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Our colorful clothes are killing the environment



This story was produced as part of CNN Style’s The September Issues, a hub for facts, characteristics and opinions on fashion, the climate crisis, and you.

When Haji Muhammad Abdus Salam looks across the litter-filled river near his home in one of Dhaka’s main garment manufacturing districts, he remembers a time before factories relocated.

“When I was young there were no garment factories here. We grew crops and loved to catch different types of fish. The atmosphere was very pleasant,” said da Savar, just north of the Bangladesh capital.

The river beside him is now as black as an inkblot. Abdus Salam said waste from nearby garment and dry cleaners has polluted the water.

“There are no fish now,”

; he said. “The water is so polluted that our children and grandchildren cannot have the same experience.”

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Haji Muhammad Abdus Salam, faces a polluted canal near his home that connects to the Dhaleshwari River in Savar, Bangladesh. Credit: Rakib Hasan / CNN

Bangladesh is the second largest apparel manufacturing center in the world after China, exporting apparel worth $ 34 billion in 2019. And clothes made, dyed and finished in the country often end up in high street shops. in the United States and Europe.

But as consumers browse the season’s latest color trends, few will spare a lot of thought on the dyes used to create everything from soft pastels to fluorescent hues, or their toxic history.

Fashion is responsible for up to a fifth of industrial water pollution, thanks in part to poor regulation and enforcement in producing countries like Bangladesh, where wastewater is commonly discharged directly into rivers and streams. The drain is often a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts and heavy metals that not only harm the environment, but pollute essential sources of drinking water.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change said it was “striving to minimize the negative impact on the environment from the largest export-generating sectors, including textiles and ready-made clothing.”

Minister Shahab Uddin said in an e-mailed statement to CNN that a number of measures have been taken to address the pollution, including updating conservation and environmental laws, imposing fines on polluters, the monitoring of water quality, the creation of centralized treatment plants and the collaboration with international development partners to improve wastewater treatment.

“Monitoring and enforcement activities … are playing a vital role in fighting pollution caused by illegal polluting industries. We have a policy and legal framework in place to address the country’s environmental pollution issues,” he said.

A man walks through colorful rainwater past a dye factory in Shyampur in June 2018. His waste is dumped into the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A man walks through colorful rainwater past a dye factory in Shyampur in June 2018. His waste is dumped into the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Allison Joyce / Getty Images

Ridwanul Haque, managing director of the Dhaka-based NGO Agroho, called toxic chemical pollution “a huge problem in a country like Bangladesh”. Haque, whose organization provides clean drinking water and free medical care to marginalized communities, said the rivers and canals that flow through Dhaka have taken on a “pitch black color” due to the sludge and wastewater produced by the dye factories. and fabric processing. The water is “very thick … like tar” and during the winter – when the monsoon rain no longer dilutes the wastewater – “you can smell it,” he said.

A 55-year-old, who has lived in Savar for the past 18 years and did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, said polluted waterways are a health risk to his family.

“Children get sick if they stay here,” he said, adding that his two children and grandson can’t live with him “because of the water.”

Cost of color

The fashion industry uses about 93 billion cubic meters (21 trillion gallons) of water annually, enough to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Together with finishing, dyeing is the most polluting and energy-intensive process involved in the making of our clothes.

Finishing is when chemicals or treatments are applied to the fabric to give it the desired look or feel, such as whitening, softening or making the garment water resistant or wrinkle resistant. Large amounts of water and chemicals are also used when dyeing, to ensure the bright colors bond with the fabric and do not fade or fade.

Take denim as an example.

A jeans dyeing plant in Karachi, Pakistan shows spools of cotton before they are colored blue.

A jeans dyeing plant in Karachi, Pakistan shows spools of cotton before they are colored blue. Credit: Asim Hafeez / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Producing just one pair of jeans consumes about 7,500 liters (2,000 gallons) of water, from growing raw cotton to the finished product, according to the United Nations.

To ensure its blue color, the thread or fabric is repeatedly dipped in huge vats of synthetic indigo dye. After dyeing, the denim is treated and washed with multiple chemicals to soften or structure it. Getting the faded or “worn” look requires even more chemical baths, which use acids, enzymes, bleach and formaldehyde.

But jeans aren’t the only polluters.

“Every season we know the fashion industry has to bring out new colors,” Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmentalist, said in a telephone interview. But, he added, “every time you have a new color you will use more of it, new types of chemicals and dyes, pigments and catalysts “.

Once they’re done, the cheapest way for factories to get rid of unusable, chemical-laden wastewater is to dump it into nearby rivers and lakes.

