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Spotlight | July 2019

Eliminating toxic chemicals, the ZDHC way

ZDHC may sound like Latin and Greek to some, but to eco-conscious industries and citizens, this acronym for The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals is a Foundation registered in Amsterdam, that puts all its efforts into a mission of eliminating, nay, minimising to a near-zero level the dangers that chemicals pose, right from its source, in the production of apparel, textiles, footwear and leather.

“There is a misconception in the minds of many, especially in India, that ZLD (Zero Liquid Discharge) is ZDHC. This is not correct, as ZDHC is a holistic approach to chemical management. It starts with using safe input chemicals and ends with managing the discharge of these chemicals in the outputs, which is wastewater, sludge, air and the product. It is a set of standards and tools for sustainable chemical management and best practices to be implemented at manufacturing facilities that use and discharge chemicals, such as dyehouses, textile mills, garment laundries and tanneries. ZDHC is not a certification as many people think so,” says Prasad Pant, South Asia Director of The ZDHC Foundation. Pant, who has taken over the directorship of South Asia of the Foundation a little more than a year back, explained, with ease and aplomb all the objectives and programmes of ZDHC, while having a tete-a-tete with the Editor, Samuel Joseph, at his office in Thane.

The ZDHC programme is a set of continuous improvement actions, aimed at eliminating all chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the environment from the manufacturing process of textiles and leather. “The ZDHC programme starts with the purchase of safe chemicals in a factory, identifying any hazards in these, planning precautions for safe storage, handling and use and finally their disposal to ensure minimum impact on the environment. It has shifted the mindset to manufacturing activities and thus goes beyond just product safety.”

The ZDHC initiative was started only in 2012 in response to an initiative by Greenpeace, an NGO that campaigned to highlight the pollution caused by the textile industry in China. Says Pant: “The Greenpeace Detox Campaign started in China, when they published their first report titled “Dirty Laundry – Unravelling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China”. The report highlighted that important rivers like Pearl and Yangtze have been polluted by textile and other industrial effluents. Greenpeace challenged global apparel brands, who source their textiles from such producing countries, China being a major one, to ensure elimination of hazardous chemicals across all pathways at their supply chain partners in these countries. It was a campaign launched to spur apparel and footwear brands into initiating actions for safe chemical management to ensure not just consumer safety but also environmental and worker safety.

Can we achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals? Says Pant:“ The target zero is aspirational. Traces of chemicals may not be totally eliminated, but we can achieve near-zero levels or ‘not detected’ limit values for these hazardous substances. For the Brands, this was a huge challenge as textile and leather production is a complex process and they also have a variable supply chain, where their influence may not extend to the tiers beyond their immediate garment or footwear supplier. So, they realized that collaboration was the key to address this challenge. Initially, six brands (Nike, Adidas, Puma, C&A, H&M and Li Ning) came together to devise a collaborative approach towards sustainable chemical management in the apparel and footwear stakeholders. In 2015, it was decided to have a structured organisation, a legal entity, which was registered in Amsterdam as an NGO, with a Board of Directors and an Executive Director. This is known as The ZDHC Foundation, and is a collaboration of signatory brands, value chain affiliates from the textile, chemical and services industry and associates (which are associations or other standards bodies).

The organisations that are committed to the ZDHC goals (ZDHC Contributors) have now grown to 29 brands, 33 chemical industry value chain affiliates, 28 services industry value chain affiliates, 29 textile industry value chain affiliates and 18 associates. “After the establishment of the ZDHC Foundation, the collaboration was opened to other stakeholders, such as textile mills, chemical companies, testing labs, consultants, industry associations, and academia to join as ‘ZDHC contributors’. This helped to bring in expertise from all stakeholders to shape the ZDHC programme, standards and tools”, says Pant. Since last year, the number of ZDHC contributors from South Asia Region has gone up substantially. Britacel, Colourtex, Jay, Meghmani, Pidilite, Rossari and S&D Chemicals have been on-boarded from the Chemical Industry. From the textile industry, ACS Textiles, Arvind, Atlas Exports, Birla Cellulose, Denim Expert, Eastman Exports, Envoy Textiles, MAS Group, Nahar Group and Raymond UCO Denim have joined in the commitment.

