Practical factory sustainability in the footwear industry

The environmental impact of the footwear industry has raised much attention in recent years and more sustainable production is urgently required. As one of the most important parts of the footwear value chain, manufacturing factories need to learn how to achieve sustainability. In this article, one such sustainability implementation tool for footwear factories created by SGS is introduced by Jane Jiang, Mike Song and Dr Andrew Hudson.
The footwear industry, being very labour-intensive, cannot just promote local economy development but must also provide considerable employment opportunities. However, due to the use of many hazardous chemicals, the traditional footwear industry has a significantly adverse influence on the environment and employees.
As one of the hot topics in 2014 in China, the pollution in Wuji county of Hebei province became the focus of great attention following media exposure. After about ten years of development in the leather and chemical industries in this area, around 1,000 leather factories were established. In order to save the cost of wastewater treatment, some factories discharged the wastewater directly into the groundwater without any treatment.
It has been predicted that the polluted groundwater area reached about 100km2. The discharge led to serious pollution of well water with an estimated 20% of the 1,500 villages who drank it. Despite local government investment in 2005 with the digging of a deep well, just two years later an analysis of this new well showed the presence of high levels of organic pollutants.
Besides the impact of discharge on the environment, improper use of chemicals may also result in damage to employees’ safety and health. For example, in 2015, a total of 46 workers from the company Ruifeng in the Fujian province in China were taken to hospital with nausea and bad headaches following the use of a spray during the water-resistance treatment of footwear. It was found that the footwear factory carried out this kind of water resistance treatment on an improper site without authorisation and that the operating personnel did not wear qualified respirators. At the same time, the spray used lacked important information on the label such the production date, a certificate of quality or the manufacturer.
Information relating to the environmental impact of the footwear industry has spread much faster and more efficiently than ever, with the help of emerging media such as Facebook, Weichat and a whole host of websites, as well as with more traditional media such as newspapers, magazines or TV. Each time, the exposure of the bad influence of the footwear industry on human health and the environment always creates heated online discussion. The Chinese Government has also noted these adverse influences and published related regulations to monitor and provide guidance for the situation, such as ‘Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution’, and national mandatory standards such as GB 4287-2012 ‘Discharge standards of water pollutants for dyeing and finishing of textile industry’. Local standards are also applied, such as DB 44/817-2010 ‘Emission standard of volatile organic compounds for shoe-making industry’, to reduce the harm to the environment and employees. Today, under the increasing pressure from consumers, society and government, the footwear industry is seeking for routes to become more sustainable

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