Not all chemicals and solvents used are hazardous, although the World Bank has identified 72 toxic chemicals that are derived exclusively from textile dyeing. Once in streams, they accumulate to the point where light cannot penetrate the surface, reducing the ability of plants to photosynthesize. This lowers the oxygen levels in the water, killing aquatic plants and animals.

These also include chemicals and heavy metals that can build up in the body, increasing the risk of various types of cancer, acute diseases and skin problems. Others have been found to increase toxicity as they make their way up the food chain.

The chemical-laden water is also used to irrigate crops, with a recent study finding that textile dyes were present in the vegetables and fruit grown around Savar.

Once in the wastewater, the dye chemicals are difficult to remove, said Sarah Obser, head of sustainability at PFI Hong Kong, a company that provides environmental and factory audits in Asia. “The substances do not degrade so they remain in the environment”.

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Artisans spread fabrics on the ground to dry after undergoing a synthetic indigo dyeing process in Bagru village near Jaipur in India in December 2019. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli / AFP / Getty Images

While various types of dyes are used for different fabrics, azo dyes – synthetic nitrogen-based dyes – have been subject to particular scrutiny by the fashion industry and environmentalists. They are commonly used in garment making and produce bold colors such as bright reds or yellows.

But some azo dyes under certain conditions break down and release aromatic amines, a type of chemical compound (also used in pesticides and pharmaceuticals) that can increase the risk of cancer. These are so toxic that the European Union, China, Japan, India and Vietnam have banned their use and import.

Human impact

Water pollution from the textile industry is a huge problem in all apparel producing countries, most of which are in Asia due to its huge pool of cheap labor.

When environmentalist Ma founded the Beijing-based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) over a decade ago, many rivers and lakes in China – the world’s largest clothing manufacturer – were so polluted that they actually died. he said.

The Jian River in Luoyang in northern China's Henan Province turned red from the red dye that was discharged into the city's rainwater pipe network in December 2011.

The Jian River in Luoyang in northern China’s Henan Province turned red from the red dye that was discharged into the city’s rainwater pipe network in December 2011. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images

Since 2006, his NGO has developed pollution databases to monitor the environmental performance of companies, tested water sources and colored rivers and lakes based on how polluted they are.

“In regions with concentrations of these dyes, we have seen some lakes in China contaminated to such a degree that they are no longer usable,” said Ma.

Workers and people who live near factories often bear the brunt of pollution. According to Ma, fishermen living near dry cleaners and textile factories along the Qiantang River tributaries have seen their catches decline. “They have lost their livelihoods because of this,” he added.

In Bangladesh, the Savar resident who did not want to be named said he no longer enters the water around his neighborhood.

“This water causes sores on the body,” he said, adding that people who wash their hands or face in the water have experienced fever and skin irritation.

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Black water flows through the Savar Manufacturing District in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. Credit: Rakib Hasan / CNN

The NGO leader Haque, whose organization sends mobile clinics to the poorest communities in the country, said the toxic sludge also contaminates freshwater sources, because people use shallow wells.

“People have no other options so they have to … drink it (from). They are hopeless, they have no money to install a filter or drill (for) deep water,” he said.

Gastrointestinal problems and skin diseases are among the common ailments that directly attributes to textile pollution.

CNN contacted the Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Directorate of General Health Services and Dhaka Health Officials for comment.

Workers in a dyeing factory in Bangaldesh's capital, Dhaka, in February 2016.

Workers in a dyeing factory in Bangaldesh’s capital, Dhaka, in February 2016. Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain / NurPhoto / Getty Images

The chemicals used to dye clothes also impact garment workers who, in some factories, do not have adequate protective clothing and can inhale toxic fumes. In Dhaka, experts say there is a growing number of factories meeting international standards on the use and handling of chemicals, but there are still many smaller or subcontracted factories where conditions continue to be poor. ‘height.

“People have no gloves or sandals, they are barefoot, they have no masks, and they are working with dangerous chemicals or dyes in a congested area. They are like sweat factories,” Haque said, from first-hand accounts he heard while worked within communities linked to factories.

But as the textile industry is hugely important to Bangladesh’s economy, which accounts for 20% of its GDP and employs around 4 million people, residents like Abdus Salam don’t want factories to be closed.

“A lot of our people work in these factories,” he said. “If they close these factories, the workers will be out of work.”

Change of attitude

But the change is happening. In Bangladesh, there are signs that textile manufacturers are taking environmental responsibility more seriously, with brands engaging in initiatives, such as the Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT), which address the use of water, energy and chemicals in the ‘industry.

