Hope and Obstacles on the Road to Greener Supply Chains

Editor’s note: For the fall 2018 semester, Christine will be writing from Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu Province, China. For a recap of what she’s doing there, click here.

The DKU campus is a LEED-certified, garden-like space— but not all of Kunshan looks quite like this. So I was excited to tag along with the first-year iMEP students on a recent visit to a local Foxconn manufacturing facility, which offered a glimpse into the world of heavy industry (and related policy issues) that helped draw me toward coming to China in the first place. Coming from a heavily industrial city myself, I have a curiosity for the evolving trade-offs that arise from balancing economic growth against environmental realities. Perhaps nowhere has this kind of struggle been more dramatically visible to the globe than in China. In the country’s multi-decadal sprint toward becoming an industrialized power and a world capital of outsourced manufacturing, China has paid an enormous environmental price, and gained a reputation for heavy and intractable pollution. The many well-publicized photos of the thick, otherworldly haze that sometimes blankets its monuments and skylines have etched this idea into the international imagination.

Less often discussed internationally is the dramatic progress that has been made toward halting and reversing some of these pollution trends, especially with respect to the air. While the fight is far from over, and while there is no shortage of other serious problems remaining, acknowledging and learning from success is important. One of the most interesting parts of being at DKU so far has been the opportunity to see in clearer detail what the country’s ongoing fight with pollution and ecosystem protection has looked like from within.

It’s worth taking a moment to remember how different China’s system of implementing environmental regulations is from that of the U.S. Here, under the purview of the Communist party, the urgency and intensity of environmental governance concerns are determined largely from the top down (though increasingly, there do seem to be real channels opening to enable NGOs and the public to push environmental concerns from the ground up). In general, the specificity and scope of environmental rules and regulations have been growing, and the environment has become an increasingly serious priority under the past two presidential administrations. This includes stricter penalties for when pollution standards are not met.

At the local levels, liability for compliance with those standards falls to a great extent on the officials charged with that region’s administration, as one of many metrics by which these civil servants are evaluated and judged. This, in turn, means that officials have a strong incentive to try to make their emissions targets—sometimes by resorting to what might seem, from a U.S. perspective, like drastic measures.

Ten years ago, the 2008 Olympic Games provided opportunity for a highly-visible demonstration of some of these tactics (not all of which, it’s worth noting, are unique to China). The government shut down regional factories for months or weeks leading up to the event, heavily restricted driving on certain days, even tried seeding rainstorms to lower pollutant levels (as well as ensure clear skies for the Opening Ceremonies). Together, these measures did help bring air pollution levels down significantly for most of the games. Many of these regulatory tools, and others like them, still have a place in other Chinese regions’ pollution management plans, and may be options for local government officials seeking to respond to emergency-level pollution events or to meet annual pollution limits as time runs short.


At the end of September, the iMEP students visited a Foxconn facility that makes computer connectors and other related components. Foxconn is perhaps best known to U.S. readers as a supplier and manufacturer for electronics like Apple’s iPhone; it is one of hundreds of Taiwanese-owned facilities in Kunshan that have previously formed the core of the city’s industrial activity.

After Foxconn spent some time in the U.S. and European media spotlights over reports related to serious questions of worker safety and rights (some more valid than others), the facility in Kunshan made new headlines in 2013 when an investigation suggested the plant was releasing large amounts of heavy metals into local waterways.  We were met at the site by a representative of the watchdog NGO Green Jiangnan, which promotes accountability for corporate pollution by conducting investigations and making environmental data accessible to the public. Green Jiangnan is one of the NGOs that filed reports triggering formal investigations into the factory’s wastewater practices. But the conversation we had with the NGO rep and the company’s environmental management team gave the impression that they now see each other not as adversaries but more as partners, working for a common goal of environmental protection.

Over the past few years, the Foxconn facility has made major strides toward cleaning up its effluent and its footprint. In particular, we talked about a complex remediation project meant to clean up one of polluted streams affected by the heavy metal releases. The company had to temporarily drain the contaminated channel behind the plant, then remove the layer of toxic sediment from the bottom, which it then dried out and sequestered in cement to keep the contaminants from spreading. We later visited the remediated channel, now planted with floating palettes of native aquatic vegetation that will hopefully recolonize the waterways and further improve water quality. Fish are once again reported in parts of the stream where previously none had been able to thrive.

