Toxic manufacturing When Domsjö’s wood pulp becomes viscose in India it is by using methods that have harmed people and the environment for more than a hundred years. So why are Swedish fashion companies such as H&M pretending that this is new and clean?
This is what we know: The manufacturing process of viscose requires chemicals. The wood pulp does not allow itself to dissolve and be spun into thread, it resists. Something must be added, something to force this process to occur.
We know that workers have always suspected there is something in the air. Something invisible that is felt in the lungs, making it hard to breathe.
This technique is old. Viscose has been manufactured in factories all over the world for hundreds of years. We know that without solvents there is no thread.
Bleaching without discharge
The Swedish Forest will save the fashion industry. So now I’m standing here below the tall chimneys in Domsjö. The Indian viscose giant Aditya Birla purchased the biorefinery – that is what the mill is now called – about ten years ago to secure access to its specific cellulose. A high-quality dissolving compound made mostly from Swedish forests.
In addition, Aditya Birla received one of Sweden’s cleanest industries. A factory to proudly show off to fashion companies and everyone who can’t wait to buy a shirt with a clean conscience.
Last summer a friendly Indian man appeared at the mill. He introduced himself as Surya Valluri, Chief Sustainability Officer at Grasim Industries – the part of Aditya Birla that manufactures viscose fiber – and responsible for the entire production chain. ”From tree to thread” as they express it.
He claims to have the answer to the fashion industry’s all-important question: How can the industry continue to sell clothes to customers that expect sustainably produced fashion?
Part of the answer can be found in Domsjö in Sweden. Here the forest becomes dazzling milky white sheets, ready to be packed and shipped off to Asia.
Everything is clean and well maintained, some rooms are cleaned several times a day. The wood pulp is bleached in a closed system, completely without chlorine and without emissions. The biogas is captured and recycled.
A short distance from the plant, the river Moälven flows into the Baltic Sea. Due to the proximity to the mill, which has been located here since the beginning of the 20th century, the river became polluted.
Now the sea trout once again swim past the mill and up the river. “Living proof of the result of our environmental work” I read on the company’s website.
The finished packages are stacked from floor to ceiling down by the water. The port is only a few kilometers away from the mill itself. From Örnsköldsvik the sheets are shipped via Lübeck on to India. The dissolved pulp is once again unpacked, this time in a different world.
A world of chemicals.
H&M on sustainable fashion
The new world?
In October, Surya Valluri and I travel from Mumbai to the state of Gujarat. We are on our way to one of the company’s viscose factories in Kharach. Viscose fiber has many advantages, he says. He repeats the same arguments several times:
The production requires less water than cotton.
Cotton takes up valuable claimed farmland, viscose does not.
Polyester is made from crude oil, viscose from the forest – the forest is renewable, and if the finished viscose textiles end up in nature, they are degradable.
At one point he reaches over the car seat’s headrest and shows a picture on his phone. It is of n H&M label with the name of Aditya Birla’s viscose fiber. But he knows that I know. I have read the reports of poor work environments and dirty emissions from the company’s factories in India and Indonesia.
The fashion companies were horrified. Hardly the green alternative they had been promised. Swedish H&M demanded immediate change: if Aditya Birla could not take responsibility for its production, if it could not guarantee that people and the environment wouldn’t be harmed – H&M would stop purchasing from the company.
Surya Valluri brings up the criticism himself when we stop for lunch just off the highway. We are the only customers eating in an air-conditioned room. He plays down the drama.
For him it’s very simple: there were unknown problems, new technology and European requirements they were not aware of. The criticism made them realize that they must improve. It’s as simple as that. They usually live up to the Indian environmental laws, he explains, and they are not as hard as the European ones.
But as recently as 2017, the company’s factory in Nagda, one of their oldest, received hard criticism from “Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board”. The board supervises the companies active in the state, and makes sure they follow the environmental laws. The environmental authority stated that the factory discharged polluted water in the nearby Chambal River. The river was contaminated 16 kilometers downstream. The question to the company was simple:
“Why the factory shall not close forthwith?”
