The practice of treading a "green" path is on the rise among manufacturers in China, albeit at different levels of adoption. Be it in the garments, jewellery, stationery, paint or consumer electronics industry, more and more companies are adopting ecologically safe materials, including recycled substitutes.
Suppliers are motivated by two main factors. Most are compelled to go green because of increasingly stringent product regulations in their key export destinations, namely the EU and US. In the EU, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, for example, curbs the use of lead, mercury and cadmium, among other hazardous substances. Although the directive applies only to electrical and electronic products, makers in other industries such as fashion jewellery have also been taking heed.
Certain suppliers are tapping the economic trend as a marketing tool to help them move to upscale manufacture and break away from cut-throat competition in the low end. Because there is a premium attached to green models, companies can charge 5 to 50 percent more for them.
No more toxins
Most jewellery suppliers have dropped the use of nickel, a once-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 non-toxic plastic beads. "The plating of the metal does not contain lead and nickel. This is required by all of our EU and US buyers," says the company’s Vice General Manager Stanley Fan.
"We are also using low-cadmium plastic packing bags. [We believe this] will be a trend in the future. Some acrylic beads and stones are required to be low in cadmium as well."
The Neoglory Group, one of the top 10 fashion-jewellery makers in China, worked with Kunming University of Science and Technology to develop a zinc-based alloy that complies with increasingly strict overseas standards. Three patents have been applied for the new metal, which took a year to perfect.
Aside from its environmentally friendly properties, the newly developed jewellery metal will save Neoglory USD0.044 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 – plasticisers that are endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens.
Paint is also being reconstituted for ecological safety. Oil-based versions contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), two common sources of pollution.
Many eco-friendly substitutes from China are water-borne. When the water volatilises, a film layer of paint 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 alternatives to traditional paints. Foshan Aoke Chemical Co. Ltd, Foshan Maydos Chemical Co. Ltd and Sunfo International Chemical Co. Ltd have developed paints that comply with national standards, which stipulate that VOC concentrations remain lower than 200 grams per litre.
For printing, water-based oil and soy ink are low-VOC, PAH-free alternatives to solvent-based ink.
Natural, sustainable alternatives
Apart from ensuring components are non-toxic, many companies are incorporating materials grown with as little impact as possible on the environment into production.
Cotton farmers are the leading users of insecticide globally, accounting for 16 percent of total consumption. Organic cotton, which is cultivated without toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilisers, makes for healthier products, greater biodiversity conservation, and a reduction of noxious chemicals in the environment.
Tencel, a brand of regenerated cellulose fibre made from dissolved wood pulp, is another eco-friendly material, often used to make trousers and coats. It is normally mixed with cotton at a ratio of up to 1:3.
Rayon from bamboo is also used in garment production. Aside from being biodegradable, it is one of the most efficient natural fibres there is in terms of moisture absorption and breathability.
Other natural materials that makers are turning to include silk, bamboo charcoal, soybean and milk protein fibres.
Apart from being used in textiles, 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, proven strength and durability make the material not only an ecologically safer option, but also a more profitable one.
Wood pulp, the most common material for paper making, has been linked to a number of environmental issues, including deforestation, and air and water pollution. This has prompted suppliers to turn to earth-friendly alternatives, which are becoming increasingly available. Among these are non-wood pulp papers such as those made from cotton, bamboo and reed pulp, bagasse and stone.
Recycled paper such as the kraft type is also a green option. In terms of quality, recycled paper holds up against conventional versions. It has some usage limitations, however, including unsuitability for colour printing.
"Although products made of eco-friendly paper are priced higher, the acceptance of customers is high. Both our old and new customers place orders actively for such products," says Wang Hao of Zhejiang Guangbo Group Co. Ltd, a stationery maker.
Toy makers cite recycled sawdust, which was traditionally discarded as a wood by-product, as a suitable substitute material. Apart from yielding environmental benefits, it improves crack- and heat-resistant properties in toys such as role-play sets. Being easier to process than wood, it also has a shorter production time and simpler moulding procedures.
In the beauty and cosmetics line, simpler as well as recycled or recyclable packaging is being adopted by many makers. Refills are increasingly being promoted.
Naturally, there is a strong correlation between the cost of adoption of green manufacturing processes and rates of adoption. Makers are more likely to use environmentally friendly alternatives if they will not inflate cost structures, while substitutes that are considerably more expensive than conventional materials will have fewer takers.
Organic cotton, for instance, is at least 30 percent costlier than the traditional kind, since it has fewer growers and suppliers. Parallel to its popularity, however, organic cotton acreage in the US grew by 26 percent in 2009 year on year, with the total planted area estimated at 4,342 hectares, the highest since 2001.
For beauty products, biodegradable packaging costs 20 percent more than traditional plastic or glass equivalents.
On average, ecologically safe paper is 5 percent more expensive than the wood-pulp variety, while water-based paint is about 20-percent costlier to make than the oil-based type.
Full River (Hong Kong) Ltd estimates total production costs for eco-friendly consumer electronics to be 4- to 8-percent higher than for conventional models.
With the use of soy ink, Wenzhou Success Group Paper Articles Co. Ltd raised its quotes 5 to 10 percent.
For some product lines, the green transition is eased by the absence of additional expenses. Multi-Link Apparel has substituted azo dye and heavy metals with greener inputs, but its material costs have remained the same.
Even more fortunate for some suppliers, switching to sustainable production has proven to be more profitable than before. Some denim garment makers, for instance, have been able to increase their margins by up to 50 percent per pair.
The cost of making stationery out of bagasse, stone and reed is about 5-percent lower than it is from wood pulp, but export quotes could be 5- to 15-percent higher.
A plastic refill costs about 30 to 50 percent less than a retail plastic bottle in the same volume, savings that are passed on to consumers.
At present, traditional packaging costs less overall than alternative packaging due to mature technology and an established supply chain for the former. In the coming years, recyclable and degradable packaging materials are expected to become more economical and widely used.
Maximising advantages with eco-labels
Chinese manufacturers expect to enhance their competitiveness in key export markets by obtaining environmental certification for their products. Test and certification fees are shouldered by buyers directly or factored into quotations.
Major export destinations have announced certifications for a wide array of items. For beauty products, for instance, there is the BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics Seal in Germany, Cosmebio and Ecocert in France, ICEA in Italy, and Ecogarantie in Belgium.
Sleepwear from Qingdao Fitex Apparel Co. Ltd bears the DSD Green Point and recycle marks, indicating that the apparel is suitable for collection and reuse, explains Merchandiser Manager Joy Liu.
Products without foreign eco-labels may present the local equivalent, China Environmental Label. Developed according to the ISO 14024 standard, the mark is acknowledged by international eco-labelling organisations and enjoys mutual recognition agreements with Germany, Japan, Australia and other countries.
Much locally available green paint is marked with the China Environmental Label, while Multi-Link Apparel supplies eco-friendly garments with the China Environmental (Green) Label.