Visiting factories in China and Social Media Sentiment to Help Show Working Conditions

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“This is the cleanest factory center in the country! And there is no pollution, it is all very clean.  This is why we call it, ‘Garden City,'” says a representative at one of China’s largest steel factories.  He grins and exposes a range of brownish-black teeth.  He is giving us a tour of a factory so vast that it is virtually a city coupled with its own transportation system, TV and radio stations.  This factory-town, dubbed “Garden City,” bleeds black waste into neighboring waterways and pumps gallons of smog into the skies.  The guide continues to smile and leads us into the dark steel factory after we put on protective hats.  The workers are covered in soot, in contrast to our bright yellow helmets.

When I was in China recently, I visited several factories, including the aforementioned one for steel, others for hair clippers, clothing, and solar panels. We found that some factories were impressively clean and others, such as the steel factory, were extremely polluting. Some factories even had very young employees working in them, and after reading a recent NY Times article, “Despite a Pledge by Samsung, Child Labor Proves Resilient,” it is possible that they were underaged children with false papers indicating they are of working age.

One unventilated and basement floor of a factory that we visited produced plastics, the stench of chemicals was overwhelming that even after a few minutes, many of us visiting felt nauseous.  Young workers spent hours in this room bent over moulding plastics and inhaling these most likely carcinogenic fumes.

Although some factories are strict on implementing strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards to ensure clean and safe working conditions, many do not.  In one factory that had many despondent looking workers, I asked a company representative if I could use the restroom.  Once he saw me walking towards one bathroom, he said, “Don’t use those toilets!” He looked disgustedly at the workers, “They use them.  Use the other bathroom behind us on the left.”

The problem with many factories in China is a lack of transparency and the world’s demand for cheap goods. Cheaper goods generally means, lower wages and poorer working conditions that do not have effective sewage or waste cleaning systems.  For more socially responsible companies that desire factories with good working conditions, their obstacle is that some of them use hundreds of factories to manufacture their goods.  It becomes a challenge for them to intricately keep track of the working and environmental conditions of the many factories they use. Also, as someone I met who works in CSR at Lee and Fung in Hong Kong told me, the problem also is that some employees want to work overtime, since they need the money. As a result, even though you are making sure that the employees are not overworked, this is not what they necessarily want and it brings them less gratification at work.  In addition, the high demands of some corporations to make last minute changes or strict time limits on goods produced in factories can force the workers to work overtime, which can be a challenge for factory managers to not only comply with CSR policies but also the contrastingly unrealistic demands of their client corporations.

Factories in China and throughout the world need to provide greater transparency to corporations of their working conditions and environmental impact.  However, it is difficult when you have company representatives that are dishonest and environmental auditors that can be bribed.  Perhaps, what should be implemented are confidential twitter feed systems that factory management are not allowed to access, where workers can talk freely about the working conditions in factories and this can be measured by social media sentiment to provide corporations a different perspective on the happiness of their workers. This can help give a better idea for more socially responsible corporations the true happiness of workers in their factories that are often countries and oceans apart from them. If effectively executed, it could be part of the bridge that helps at least partially expose the reality of black waters and smog from factories, as opposed to the quixotic “Garden City.”






Pollution Eating Plants

Chinese scientists have found plants that extract pollution from soil. A dozen pollution-sucking plants, called “hyper-accumulators” have been found to ensure “soil recovery with lower costs and lower risks of secondary pollution,” says Chen Tongbin, researcher with Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources research under Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to Xinhua.

Chen’s team is currently cleaning the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region by growing Chinese fern that extracts arsenic from the soil.  These plants are able to provide safer drinking water by leaching out pollutants that leak into drinking water from the soil.

“Agricultural castoff, like stalks, have many pores. It can be used to effectively absorb soil cadmium after modification,” says Yang Chen, associate professor of environment sciences, according to Xinhua.

