Your Blue Jeans Are Killing Asia’s Rivers

Posted by Isha Chitnis in Environment, Staff Picks
April 17, 2018

Did you buy a pair of blue jeans lately or do you already own a few (or many) of them? Congratulations, your seemingly harmless pair of jeans have contributed towards killing a river somewhere in the world.

That the glamorous, multi-billion-dollar fast fashion industry is turning the blue planet into a garbage dump to a level that’s irreversible is something we all know. But did you know that next to the oil industry, the fashion industry, is the most polluting industry in the world? Now, that’s saying something.

Fast fashion, with its 52-seasons-a-year cycle, has perpetuated and glorified the ‘use and throw’ type of consumerism. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like cheap clothing? However, what we don’t realize is that because it is cheap, it also doesn’t boast of the best quality, which is why you’re more likely to throw it out without a second thought. Fast fashion is easy on the pocket and easily replaceable, as opposed to the resources of this planet.

H&M Canada’s ad for “Ladies & Denim” is a perfect representation of the fast fashion industry’s neglect towards environmental impact of ‘you can never have too many pairs of your favorite jeans’.

The innocent blue jeans, which are an indispensable part of almost every person’s wardrobe nowadays come from an ever-growing, infallible industry which doesn’t seem to understand or is choosing to neglect the massive scale of damage it is causing to rivers.

H&M Canada’s ad for “Ladies & Denim” is a perfect representation of the fast fashion industry’s neglect towards environmental impact of ‘you can never have too many pairs of your favorite jeans’.

Xintang in south-west China is considered the “Blue Jeans Capital of the World”. It produces nearly one-third of the world’s jeans. Being home to around 3,000 businesses related to jeans and the capacity to produce 2.5 million pairs of blue jeans a day, Xintang is paying a heavy price for the booming industry.

XINTANG, CHINA – FEBRUARY 9: Workers manufacture blue jeans in Congshin textile factory on February 9, 2012 in Xintang, Guangdong province, China.The town of Xintang, nicknamed “the denim jeans center of the world”, claims to produce 60% of the world global output of jeans. (Photo by Lucas Schifres/Getty images)

That trending distressed, denim-wash look blue jeans have is the result of several chemical-heavy washes. Fabric printing and dyeing involves heavy metals like cadmium, sulphur, lead and mercury, which are chemicals you wouldn’t usually want to deal with. These chemicals from washing, along with the blue dye which is used on a monumental scale (remember the 2.5 million pairs of jeans a day?) is let untreated into the rivers nearby. The cost of treating this water may affect profit margins, which might be a reason for it not to be. The untreated waste renders water inhabitable for aquatic life and undrinkable and useless for humans. Moreover, it isn’t just the direct runoff from the factories that pollute the rivers. When we wash these same chemical-laced clothes at home, the domestic runoff also ends up in some water body in the proximity, which usually ends up in rivers and eventually the seas and oceans.

Wastewater discharged from a denim washing factory in China.

In 2010, Greenpeace conducted a survey in Xintang and Gurao, two industrial towns in China, discovering five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples. In one of the samples, cadmium exceeded China’s national limits by 128 times! It also launched the Detox campaign in 2011 to expose the direct links between global clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world.

A satellite image of a small river in Xintang flowing into the Dong River, which eventually leads to the Pearl River Delta. You guessed right, that dark blue isn’t its natural color. Image source: Greenpeace

This reality isn’t limited to just China. Other countries in Asia which extensively manufacture jeans are also facing a similar predicament. In Indonesia, one of the major sources of pollution is the fashion industry – with 68% of industrial facilities on the Upper Citarum river producing textiles. The printing and dyeing processes are particularly chemical-intensive and have contributed to the Citarum developing a reputation as one of the dirtiest rivers on earth.

Image source: Greenpeace

In Bangladesh, where the total investment in the denim sector has surpassed $900 million since 2015, the water is affecting fisheries, agriculture and public health to the extent of it becoming a disaster.

Is There A Way Out?

Definitely. Most of the brands having their jeans manufactured are multi-million dollar brands which can afford to treat the water which enters the rivers. Or even better, invest in research and development of techniques and innovations which don’t consume so much water in manufacturing jeans (One pair of jeans is estimated to take over 3,000 litres to produce) and don’t pollute and kill rivers in the process. Many brands like Levis, Denim Expert Limited, Italdenim, Everlane and Jeanologia are experimenting with ethical ways of producing jeans which create less waste and reduce water usage and pollution.

As customers, we have control over what we purchase and can, therefore, influence how a guilty brand fares in the fashion market. Ecowarrior Princess shares some tips on how to make decisions about purchasing a particular pair of blue jeans-

Before making purchases, do the research. Find out whether a brand shares information on the water usage at its factories, its dying and finishing processes, how its factories are powered (coal, natural gas, or renewables?), and how its products are transported.

Look for companies that are transparent about their entire supply chain — companies that have made legitimate commitments to tackle their pollution impacts, beyond superficial pledges that only reference upgrades at headquarters or stores.

Lastly, live the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra. Consider whether you truly need something before you buy it. Shop secondhand. And never send clothing to the landfill — always look for creative ways to recycle.

Sounds like a lot of work? It isn’t much, compared to the rivers that are trying to regenerate themselves from the pollution we are responsible for. It’s the least we could do for the arteries of the planet.
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Featured and Thumbnail image source: Lucas/Schifres