Investigation finds clothing waste from top fashion brands’ suppliers burnt in “toxic kilns” in Cambodia

Clothing waste generated in Cambodia during the production of apparel and footwear for global fashion brands, including Nike, is incinerated to fuel brick-making, driving emissions and exposing workers to toxic fumes, according to an investigation by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism website.

The investigation claims to have found labels, footwear, fabric and garment scraps from Nike, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Reebok, Next, Diesel and Clarks at five different kilns fuelling their fires with garment and textile waste.

The scraps are mostly offcuts from Cambodian factories that manufacture clothing for leading fashion brands. These factories dispose most of their textile waste at a landfill or elsewhere through licensed waste disposal companies, according to Unearthed. Some of the waste, however, is sold to kiln owners as cheap fuel – despite this practice breaching environmental laws and regulations, Unearthed claims.

To manufacture bricks workers move dried slabs of clay by hand into the kilns, where they burn for a couple of days in temperatures reaching up to 650C. To maintain such heat, the kilns need to stay fired and workers burn fuel – in some instances a mix of garment waste and wood – around the clock.

As a large proportion of clothing is made up of synthetic materials like plastic which – when burnt – can often release toxic chemicals, burning garments in kilns causes local air pollution and “exacerbates the carbon footprint of clothes destined for Europe and the US”, the investigations states.

Garment incineration

Dr Laurie Parsons of UK’s Royal Holloway University said: “The burning of acrylic garments, especially when combined with plastic bags, hangers, rubber and other waste as occurs in Cambodia, releases plastic microfibres and other toxic chemicals into the immediate environment which compromise the health of workers and neighbours on a short and long term basis.

“The human impacts, in particular, are substantially worse than burning wood and have been highlighted in a recent UK parliamentary report as a major problem in the industry.”

Parsons co-authored a seminal 2018 report exposing the practice of garment incineration in Cambodian kilns. That report also identified garment waste linked to major high-street brands at brick kilns.

Many of these brands have been trumpeting their efforts to cut waste and carbon emissions, yet they have failed to stop these awful practices from happening on their watch.

Commenting on the findings, Viola Wohlgemuth, a circular economy and fashion waste campaigner at Greenpeace, said: “It’s sickening to see fashion waste from leading brands being turned into toxic pollution in kilns employing modern-day slaves. Scorching heat, poisonous fumes, and appalling working conditions – this is a hellscape that should have no place in any 21st-century industry.

“Many of these brands have been trumpeting their efforts to cut waste and carbon emissions, yet they have failed to stop these awful practices from happening on their watch. This is rank hypocrisy. The fashion industry keeps churning out mountains of waste at both ends of their supply chain, and all too often it’s poorer communities in the global South that end up stuck with it.

“If Nike, Clarks and other corporates mean a word they say about waste and human rights, then they should finally question their wasteful business model and clamp down on any form of modern-day slavery and environmental destruction anywhere in their supply chain.”

Kiln fires

A woman loads garment offcuts into a brick kiln located in Kandal Province, Cambodia.

While kiln fires are predominantly fuelled by wood, a 2020 survey conducted by a local union and Dr Parsons suggests 23 out of 465 kilns burnt garment waste. “And they were in most cases burning several tons a day. So we’re looking at hundreds of tons of garments being burned every day,” Parsons told Unearthed.

The apparel industry has been the lynchpin of Cambodia’s economy and the biggest employer in the country, hiring over 700,000 predominantly female workers. But it has also been the biggest industrial waste producer, generating no less than 90,000 tons of garment waste per year, according to studies.

The brands whose offcuts Unearthed found at the kilns incinerating garment waste have committed to “ambitious” environmental sustainability targets in their operations, Unearthed states.

Nike’s “Move to Zero” campaign promises a “journey toward zero carbon and zero waste”. This includes diverting 100% of waste from landfill in Nike’s supply chain and zero carbon emissions — meaning they’ll be at or below 2020 levels — from key suppliers by 2025. Nike, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Reebok, Next, Clarks and Diesel also have supplier codes of conduct, which at the very minimum require factories in Cambodia to respect local environmental laws and dispose of waste in line with applicable regulations.

Unearthed contacted all the brands featured in the investigation to give them the opportunity to comment on the findings. The brands said that burning garment waste in this way would be against their protocols, that the claims would be investigated and that they expected their partners and suppliers to comply with strict codes of practice.


A Clarks spokesperson stated: “we are conducting a thorough investigation and believe we have identified the potential source. We believe this incident to be an exceptional occurrence. Our ongoing investigation has led us to believe that in accordance with our code of practice for suppliers, waste from the relevant Cambodian factories was provided to a government-approved waste services company.”

A Michael Kors spokesperson said: “we strive to produce our products in an environmentally responsible manner, and to partner with suppliers to reduce emissions, waste and other environmental impacts of our products” and “will reiterate to our suppliers our expectations around proper collection and disposal of garment waste.”

We are conducting a thorough investigation and believe we have identified the potential source. We believe this incident to be an exceptional occurrence.

When communicating with Next – Unearthed asked how and why their products ended up in a local brick kiln. A Next spokesperson reportedly answered: “under clause 8.5 of the Next Standard Terms and Conditions of Purchase, suppliers cannot dispose of rejected, seconds, excess, samples or cancelled stock unless stock is sold through the Next clearance routes” and that “it appears this breach could possibly have taken place due to their suppliers in Cambodia not adhering to the policy.”

OTB Group, the parent organisation for Diesel, explained that: “OTB constantly monitors the supply chain” and “the brand is no longer producing garments in Cambodia at the moment.” They added, “no evidence has emerged on the subject from the recent internal review we carried out with our former and only supplier active in the Country in 2020/2021.”

Read the full investigation here.

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