OnEarthBy GENEVRA PITTMAN, OnEarth magazine

Two of the clothing industry’s biggest names have joined an effort to clean up Chinese textile mills, which are infamous for spewing chemicals into rivers and streams while using massive amounts of water and energy.

On Sept. 22 at the Clinton Global Initiative — established by the former president to promote collaboration between governments, nonprofits, and the private sector — Walmart announced that it will partner with the Clean by Design effort spearheaded by NRDC and the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

The project provides ways for textile manufacturers to reduce pollution, using the backing of major retailers in the United States as leverage. Last week, another powerhouse in the fashion industry, H&M, said that it would work to make its suppliers more eco-friendly. Walmart and H&M join a list that includes Gap, Nike, and Levi, which have already agreed to work with NRDC.

“NRDC truly is the expert (for) finding those opportunities in the textile mills, beginning with China,” said Nidhi Munjal, Walmart’s director of sustainability. Making changes to limit pollution and wasted resources in China’s textile mills, she said, “helps really create a better supply chain overall.”

Both Walmart and H&M will start instituting the Clean by Design recommendations at a few of their key Chinese mills before expanding the principles across their textile suppliers, according to NRDC.

“Big names like Wal-Mart and H&M have the purchasing power to drive improvements all the way up the supply chain,” NRDC President Frances Beinecke wrote in a blog post about the announcement this morning. “They send a signal to manufacturers that there is a market out there for textiles made using cleaner practices.”

Half of the clothing that Americans buy comes from China, where the textile industry churns out 3 billion tons of soot each year. The energy-saving and pollution-preventing solutions provided by Clean by Design include improving insulation in factories, reusing water, and collecting steam. The recommendations can cut 25 percent of the water use and 30 percent of the fuel used at these mills and save money for manufacturers by helping mills run more efficiently.

Related on NRDC: Clean by Design Responsible Sourcing for the Textile Industry
To learn more about the textile industry in China and NRDC's Clean by Design program, watch this clip:

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Genevra Pittman wrote this article for OnEarth Magazine. She is an OnEarth intern and a graduate student at NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.