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Your Blue Jeans Are Killing Asia’s Rivers

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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.

Featured and Thumbnail image source: Lucas/Schifres
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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