Now, the organisation intends to develop standards for man-made fibre manufacturers such as Viscose and extend the scope to chemical producers through the ‘Chemical Supplier Leader Programme’. Also coming up is a Wastewater Guideline for the leather tanneries and an air emissions standard for the textile and leather industry.

ZDHC is accelerating its activities in the producing countries including India, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Taiwan and Japan for which it will build organisations in India and China. Other focus countries include Italy, Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

What is the modus operandi of ZDHC? Says Pant: “We develop standards for the industry and the tools for the supply chain partners to implement these standards. The MRSL—Manufacturing Restricted Substances List—is now an industry standard which contains the list of harmful substances that should not be used intentionally in any commercial chemical formulations. The MRSL has shifted the focus on eliminating toxic chemicals at the input stage itself. “The MRSL conformance of the input dyes and chemicals at a supplier facility can be verified through the ZDHC Gateway – a tool developed for Suppliers to access a database of ‘Positive Chemicals’ that are verified for MRSL conformance through ZDHC approved third- party certifications. Today, the ZDHC Gateway has about 15,500 chemicals registered. This list is being constantly updated. Another standard is the Wastewater Guidelines that help to monitor conventional parameters and the MRSL substances in the effluent discharged from a manufacturing facility. Suppliers to ZDHC brands must test their wastewater twice a year as per the ZDHC guidelines and upload the test report on the ZDHC Gateway for Brands to review them” explained Pant.

The ZDHC initiative is also expected to push innovation in sustainable chemistry. Says Pant: “The ultimate aim of ZDHC is innovation because chemical companies will explore less harmful or benign alternatives to existing harmful chemicals. For example, oil- and water-repellent finishes are based on PFCs that are extremely harmful. Companies like DuPont and others have decided to stop any compounds containing PFCs by 2020. What is the alternative to match the performance of PFCs? This has kick-started a move to find alternatives, with some companies now offering PFC-free water repellent products through research.

Another example is DMF – Dimethylformamide, which is used in the making of PU soles in shoes. Everyone knows it is a proven carcinogen, but there was no alternative. ZDHC kick-started an innovation project for water-based PU manufacture jointly with a few brands, chemical companies and the China Polyurethane Association due to which water-based PU processes, which are totally free of harmful DMF, is now gaining adoption rapidly in China. This is how innovation will be spurred with the help of purchasing power of the Brands.”

Other services of ZDHC includes a Training Academy, through which modules on chemical management and related topics are developed and delivered through Accredited Training Providers (ATPs) to educate supply chain stakeholders and build capacities and knowledge. There is also an Implementation HUB, through which experts in chemical management will be accredited to offer on-site support to manufacturing facilities to implement the ZDHC Chemical Management System.

ZDHC has rapidly gained visibility and acceleration after Pant joined it last year in India. Besides conducting awareness workshops, seminars and a Grand Conference in Mumbai (where more than 300 delegates from brands, textile and chemical companies and service providers in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka participated), ZDHC is also engaging important stakeholders and Associations in this region. Pilot projects to implement the ZDHC Chemical Management Framework were also undertaken to support large scale facilities to start actions on ZDHC. The chemical industry is being engaged to register their products on the ZDHC Gateway, with already more than 125 companies uploading their products. There is a plan this year to reach out to domestic brands too, so that the textile industry catering exclusively to the domestic market can also be covered under the ZDHC goals. Although this awareness is currently at an infant stage in India.

Says Pant: “There are about four million substances in the world, out of which the hazards of only about 25 per cent have been studied and are known. We are producing and using the remaining 75 per cent without sufficient data on toxicity and environmental impact.” The task is huge, but to make a journey, one has to make the first few steps, which are the most important. ZDHC firmly believes that creating an awareness through involvement of big brands is such a major step, which of course makes one realise that these small steps are the foundation for a big leap towards clean water, clean air and a healthier planet!

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