Evaluation: Better Mills Initiative

Posted by C&A Foundation on Feb 14, 2018

Study of environmental improvements in Chinese textile mills reports results and future advice for a sustainable fashion supply chain

In 2013, the international network organisation Solidaridad, in partnership with C&A, H&M and other leading fashion brands launched the Better Mills Initiative (BMI) in response to an environmental push in the apparel industry. The initiative, co-funded by C&A Foundation, aimed to empower textile mills in China to clean up their production processes and improve their sustainability in a climate of tightened environmental legislation. 

Recently, C&A Foundation evaluated the initiative to measure if mills did in fact improve their environmental impact. The results of the six-month study show that a difference can be made going forward.

Brands, mills and sector associations agree the initiative was important, given the tightened environmental laws in China and the value of addressing environmental risks. However, there were some important lessons to be learned.

Better Mills Initiave Evaluation

Results show improvements

By the end of 2016, towards the end of the three-year initiative, it estimated that the 43 mills studied had saved 6.6 million tonnes of water, 7,200 tonnes of chemicals and 15.2 million kWh of electricity. Altogether, 675 improvements were reported covering BMI’s seven priority ‘themes’ of water, waste water, energy, air emissions, solid waste, chemical management, and working conditions. 

However, there were notes of caution in the report:

  • Improvements in environmental management were reported, but couldn’t be measured due to a lack of qualitative data. A lack of capacity in the mills also cast doubt on the sustainability of the measures. The 675 environmental improvements had reduced air and water pollution and improved working conditions, but their claims couldn’t be confirmed
  • There was little communication around the different environmental initiatives, about the BMI and a web portal designed to support outreach was underused. Some activities raised visibility of the BMI, but best practices and lessons learned were not compiled and shared and there was no conclusive evidence that the initiative influenced adoption of China’s environmental policy
  • High programme management costs (around 40 per cent of the programme budget) meant efficiency was limited. The remaining 60 per cent covered direct mill interventions - assessments, training and on-site support. If cost reductions are made, then BMI is still viewed as 'value for money' by most brands and for participating mills who believe that fees and investment levels compare favourably with annual savings and potential grants from Chinese local authorities for taking part.

What did we learn? 

Brands, mills and sector associations agree the initiative was important, given the tightened environmental laws in China and the value of addressing environmental risks.

Three key lessons learned are:

  • Too broad a focus around the seven themes meant that resources were spread too thin and reduced impact. A customised, modular approach, linked to the mills’ needs and priorities (e.g. water, chemicals or energy), is crucial so that specific strategies are aligned and relevant to the brands and mills
  • Results measurement, targets and entry-level conditions for mills is key to recording effectiveness. Programme design that includes clear performance measures and targets is vital for effective and efficient delivery and implementation
  • A strategic approach is needed to engage stakeholders and influence sustainable production methods in the Chinese textile industry. While there were seminars and media coverage, they were limited in scope and approach. More involvement of a wide group of stakeholders (sector associations and local authorities) would better engage and influence their networks and textile mills by spreading best practices and promoting the use of policy instruments. Alignment with similar initiatives such as Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), would have also built on existing knowledge. 

Download the BMI Evalution lessons note or the full report.