Fashion waste from Nike, Clarks and other top brands’ suppliers burnt in toxic kilns employing modern-day slaves 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 bonded workers to toxic fumes. 

An Unearthed investigation found labels, footwear, fabric and garment scraps from Nike, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Reebok, Next, Diesel and Clarks at five different kilns fueling their fires with garment and textile waste. This is happening despite many of these household names having made high-profile pledges to cut waste and emissions and crack down on modern-day slavery. 

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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. But through a web of middlemen, some of the waste is sold to kiln owners as cheap fuel – despite this practice breaching environmental laws and regulations. [1]

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 black plumes of smoke often seen rising out of the kilns endanger the health of vulnerable workers, with reported health impacts including coughs, colds, flus, nose

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