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.
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 nonwood pulp paper, including cotton, bamboo and reed pulp, and bagasse and stone variants.
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 color 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," said Wang Hao of Zhejiang Guangbo Group Co. Ltd, a stationery maker.
Toy makers cited recycled sawdust, which was merely discarded as a wood byproduct, 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, this alternative also has a shorter production time and simpler molding procedures.
In the beauty and cosmetics line, the trend is reflected in the simpler and recycled or recyclable packaging being adopted by many makers. Refills are likewise more gradually being promoted.
Trends show that green manufacture has a direct correlation with the cost of adoption. Makers are more likely to use an environment-friendly alternative if it will not inflate their cost structure, and substitutes that are considerably more expensive than conventional materials 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 YoY with 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 wood pulp variants, while water-borne paint is about 20 percent costlier to make than the oil-based type.
Full River (Hong Kong) Ltd estimates total production costs for earth-friendly consumer electronics are 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 metal 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, are 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 that of wood pulp paper, 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 has lower overall costs than alternatives due to the former's mature technology and established supply chain. In the coming years, recyclable and degradable packaging materials are expected to become more economical and widely used.
Maximizing advantages with eco-labels
China makers expect to enhance their competitiveness in key export markets by getting their products certified with environment-protection labels. Test and certification fees are shouldered by buyers directly or factored into quotations.
Many of the major export destinations have announced versions for a wide array of items. Beauty products, for example, have 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, which indicate that the apparel is suitable for collection and reuse, merchandiser manager Joy Liu said.
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 various international eco-labeling organizations and has mutual recognition agreements with Germany, Japan, Australia and other countries.
Much of the locally available green paint is marked with the China Environmental Label. Multi-Link Apparel supplies earth-friendly garments with the China Environmental (Green) Label.