The problem is how these heavy-metal loaded plants should be disposed of after they have extracted all the pollutants.  “A single technology can be promising, but the after-treatment is always neglected by enterprises. The material absorbed with heavy metals tend to be simply buried, causing some potential risks,” says Wang Qi, a solid waste specialist from China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.  Chen’s solution is to incinerate the pollutant-sucking ferns after they have used them and to solidify the arsenic that can be recycled into materials, according to Xinhua.

China’s 12th Five-Year Plan on environmental protection has high goals to carry out the cleansing of heavy-metal-polluted soil, and this research on pollution-extracting plants shows potential solutions to meet these aims.

China has laws against pollution, but why don’t they work?

imagesChina has enacted many harsh laws against pollution – some even stricter than in the United States (McDermott).  The effectiveness of those laws is often, in the words of Peking University’s law professor Wang Jin, “useless.”   From 1979, about 10% of all laws introduced have been related to the environment, energy, and renewable energy.  Yet those laws have failed to prevent mass pollution or reduce disputes over pollution, which have increased 20-25% every year for the past fourteen years (Wang Jin).

According to Wang Jin there are three main reasons why China’s environmental laws have failed: 1) the basic legal system is incomplete; 2) the laws that have been enacted aren’t particularly well crafted; 3) the overall aims of a law often contradict the articles of the law.  An example that Wang Jin gives is that in May 2010, the government of Guzhen county fired six local environmental-protection officials, since they had checked up on one firm three times within a 20-day period for pollution infractions.  The government fired them on the grounds that the officials’ acts were damaging efforts to attract investment.  A local Anhui province law requires environmental authorities to obtain approval before making checks.  Other places are following suit, with the result that local government is protecting the biggest polluters and energy consumers

In addition to this, according to the director of NRDC’s Environmental Law Project, even if there are laws that protect environmental sustainability, there is still a chronic lack of enforcement of laws and regulations.  At times damages can be denied for plaintiffs or factories will be allowed to continue producing carcinogenic externalities even if victims can prove a direct link to their injuries, because of corruption and the aforementioned contradictions of the law.   Also, the maximum penalty that a factory needs to pay annually for pollution infractions is merely $100,000, says Matthew Collins, a project manager at a powerful NGO in China that was responsible for reporting Apple’s poor environmental records to the world, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) who I interviewed in China.   As the fine is relatively small for factories that have larger profits, they simply pay the fine and continue polluting.  The fine provides little incentive for these factories to reduce their pollution waste.

There are however exceptions where the government does enforce laws and regulations.  For example, The China Price, discusses how Shenzhen officials turned down an Italian businessman that wanted to open a leather tannery on the grounds that his “factory was too polluting,” so he had to settle “in Xiaolan… spend $200,000 on a water treatment system to ensure that he didn’t discharge toxic chemicals into the water supply” (Harney 268).

Additionally, the government has made pollution environmental data and reports of externalities from factories public information that can be accessed online through IPE’s website.  This has lead to the leaking of the environmental infractions of Apple factories.  However, there is still a lot of mistrust in the government’s data.

Despite such improvements, China is still ravaged with many problems.  The government has done little to tackle air pollution; so far it seems like more talk than action.  A recent MIT study shows that there has been “an improvement in air quality,” but this is only relative to China’s growth, meaning that overall pollution still has increased.   In fact, China emitted more greenhouse gases than the US and Canada put together has – up by 171% from 2000 – according to the Energy information Administration 2011 report.  Pollution healthcare-related costs have sky-rocketed “from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 2005,” according to a MIT report, and “40% of china’s rivers are polluted with industrial waste,” according to government official Jiao Yong.  Also, in September, 30 people who protested against businesses that polluted Haining were arrested.  Among those arrested was a man who blogged that local pollution has caused cancer in 31 inhabitants of his village, according to NY Times.

There are some positive signs of China enforcing some laws supporting environmental sustainability, but it is such a massive country that is still developing.  Priorities still lie in developing the nation more, but with the government’s recognition that pollution impedes growth, it is forcing them to take a few steps to tackle it.

China’s Hero: Man Files 700 Lawsuits for Faulty Products


China’s Hero: Man Files 700 Lawsuits for Faulty Products

From the days of tainted children’s milk and polluted bottled water, China’s been cracking down on more companies that produce these fake goods.  The government encourages the public to report them, for example it has heralded Sun Anmin, an activist who has filed over 700 lawsuits against China’s faulty products (all of which he has almost won), as a hero.