Despite this, the factory was allowed to remain open. Three years later, the situation was urgent, according to the environmental authority. The pollution was worse than before. Despite this, H&M continues to purchase viscose from Aditya Birla. They are not alone: many major Western fashion companies continue to buy from the company.
Over the next 24 hours, the sustainability manager will try to convince me that viscose is the future.
He picks up the bill.
The guard salutes as Surya Valluri’s car passes the first security checkpoint and continues into the Kharach factory premises.
A group of middle-aged men from company management have been called in to attend and supervise throughout the day. The press manager is all big gestures and friendly smiles. Waiters in gloves and facemasks offer several kinds of cookies and then leave without a trace.
Today, Aditya Birla operates on several continents, in over 35 countries and with over 140,000 employees. It’s one of India’s largest corporate groups and one of the world’s largest producers of viscose.
Around 2,800 people live here in the factory area in Kharach. In addition to housing for the workers and their families, there is a school, hospital, green spaces, and buildings for leisure activities. Pretty much everything you need to never have to go outside the walls.
Everywhere there are security guards and small guard houses. Women from the surrounding villages sweep the roads. 1,100 students attend the company’s school, but today they have the day off.
No one is jogging on the kilometer-long exercise track the company has built. The benches next to it are unused. I wonder where the kids are on their free day.
Surya Valluri leads a several hour-long tour through a prototype factory, a kind of mock production facility where new techniques and materials are evaluated. Inventions and future areas of use are discussed in detail.
I thought we were going to see the real factory. Instead, time passes in a showroom where an engineer insists that I feel the company’s various fabrics.
Fake silke comes to mind. This is how viscose used to be marketed when it was first manufactured on a large scale a hundred years ago. Creative marketing is an inseparable part of the fiber’s history. Just like the contemporary attempts to relaunch the material as a sustainable eco-product.
What they don’t talk about, is how the material is manufactured.
All day Surya Valluri has been talking about viscose as the material of the future, the green alternative the fashion industry is crying out for. Better than cotton, better than polyester. An obvious choice.
But to go ”from tree to thread large amounts of chemicals are needed – both he and I know this. The technology was developed at the end of the 19th century and has not changed significantly since then.
How viscose fiber is manufactured
- Cellulose is boiled and bleached to extract the dissolving pulp. The raw material consists mostly of pulpwood.
- In the next step a range of chemicals are added, including carbon disulfide, in which dissolving pulp ages.
- The result is a thick syrup that is pressed through a filter with thousands of microscopic holes and becomes thread – viscose fiber.
On our way out of the factory, I ask again about the criticism.
”We intend to live up to the European requirements”, he replies.
The European Union requires that the best available technology be used. In a viscose factory, this means a closed system that captures and reuses the chemicals. The company has pledged to install such systems in all its factories.
Here in Kharach, it’s supposed to be in place before the end of the year. In many of the company’s other factories, it is still missing. This is the case in Nagda. Production started there as early as 1954.
”Nowadays, sustainability and sustainable methods are very important for the fashion industry”, he says.
He points out several times, that I must be on my guard against people with vested interests.
Everywhere there are those who, for one reason or another, want to damage the company’s good reputation.
The workers have always been right in their suspicions. Something invisible in the air makes them sick. To dissolve Domsjö’s pulp, a special substance is required.
The substance can dissolve pulp without fundamentally changing its chemical structure. The pulp then takes on a golden, liquid form – think honey – which is pressed through a filter with thousands of microscopic holes. Then it becomes thread.
For over one hundred and fifty years, it’s been a known fact that carbon disulfide is enormously harmful.
Dangerous work in Nagda
Ashok Meena is in his father’s house in Nagda. The house he grew up in. As a child, he could see the tall chimneys of the factory almost wherever he stood in the city. A sweet, rotten smell – not entirely unlike the one around the factory in Domsjö – hung heavily over the town even then.