Despite the major effort and resources invested by Foxconn to clean up its operation, the region’s waterways (which also receive wastewater from many of Kunshan’s other industrial facilities) were not on track to meet county monitoring standards at the end of last year. This fact precipitated a sudden announcement by the local government last December that hundreds of operating plants would be forced to shut down for a few weeks to try to stay beneath the target pollution limit. While the announcement was walked back to a half-time shutdown, the event sent a message to many of the facility owners and operators in the area, according to news interviews from the time: Some industry representatives believe that Kunshan, like many other cities near China’s populous coast, is looking to ratchet down pollution levels while at the same time move away from some of the heavy industrial sectors that put them on the map. As the local and national focus turns toward incubating high-tech and scientific innovation and climbing the global value ladder, some of the factories that drove Kunshan’s rise to prosperity may no longer fit within the city officials’ ideas of what Kunshan should become.


Conversations about pollution from companies that aren’t directly consumer-facing allude to uncomfortable but essential questions that stretch far beyond Foxconn and Kunshan, across industries and across national boundaries: who, exactly, bears the responsibility for damages, environmental and human, along the winding path of the world’s increasingly decentralized and diffused supply chains? Much of Kunshan’s heavy industry would not exist without an enormous market of customers abroad, or the national and multinational brands positioned to move these products around the planet.

Manufacturers want customers, consumers want low prices, brands want market share and high profit margins, governments want to make their constituents well-off. No actor in these systems is going around actively trying to create pollution crises; moreover, each actor is deeply influenced by pressures and incentives from all of the others. So maybe the more helpful question than “who’s to blame,” then, is “how do we do better?”

Environmental problems—whether due to permissive regulations, technical struggles or cut corners—can sometimes motivate change, if they are visible enough. This has driven the recent focus in China on cleaning up air pollution—not just eerie photos, but the availability of monitoring data to the public and to public-advocacy groups. Making the real picture of the global supply chain’s environmental impacts more visible to the public eye is a great start toward improving those impacts; groups like Green Jiangnan and the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs have done difficult, groundbreaking work toward making these issues visible, with real international repercussions. And under the right circumstances, governments and companies that take environmental responsibility seriously can turn the tide for whole industries, by supporting the development of new clean technologies and making environmental compliance both a norm and a necessity.

At the same time, Kunshan’s rising pollution standards and eagerness to move towards higher tech endeavors hints at a broader problem with pursuing cleaner industry in a global context. Facilities seen as highly polluting—once welcomed for their economic impact—have been increasingly pushed away from some of China’s wealthier and more populous provinces over the last few years. As China continues to ramp up its domestic environmental protections and demand a cleaner environment for its own citizens, will the factories and operations that have driven its pollution problems really clean up to the degree demanded by stricter regulations? Or will they find it easier at some threshold to simply move production processes elsewhere—perhaps across national boundaries into central Asia, Africa or Latin America? The idea of “leakage,” of economic forces pushing pollution across political boundaries when regulations are tightened in one location but looser in another, is nothing new.


Recently, Americans may have heard mention of Foxconn for reasons not related to Apple: With Donald Trump holding a shovel, the company broke ground this summer on a facility in Wisconsin, which offered the firm billions of dollars in incentives to locate investment in the state. State officials tout the potential for jobs and economic growth. Activists there are concerned over the potential for damage to local water resources, as well as certain promised regulatory exemptions to the environmental permitting process for the 3,000-acre project. But in theory, the planned plant will incorporate a ‘zero-waste’ water recycling system (though the plans for exactly what will be built also seem to be in flux again, now that the deal is done).

Time will tell whether the local Wisconsin and U.S. laws (“streamlined” as some of their implementation will be), coupled with the technological investments planned, will truly protect local waterways to the extent Wisconsinites hope. While states or countries that are willing to incentivize new factories with billions of dollars must feel that they are getting a return on this investment in the form of an economic boost, such calculations don’t always take the full costs of development into account—costs such as the risk of long-term environmental degradation, planned or accidental, from a single new facility or the dozens that may follow it. What is the cost of investing upfront in cleaner machines and best-available waste management failsafes, and how does that cost compare to the (uncertain) possibility of having to pay later for intensive cleanup or public health problems? It’s certainly a lot easier to see and measure the effects of 10,000 new jobs on a community than to see and measure the value of the wetlands filled in to construct the factory, or of potential human health losses caused by slightly elevated exposure levels of certain chemicals over decades, should protections prove insufficient.

But while answering these questions will be an ongoing process, the first step toward truly sustainable and green production is improving our understanding of the nature and extent of existing supply chain problems. Pulling these issues into the public eye is a part of this puzzle. If companies must operate under the eyes of engaged public advocates everywhere they can choose to go, then real change may be possible. And if companies and public advocates can learn to work earnestly together, as true allies instead of adversaries, who knows what can be achieved?