Lets get him to crackdown on Lipton too.

Listen to his inspiring story by clicking on this link.

The People’s Republic of Pollution Revolution?

Armed with more technology at their fingertips, cash in their banks and educated voices, the Chinese are slowly getting the government to tackle pollution.  For other countries, this rising concern for the environment is not revolutionary by any means, but for China it is.  Experts, such as Thomas Freidman, are optimistic and call this China’s “green revolution,” but the truth is, albeit the country has made changes to attack pollution it is still rife with problems.  Instead, China is moving on a sluggish local train towards a rather distant “green revolution,” since the GDP of the country generally has priority over civil rights.

Lead poisoning reports recently surged in China: there were 160 children in Guangdong, according to Bloomberg; and more than 500 children in total recently, South China Morning Post reports.  A few months ago, the government shutdown down 3 factories in Shanghai accused of partly being the source, one of which is the largest lead processing plant in the area, according to AFP.  In total, China has closed hundreds of battery factories in the past year, according to Forbes, revealing that it is actually adhering to its five-year plan to tackle lead battery industries.  This “… five-year plan is regarded as the toughest measures taken by the Chinese government to address heavy metal pollution,” Wu Yixiu, Beijing-based toxics campaigner at Greenpeace says, “China is obviously taking tougher measures to tackle heavy metal pollution, particularly of lead.”

Compared to the days in 2009 when China accused the U.S. embassy of “confusing” the public for posting pollution figures (often exposing pollution as being so toxic that children should stay indoors, contrary to the government’s figures claiming that it is “slightly polluted”), the government finally admits publicly that their figures need reassessment.  This confession was a result of vast attacks from the Chinese community, especially through Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.  The government says that it plans to set up 1,500 new air monitoring stations around the country, which is a big step for a country normally lackadaisically concerned with the welfare of its citizens.

From the days of tainted children’s milk and polluted bottled water, China has been cracking down on more companies that produce these goods.  The government encourages the public to report them, for example it has heralded Sun Anmin, an activist who has filed over 700 lawsuits against China’s faulty products (all of which he has almost won), as a hero.

Despite such improvements, China is still ravaged with many problems.  The government has done little to tackle air pollution; so far it seems like more talk than action.  A recent MIT study shows that there has been “an improvement in air quality,” but this is only relative to China’s growth, meaning that overall pollution still has increased.   In fact, China emitted more greenhouse gases than the US and Canada put together has – up by 171% from 2000 – according to the Energy information Administration 2011 report.  Pollution healthcare-related costs have sky-rocketed “from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 2005,” according to a MIT report, and “40% of china’s rivers are polluted with industrial waste,” according to government official Jiao Yong.  Also, in September, 30 people who protested against businesses that polluted Haining were arrested.  Among those arrested was a man who blogged that local pollution has caused cancer in 31 inhabitants of his village, according to NY Times.

The “green revolution” where China has become a global leader in sustainable technology (it manufactures almost half of the solar panels in the world) has often created more pollution as a by-product.  Examples include hundreds of dead fish in neighboring rivers and dead pigs, reports NY Times.  Also, the world’s mountains of electronic waste intended to get recycled are sent to China, but instead they are left as massive garbage heaps in Chinese villages where families drink the oozing and toxic by-products – many even die from it, according to CBS.

China still has rampant pollution problems and the government’s attempt to cure them pale in comparison.  For a country that that allows people to live in pollution over twice the rate of what the U.S. considers as legal, their small steps are large and even revolutionary.  Albeit the government has done little to battle air pollution, at least it is openly talking about it and even admitting it is wrong in some cases – a rarity for a government that censors the press and usually denies its vast human rights abuses through propaganda as it has for decades.  Perhaps, this movement marks the turn of an era for China where it slowly follows the trend of many formally industrializing countries to clean up, like England during the Industrial Revolution.  For the lead poisoned Chinese children that now may have brain damage, in addition to the closure of factories, perhaps a new step for the government to take is to let these infants find justice by allowing the Erin Brockovichs of China to start doing what the Chinese are well-known for doing, which is, “work,” but this time for the rights of humanity.

