chain. In this way, they had plausible deniability that they knew anything about a factory if it made the headlines for an environmental problem.

The world has become a more transparent place in the five-plus years of the program, thanks to social media and the Internet. However, the extent to which the companies take environmental performance into account when qualifying their suppliers remains a weak link in our work.

+ Clean by Design

+ Natural Resources Defense Council