Nagda can feel like an appendage to Aditya Birla’s huge complex. At shift changes, the streets are filled with blue shirts on mopeds. A reflective stripe across the men’s chest, the company logo just above.
”The fact that Birla came here is not bad. The factory creates jobs and livelihoods for many families”, says Ashok Meena. ”But these days Nagda is only known for its factory. There has been a negative impact as well, but the company doesn’t care about that. For example, that the residents’ health has deteriorated.”
He is not against the company, he explains. But they must start taking responsibility. Why should people suffer because of the factory?
In the past, there were viscose factories in large parts of the Western world. USA and Great Britain were major producers. Sweden had its own manufacturing in Värmland at the company Svenska Rayon. But in the second half of the 20th century, the industry began to move to countries such as China, India, and Indonesia. Moving production abroad was in many cases easier than refurbishing the factories.
”For our industry, the environmental requirements become a noticeable financial burden in comparison to competitors in countries with significantly more liberal environmental regulations”, said Olle Johansson, director of Svenska Rayon in the 70s.
In the beginning of the 21st century, production in the West was more or less history, if not completely gone. A few large corporate groups, among them Aditya Birla, now dominate the market.
The viscose factory here in Nagda is similar to the one in Kharach. Here, too, the workers are offered accommodation, school, hospital, and leisure activities within the company’s premises. The factory dissolves pulp from Domsjö and sells viscose that is used in H&M’s clothes worldwide.
“The house keeping of the unit has been found to be very poor”, the local environmental authority wrote in 2017. “Machineries are degraded, floors are cracked.”
Ashok Meena grew up in the shadow of Aditya Birla’s viscose factory. He worked there for sixteen years as a contract worker but would never think of returning.
”Why should I work in a place where I am not respected?” He earned just under 56 SEK a day.
Mukesh Pant wore a simple cotton facemask. Sometimes he would take it home, wash and reuse it.
His body got used to working in the fumes. The skin burned and stung, but he still worked. The contract workers were never given proper breathing masks.
He worked in the spinning hall, the place where pulp becomes thread – the beating heart of every viscose factory. The room has always been one of the most dangerous places for workers. Here the carbon disulfide, and other chemicals in which the dissolving compound has been soaked, are released.
”Even though the glass doors were closed, gas used to leak into the room”, says Mukesh Pant.
He leans forward when he talks. When he mentions something he thinks was particularly bad, he throws his hands in the air.
”I have seen colleagues pass out at work.”
”Those who were employed directly by the company, or were senior officials, received masks.”
According to the The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), exposure to carbon disulfide can lead to dizziness, poor sleep, headaches, anxiety, anorexia, weight loss and changes to vision. It can also damage eyes, kidney, blood, heart, liver, nerves and skin.
They used to ask for breathing masks, but never received any. Even being able to use simple facemasks was never a given. It was only after the union complained that they received gloves. But the job had to be done. What alternative was there?
He fainted twice.
No ambulance was called.
The company sent him home to rest.
Nevertheless, he says he would take a job at the factory again. An employment means regular pay. The health risks easily outweigh not being able to buy food and pay the rent. He would go back without hesitation.
He earned just under 58 SEK a day.
Kamlesh Sankhwar was laid off from the factory during the pandemic. He doesn’t know how to pay for his son’s education. Money comes and money goes. Sometimes he can find temporary work, sometimes he can’t. He never knows.
He says that in his department, everyone who was employed directly by the company was laid off. The responsibility was transferred to contract workers. They performed the same tasks and manufactured spare parts, but for less pay.
The working environment was poor.
”Top management pressures middle management to produce. But since we were the ones actually doing the work, the pressure landed on us. We were told to manufacture things we had no knowledge of. And we were far too few. Two people were given tasks that should require ten people.”
They were given safety clothes but with the requirement that they last at least two or three years. If they needed new ones, they would have to cover the cost themselves.
Never in his more than twenty years at the company did Kamlesh Sankhwar speak out against management.