Lipton’s Tea Can Kill You

When you sip on Lipton’s tea, you equate that with rich antioxidants and nutritional benefits to nourish you and even the child you are bearing.  Not in China.  Here, when you drink or grow Lipton’s tea, you can get infertility, genetic damage, deformities to fetuses and death, according to a Greenpeace study.

Three out of four Lipton’s tea samples were found to have pesticides classified as illegal and highly toxic. These pesticides include endosulfan, methomyl, and dicofol, says the Greenpeace study.

Endosulfan has in extreme cases caused death and is banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. It has been linked to dozens of deaths in the USA, Colombia, India, Malaysia and the Philippines, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.  Akin to DDT, endosulfan is “an organochlorine and persists in the environment long after it has killed the target pests, leaving a deadly legacy for people and wildlife,” says the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Higher doses of endosulfan for rats caused death and skeletal deformities in the rat fetuses, according to Cornell University.  The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s animal studies show that this exposure to this pesiticide for short periods of time can cause adverse nervous system effects (such as hyperexcitability, tremors, and convulsions) and death.  Lethal or near-lethal exposures in animals have shown lung and heart failure. Other effects seen in animals include harmful effects in the stomach, blood, liver and kidneys.

The world’s best selling tea is taking advantage of China’s lax pesticide regulations at the expense of its customers, says Wing Jin, a Greenpeace campaigner.

How you can help?

Take action

For now the most important thing you can do is read Greenpeace’s report and then spread the word.

  1. Post this page on Facebook and leave comments on Lipton’s Facebook page;
  2. Tweet away! Use the hashtag, “#LiptonPesticides;”
  3. Make the media spread the word;
  4. E-mail this page to your friends using the share tool below;
  5. Boycott Lipton – don’t buy Lipton products; and
  6. Buy certified organic tea and you’ll not only been drinking healthy, you’ll be supporting the reduction of pesticides in agriculture.

The New Antioxidants of China’s Tea: Toxic Poison

Giving long-term damage sip by sip….Image

Illegal toxic pesticides are found in almost 70% of China’s tea, according to a Greenpeace study.  Banned globally due to their long-term harmful effects, these pesticides can cause infertility, genetic damage and death.

Twelve out of eighteen tea products that Greenpeace purchased randomly in Beijing contained at least one toxic pesticide.  These include methomyl and endosulfan, the latter is banned globally under the Stockholm Convention due to its toxic properties.  The former, methomyl is classified “highly hazardous” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The toxic tea is produced by seven of China’s top 10 tea sellers, according to  Greenpeace.  They included green, jasmine oolong tea.

Seventeen different types of pesticides were found in one sample, Richun’s Tieguanyin 803 tea.  Eleven of the samples including Tenfu’s Bi Luo Chun tea and jasmine tea produced by Zhang Yiyuan and Wuyutai contained methomyl and endosulfan.  These pesticides that are banned for on tea leaves by China’s Ministry of Agriculture.

One of the teas’ toxins, endosulfan, causes headaches, nausea and vomiting, seizures, and in extreme cases, unconsciousness and death. The EPA classifies this pesticide in its most extreme toxicity category (highly acutely toxic), because small doses prove to be lethal.  Endosulfan made thirty-seven farmers dying in Benin, two boys die in South Africa, poison flower workers in Colombia, villagers in Philippines and India, according to studies.

For more information, download Greenpeace’s report.

Fashion Designers Make us Pretty, but Children Sick


Pollution from Textile Factories

Chinese factories making and dyeing clothes for major designers (Adidas, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein, Zara, Nike, H&M, Li Ning, Nike, Puma, G-Star) are toxically polluting surrounding waters, according to a Greenpeace study.

Tests found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper). Cadmium concentrations are 128 times higher than Chinese environmental limits, according to the study.  These chemicals can cause brain, hormone, kidney damage and thus death.

