Retail in Asia

In Markets

Eco-friendly products boost competitiveness

More manufacturers jump on the ‘green’ wagon amid stricter export regulations, growing alternatives and rising demand

Treading the "green" path is on the rise among manufacturers in China, albeit at different levels of adoption. Be it in the garments, jewelry, stationery, paint or consumer electronics industries, more companies are adopting ecologically safe materials, including recycled substitutes.

Suppliers are motivated by two main factors. Most are compelled to do so because of increasingly stringent product regulations in their key export destinations, namely the EU and the US. RoHS, for example, curbs the use of elements and compounds that are perilous to the environment. Among these are lead and cadmium. Although the EU directive applies only to electrical and electronic products, makers in other industries such as fashion jewelry are taking heed and dispensing with these substances. A few are tapping the eco trend as a marketing tool to help them move to upscale manufacture and break away from cutthroat competition in the low end. Because there is a premium attached to green models, companies can charge 5 to 50 percent more for these items.

No more toxins

Most jewelry suppliers have dropped the use of nickel, an erstwhile widely applied plating metal that can cause skin irritation and has been banned in some countries and regions, including the EU. Other types of heavy metal such as lead and cadmium are also disappearing steadily from both the product composition and manufacturing processes. Fashion accessories maker Temgo Group Co. Ltd uses nickel-free resin and plastic beads that do not have toxic content.

"The plating of the metal does not contain lead and nickel. This is required by all of our EU and US buyers," vice general manager Stanley Fan said. "We are also using low-cadmium plastic packing bags. It will be a trend in the future. Some acrylic beads or stones are required to be low in cadmium as well."

The Neoglory Group, one of the top 10 fashion jewelry makers in China, worked with the Kunming University of Science and Technology to develop a zinc-based alloy that complies with the increasingly stricter overseas standards. Three patents have been applied for the new metal, which took a year to perfect. Aside from its environment-friendly properties, the newly developed jewelry metal will save Neoglory $0.044 per piece. The company is targeting increased exports to North America and Europe once mass manufacturing begins. Many products are now also free from phthalates, plasticizers that are endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens.

Even paint is being reconstituted for ecological safety. Oil-based versions contain PAH and high levels of volatile organic compounds, which are among the most common pollutants. Much of the eco-friendly substitutes from China are water-borne. When the water volatilizes, the paint film layer is formed without releasing xylene, formaldehyde and other harmful VOCs. At present, more than 80 percent of paint suppliers in the country offer water-based variants. Foshan Aoke Chemical Co. Ltd, Foshan Maydos Chemical Co. Ltd and Sunfo International Chemical Co. Ltd have developed paint that complies with the China national standard for VOC content, which is lower than 200g/L. For printing, water-based oil and soy ink are taken up as a low-VOC, PAH-free choice over solvent-based versions.

Natural, sustainable alternatives

Apart from ensuring components are free from toxins, many companies are incorporating materials that are grown with as little impact on the environment as possible.

Cotton farmers are the leading users of insecticide globally, accounting for 16 percent of total consumption. Organic cotton that is cultivated without toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers promotes healthier products, biodiversity conservation and reduction of noxious chemicals seeping into the environment. Tencel, which is a brand of regenerated cellulose fiber made from dissolved wood pulp, is another eco-friendly material that is often used in pants and coats. It is normally mixed with cotton at a ratio of up to 1:3.

Rayon from bamboo is also incorporated in the production of garments. Aside from being biodegradable, it is one of the most efficient among all types of natural fibers in terms of moisture absorption and breathability. Other natural materials that makers are turning to are silk, bamboo charcoal, and soybean and milk protein fibers. Apart from the textile application, bamboo is being employed as an alternative to wood, which is currently in short supply. Some makers have even found ways to reshape the naturally hollow and cylindrical plant by processing it in high-pressure machines.

Bamboo’s short maturity cycle, wide availability, and proven strength and durability make the material not only an ecologically safer option to wood, but also a more profitable one.