”We were afraid of losing our jobs. That’s why we stayed quiet. If we tried to raise any problem, our immediate superior used to say: ’We will write you a letter and starting tomorrow you will not be welcome to work here anymore.’”
His work team was like a family. If any of them had a problem, they helped each other to solve it, no matter what. The relationship between them and management was different. They were never equals, never a family.
He earned just over 60 SEK a day.
Anger along the Chambal
I read on the company’s website that their ”commitment to giving back to society has led to an impressive transformation in the town of Nagda. The company’s unrelenting focus has had a significant impact on numerous villagers residing in the plant vicinity”.
Balu Gayri sets out two white plastic chairs. He picks up his sons Rohit and Vishal one at a time, both are paralyzed from the waist down. The father grabs them from behind and lifts. He is skinny, his shirt hanging from his body. Carrying them is no easy task.
People from the village gather around him and the children as he tells their story. The roof provides protection from the sun. The factory has caused so much trouble for them, he says.
The children could walk.
They went to school.
The family owned a piece of land.
At first the change was barely noticeable. One day the children began to use only part of the foot. As if overnight, they forgot how to put their feet down.
Then it just got worse.
The family sold the land they owned to pay for the children’s medical appointments. There is nothing we can do, said the doctors in Nagda.
Their uncle traveled with them all the way to Ahmedabad, in the neighboring state of Gujarat, to get answers. Maybe the doctors there would discover what the doctors in Nagda missed?
Say something other than: We can’t do anything.
Dhan Singh is the uncle’s name. He holds his hands up against the house wall. The nails on his right-hand look like they are about to fall off or crumble. He uses that hand to dig in the soil.
He shows a well from which the villagers used to take drinking water. But that was a long time ago. The water is undrinkable now, he says. It’s not even good enough for the animals. Next to the well: burnt farmland. The land has not been farmed for many years.
”We have not received any compensation from the company”, he says.
A farmer dressed all in white comes walking across the field. He points to the water bottle one of us is holding.
Can he have a sip?
”Why don’t you drink from the well?”
Now they have given up, says the father. According to the doctors, the children will never be well again. Even if there was anything they could do, the family still wouldn’t be able to afford the treatment. The family blames the drinking water.
The village where they live is called Parmarkhedi and is located downstream from the factory. Along the river are several villages where the population has traditionally lived off the land. But that is no longer possible, say the villagers. The earth has become bad. It doesn’t give what it used to give, if it gives anything at all.
Parmarkhedi is one of several villages that Aditya Birla supports. Here, the company has installed a water purification system. The reason is the high levels of fluoride that the company claims occur naturally in the groundwater.
I take my own water samples. I tie a string around the plastic sample bottle and carefully lower it into the well that Dhan Singh has shown me.
The samples show that the levels of fluoride are well below the Swedish limit. However, the sulfate levels are almost seven times higher than the Swedish Food Agency’s limit for drinking water. Water with high sulfate content can taste bad and cause diarrhea in small children.
One possible explanation is that viscose factories emit large amounts of carbon disulfide and sulfur sulfide. In the air, carbon disulfide is converted into sulfur dioxide and comes down as acid rain.
The local environmental authority took groundwater samples in the villages around the factory in 2017. Then they were able to find elevated levels of mercury sulfate.
It cannot be proven that the drinking water is the reason for Rohit’s and Vishal’s illness. But since a few years back, the company has delivered clean drinking water in tanks to several villages.
Many villagers in Azimabad Pardhi were contract workers at the factory but have lost their jobs in recent years. They believe that the factory has destroyed their ability to live off the land, and the company no longer offers them any jobs.
There is a water tank in the village. The water in their two wells is not drinkable. They needed to drill even deeper to find uncontaminated groundwater.
Children play in the running water from the tank, drink and rinse their hair. Let it flow along their back, down over their feet. They follow me along the streets. Farther into the village, around thirty of the residents gather. The factory induces a lot of anger. Hand gestures in the air, a chorus of voices.
