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Cheap clothes in a chain store

John Cummins

Fast Fashion and Toxic Rivers

Global textile production has more than doubled since the year 2000. Is our love of cheap and poorly-made clothes destroying waterways in the developing world and killing those who live beside them?

by John Cummins

There is a joke in China: You can tell the colour of the coming fashion season by looking at the rivers.

It’s a nice line. But it highlights a deeply disturbing trend. These waterways are more than just pretty scenery, they are often the lifeblood of the communities that live alongside them.

A new documentary called „River Blue“ takes an in-depth look at the pollution being caused by the fashion industry and the terrible effects that this is having on local populations, particularly in developing countries.

The production of textiles often involves the use of highly toxic chemicals, which, in some cases, are simply flushed into nearby rivers. „River Blue“ director Roger Williams says there are settlements alongside these rivers that are known as cancer villages, because the people who live there are constantly getting sick and dying.

Ein Mann rudert mit einem kleinen Boot durch einen grüngefärbten Fluss in Bangladesh.

Adnan Islam (flickr-User adnanbangladesh)

CC BY 2.0, flickr-User adnanbangladesh

Insatiable appetite for clothes

Of course, the reason these factories are operating in the first place is our insatiable appetite for new clothes. More than 100 billion items of clothing were produced in 2014, which is more than double the quantity made in 2000.

Not only are we consuming more, retailers are constantly lowering their prices and bringing out new collections in an effort to keep us coming back. This business model can only be sustained if production is moved to developing countries, where costs are cheap and environmental standards are lax.

Herwig Schuster, an environmental chemist from Greenpeace and outspoken critic of so-called fast fashion, says most major retailers offer no service or advice anymore. Customers are simply encouraged to buy armfuls of clothes and then come back as soon as possible and do it all again.

But do we need, or even want all these clothes? Six out of ten interviewees between the ages of 18 and 40 admitted in a recent Greenpeace survey that they have more clothing than they need. Another study found that around half the clothes in our cupboards are not even worn.

Less is more

Not all retailers have adopted the fast fashion business model, however. Laura Ebenberger has been at the forefront of promoting ethically produced and environmentally friendly clothing in Austria through her shop „Ebenberg“ in Vienna’s Neubaugasse.

Laura actually turned her back on the fashion industry for several years after learning, during her studies, about the shocking environmental damage being caused by textile production in the developing world.

Laura Ebenberger in front of her shop

John Cummins

Laura Ebenberger in front of her store

In 2014, she helped organise the first Fashion Revolution Week which challenges customers to ask where their clothes are made. The campaign was sparked by the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment factory accident in history, which claimed more than 1000 lives.

Laura believes that such campaigns are having an impact; that more and more people are looking at where and how their clothes are made and are trying to consume less.

Despite the millions spent by clothing retailers to convince us that we need to keep up with the latest trends, Laura says reducing our consumption can actually be remarkably liberating.

The truth about recycling

Some clothing retailers, such as the Swedish giant H&M, have invested heavily in recycling programs. They argue that the only way to tackle the environmental problems in the textile industry is to „close the loop“ - tighten regulations on production and reuse materials so that there is no waste.

The company offers customers incentives to bring back their used clothes. These are then sold on second-hand or are turned into industrial products or rags. In some cases the fibres can be recycled and turned into new clothes.

Herwig Schuster says large scale recycling of textile fibres to make new fabrics is impractical, however, because of all the chemicals, such as dyes, softeners and biocides that are added to the material. At present it’s also very difficult to separate the different types of fabric.

Polyester is one material that can be more easily recycled because it is a polymer, a kind of plastic. In fact, 60 percent of fabrics used in clothing production today contain polyester. But Greenpeace says this is bad for the environment in a different way. Polyester releases tiny micro-plastics into waterways, which cannot be removed by filtration systems.

Which leaves us with re-use. We may feel better when we put our old clothes into recycling bins when we no longer need them, but activists say the market for second hand clothing is completely saturated. In fact, many developing countries have totally banned second-hand clothing imports because they are destroying local textile industries.

So what’s the answer?

The truth is that environmental damage caused by textile production is a complex problem with no easy solution. Certainly environmental standards at factories need to be tightened, particularly in the developing world, and the production of cotton and other materials should be made more sustainable.

But perhaps the best thing we can do is simply ask ourselves next time we go clothes shopping: How much do I really need the things that I am about to buy?

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