“People who live close to the rivers get sick, sometimes by eating vegetables or fruit grown on contaminated land,” says Wu Yixiu from Greenpeace in China, according to the Interdependent.  Without safer water choices, many people drink from polluted rivers. These people are much more likely to die from cancer than anywhere in the world, according to a World Bank study.

Greenpeace published a photo gallery, “The dirty secret behind your jeans and bras,” which reveal working conditions and pollution in two of Guangdong’s main textile towns where most of the world’s jeans, underwear and bras are made.

One of these towns, Xintang (aka “The Jeans Capital of the World”), produces over 260 million pairs of jeans annually.  This is where 40% of America’s jeans are made and accounts for 60% of China’s total jeans output.  Many children and elderly participate in the production, clipping loose threads for 0.15 yuan per pair (US$5 per day), according to the Shanghaiist.

The other town, Gurao (aka “the capital of sexy”) produced more than 200 million bras last year. Children work here as well, attaching bra straps to machine accessories for 0.30 yuan per 100 straps, which can earn them 20 to 30 yuan (US$3 to US$5) per day, the Shanghaiist.

“Heavy metals flow into the river from the chemical-intensive washes done to achieve the “stone-washed” denim look (a process requiring workers to pick stones out of the waste water by hand.) Fabric printing and dyeing both involve the use of heavy metals like mercury and lead,” says the Shanghaiist.

Assisting Greenpeace, other NGOs, including the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, have been trying to force these clothing designers to clean-up their factories.

China’s Pollution Revolution: If the Govt. Won’t Fix It, NGOs Can by Pressuring Corporations


The rise of unregulated globalization matched with a demand for cheaper goods allow corporations to benefit at the expense of the lives and health of desperate workers in poor countries.   “Globalization . . . has – with few exceptions – not dealt adequately with the global environmental problem [especially in developing nations],” (Stiglitz 161).  These “few exceptions” of making companies stop pollution in China arises when NGOs publicly shame them, rousing the media and public outcry, which make corporations change their polluting practices.

A growing number of corporations are playing a more active role in sustainable development, since it promotes longevity of the firms.  This is triggered by the collaboration of NGOs, global civil society, print and social media’s exposure of corporate abuses to the world.  They hold companies accountable for their immoral treatment of employees and their respective environments making them change their once unethical manufacturing practices to become more socially and environmentally responsible.

Joseph Stiglitz believes that CSR is one of the main forces that create sustainability, he writes, “one thing [that] makes me hopeful [for sustainability] is the corporate social responsibility movement” (210).   This blog agrees with his statement to a certain extent, since along with CSR, there is proof that the protesting voices of Chinese civilians can make the government change (as the government fears civil unrest, which can in turn effect the economy).  However, by relying on mere protests is difficult and takes time due to the government’s autocratic nature in China.  Instead, what seems to be the most effective tactic of expeditiously tackling China’s pollution is to use the lethal combination of NGOs, the media and the public to pressure corporations into cleaning up their externalities.

Stiglitz, Joseph E.  Making Globilization Work. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2007. Print.

China’s Pollution Facts

  • 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China according to Time magazine.
  • Only 1% of the 560 million city dwellers breath air considered safe by European Union standards according to  NY Times.
  • 760,000 people die prematurely each year in China because of air and water pollution, according to a 2007 World Bank report.
  • Air pollution in China’s cities cause 350,000 to 400,00 of these deaths and another 300,000 die because of poor-quality air indoors.  Also, 60,000 of these deaths are due to poor-quality water, according a Financial Times article.
  • Nationwide, cancer rates have surged since the 1990s to become the nation’s biggest killer. In 2007, the disease was responsible for one in five deaths, up 80% since the start of economic reforms 30 years earlier, the Guardian reports.
  • Chinese farmers are almost four times more likely to die of liver cancer and twice as likely to die of stomach cancer than the global average, since most of the dirtiest factories are in rural China.  This has sparked the birth of “cancer villages” around factories according to a study commissioned by the World Bank reports the Guardian.


Margaret Mak