They say: The skin itches, it’s the emissions.
They say: The tin roofs are destroyed, it’s acid rain.
They say: The water tastes salty, it is undrinkable.
A couple of years ago, a temporary medical camp was established in Parmarkhedi. Doctor HP Sonaniya examined the residents and noted several unusual symptoms and diseases:
– Paralysis. Weakness in the body, weakness in the legs, weakness in the forearms. Some also had difficulty breathing due to small particles in the lungs.
Balu Gayri and a friend of the family carry the children into the inner room. It’s dark and cool here. The children get tired if they sit for too long and need to eat lunch. He places them on the floor in front of a bowl and a plate of bread and fruit.
The children need help with everything. To move, eat, wash, and go to the toilet. Everything. One of the parents must always be at home to take care of them, the other takes temporary agricultural work to bring in money for the family.
Dad is home today. The mother and daughter Manish are out in the fields. Out there, under the scorching sun, the mother Raju Bai says:
”Birla has made our life miserable.”
Chief Sustainability Officer Surya Valluri seems concerned. He has heard that I have spoken to workers and residents in Nagda. In a text message, he reminds me of what he said earlier:
There are many people with vested interests spreading false rumors. A couple of weeks later we speak again. He is calling from a conference in the United States.
”If I were to express myself in one sentence: we have always been careful and we have never bypassed the regulations.”
Then he says:
”The city has developed around the factory. If what they say is true, if people get so injured and sick, do you think the community would have grown like this? It’s a very simple question, a very logical question.”
When viscose was manufactured in Sweden
The air in Vålberg in Värmland was light blue and the repulsive smell spread far beyond the viscose factory and the village – even coins turned black due to the pollution. It had been like that for a long time. The factory had been located in Älvenäs since 1942.
”The rayon factory has long been branded as one of Värmland’s biggest environmental offenders. An image in the local newspaper with a pitch-black cloud over the factory has become a modern classic when the poor conditions are brought up,” Ragnar Magnusson wrote, who worked at the factory for several decades.
The factory pumped out sulfur dioxide and carbon disulfide.
In the fall of 2021, I met with Yrö Airman, the previous union-appointed safety representative for the company, at the Swedish Rayon Museum. It’s a small room that houses 60 years of Swedish viscose history. Even if it feels unthinkable today, the material was produced for a long time and on a large scale here, too.
A slogan that sounds familiar: ”From spruce to yarn.”
Ragnar Magnusson testified that for many years employees regularly fainted and needed to be dragged out to get fresh air. Nausea and eye problems were common. ”The spin-bath gas lay like a heavy smoke over the machine and gave off a sour and strong stench.” The fumes led to aggression and depression; some took their own lives.
Yrjö Airiman was employed at the factory in the seventies. He remembers once when he was cleaning a strainer, scraping off old cellulose. The sensation started in his legs and continued up to his genitals, an ice-cold sensation.
He knew why.
The carbon disulfide.
From where Yrjö Airiman and I were standing, we could see the harbor entrance and the old factory premises. Now it is a soil factory. He had always known that carbon disulfide was poisonous. Many of the chemicals they encountered were harmful. The factory was old, and the environmental work was neglected.
In the spring of 1979, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency demanded that Svenska Rayon be closed immediately. The company had long ignored its criticism and continued to pollute. Eventually management gave in, they decided to improve the work environment.
The employees received air-purifying respirators, the air in the spinning hall became cleaner and the levels of carbon disulfide were checked regularly. All staff had to submit a urine sample. If the concentration of carbon disulfide in the body was too high, the employee would be transferred to another part of the factory. The rules were tightened.
Because they knew.
We have always known.
Note: This story was made possible by a grant from the aid organisation Union to Union.
The Swedish version of the text can be found here:
Den stora modebluffen
När Domsjös trämassa blir viskosfiber i Indien görs det med metoder som har skadat människor och miljö i mer än hundra år. Så varför låtsas svenska modeföretag som H&M att det är nytt och fräscht?