And some Bangladeshi factories have “environmental best practices and are developing their own connections” with suppliers, said Obser of PFI Hong Kong. But “it remains a challenge to completely eliminate smaller non-compliant ones because the fashion industry is very opaque and price-focused,” he added, saying many companies lack the training, knowledge or funds to deal with sewage. wastewater or invest in new waterless or environmentally friendly technologies.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change said it has made it mandatory for all polluting plants to install effluent treatment plants and manage them “optimally”. And under a new environmental policy called Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD), textile dyeing, finishing and washing industries “must come up with a fixed-term plan to reduce, recycle and reuse wastewater,” Uddin said.

“There is certainly room for further improvement,” even as rapid urbanization, high economic growth and industrialization exacerbate the country’s environmental problems. “These challenges cannot be eliminated overnight,” he added.

Other countries have also taken action. In China, a number of new and stringent environmental policies have been enacted in recent years, including a 2017 crackdown on textile and other polluting factories that saw the temporary closure of thousands of people who were violated by the environmental laws. In 2018, according to the state news agency Xinhua, the Chinese government introduced a new environmental protection tax aimed at reducing polluting discharges.

But he said factories and dry cleaners are increasingly being moved to industrial areas with centralized wastewater treatment plants, or threatened with fines and closures if they fail to comply with regulations.

The results have been “dramatic”, with many of the black, dead rivers he once saw come back to life.

A man works at a fabric dye factory in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, east China in January 2020.

A man works at a fabric dye factory in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, east China in January 2020. Credit: Featured China / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

A recent study found that such efforts have improved water quality in some regions, but toxic and polluted water still persists in some parts of the country.

The fashion industry as a whole has undergone what Ada Kong, head of Greenpeace’s Toxics campaign for East Asia, describes as “a paradigm shift” in its awareness of the impact of chemicals on the environment.

Greenpeace’s “Detox My Fashion” campaign which aims to eliminate dangerous chemicals from the fashion industry has seen, since 2011, big brands such as H&M, Adidas and Levi’s to identify suppliers and implement stricter environmental regulations and chemical management in their factories and supply chains.

There has also been a push for innovation in the search for alternative chemicals and new technologies that lead to the development of more environmentally friendly dyes.

Mountain to climb

However, many problems remain. For example, China’s centralized treatment plants sometimes fail to cope with the volume of wastewater produced in its new industrial parks. And existing factories, burdened with expensive treatment processes, often build secret sewage pipes or release their wastewater at night to avoid detection, Ma said.

CNN has contacted the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment for comment.

It also remains incredibly difficult for consumers to navigate the complex web of supply chains on which the fashion industry is built, even if they try to shop ethically. Often, fashion brands don’t own their own factories, so “their relationships aren’t stable” with their many suppliers, Kong said.

“They can only work with that supplier for two months or less for one batch of goods and then move on to another. This is not good for auditing or ensuring that suppliers are responsible for the environment.”

And while strides have been made towards traceability and accountability, there are still many brands and manufacturers who don’t take sustainability seriously, experts say.

“The mission has not yet been accomplished,” Ma said.

Sarees and other garments are woven, bleached and dyed before being printed in the city of Pali, India, before being distributed across the subcontinent.

Sarees and other garments are woven, bleached and dyed before being printed in the city of Pali, India, before being distributed across the subcontinent. Credit: Jeremy Horner / LightRocket / Getty Images

Some experts believe the push must come from big brands, which can encourage factories to build water treatment plants or invest in chemical-free technologies by committing to long-term contracts, even as costs rise.

“What we are asking for is that brands build a strong and lasting relationship with their suppliers, so that they can have more say in their environmental performance,” Kong said.

However, ridding the fashion industry of dangerous chemicals will likely become even more difficult as our addiction to clothing increases. Clothing consumption is projected to increase 63% to 102 million tons per year in 2030, according to a 2017 Pulse of the Fashion report.

“For the volume we are consuming, I don’t think there is a solution or a best case scenario without reducing the volume of our consumption,” Kong said. “Even if we all dressed in organic cotton and natural dyes, it would still be devastating.

In Bangladesh, those living along the black and contaminated rivers of the Savar say they still feel unable to stop the factories from pollution. Many fear the repercussions of factory owners who often hold significant influence or political influence.

However, the frustration seems to be growing. And if the authorities do not take further steps to clean up the water, said Abdus Salam, a Savar resident, “the future of this area will be filled with darkness.”

Additional reporting by Morshed Alam Chanchal.


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