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Major Retailers Contribute To Severe Water Pollution In China: Report

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Red polluted water flowing from a sewer into the Jian River in Luoyang, north China's Henan province in December 2011. Red dye was being dumped into the city's storm water pipe network by two illegal dye workshops. ( STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Red polluted water flowing from a sewer into the Jian River in Luoyang, north China's Henan province in December 2011. Red dye was being dumped into the city's storm water pipe network by two illegal dye workshops. ( STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The sassy spring colors flooding into America's stores are also polluting Chinese rivers, according to a new report.

Textile suppliers of Zara, H&M, Ann Taylor, Guess, Target, Disney and Uniqlo, among other big brands, have violated China's environmental laws by contaminating water supplies with chemicals from dyes and printing, according to a new report released from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based nonprofit whose founder, Ma Jun, won this year's Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia.

The report, entitled "Cleaning up the Fashion Industry," bases its findings on the Institute's online database of 90,000 environmental supervision records from Chinese government agencies, dating back to 2004. As of February, 6,000 of the Institute's records were from textile plants, according to the report.

The report also tracked down the names of 48 international brands who source goods from polluters, in hopes of convincing fashion's big names to establish stricter rules for suppliers.

When chemicals used in dying and printing are released into water supplies, they hurt both humans and animals, causing mass deaths of aquatic life and diseases like cancer in humans, according to the report. Access to water is limited in China, where one-fifth of cities have unhygienic water supplies and 300 million rural residents lack safe drinking water all together, according to ChinaDaily.

While the Chinese government does regulate water pollution, manufacturers have found a myriad of ways of getting around the rules, including constructing secret pipes or directly dumping wastewater into rivers. Many factories in the Institute's database have violated standards multiple times. "Fines and punishments that are inflicted are insufficient to prevent factories from accruing repeat violations," the report writes.

The Institute hopes that disclosing the relationships between international brands and suppliers who pollute might be more effective. Before releasing its report, the Institute sent letters to the CEOs of the 48 companies outlining the violations and received responses from 16. Many of the international brands named, like H&M, Walmart, Burberry and Adidas had already begun investigating violations. Others, like Abercrombie & Fitch, Puma, Guess and Zara have yet to address or respond to charges.

The naming and shaming strategy has worked in the past for the Institute. Since the nonprofit was founded in 2006, 50 companies, including Nike and Walmart, have begun cooperating with it in order to become more environmentally friendly -- and to get their names removed from its blacklist. Last week, Apple agreed to have one of its factories audited by the Institute, who has been pressuring the company for nearly two years and has released multiple reports about problems within its supply chain.

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