After watching the River Blue my attitude to water, and to my wardrobe has changed. Yours will too. The Vancouver-produced documentary is a sobering look at the fashion industry and how it has prioritised profit over planet. The film, released in 2017, takes you on a journey around the world with international river conservationist, Mark Angelo: from China to India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Zambia, England and the US.

A third of the pollution in the river is made up of untreated sewage while two thirds comes from the tanneries upriver

Angelo explains how the manufacturing of clothing has polluted earth’s “vital arteries”. Take Dhaka, the largest city in Bangladesh which is home to the Buriganga River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The garment and tannery industries here have contributed heavily to what experts describe as a “water pollution catastrophe”.  A third of the pollution in the river is made up of untreated sewage while two thirds comes from the tanneries upriver. Industrial pollution, chemicals and heavy metals result in a river that is “more chemical than water” according to Angelo. It is incapable of sustaining life and in parts it is so bad, “you can literally set it alight”. Bangladesh’s leading environmental lawyer and a 2009 recipient of the Goldman Prize, Syeda Rizwana Hasan says she feels no need to imagine what hell looks like, a trip to a tannery would probably tell her all she “needs to know”.

Since the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse when more than 1000 Bangladeshi garment workers lost their lives, there has been an increase in global awareness of the human cost of fast fashion (low cost, high volume clothing). But the effects of the fashion industry on natural resources remain a blind spot to many. There is a particular scene in the documentary that contrasts images of high fashion leather handbags on catwalks with images of tannery workers lugging around wet, slippery, chemical-drenched animal hides.  Toxic, murky pools of water dot their workplace. It is a powerful scene, illustrating the lack of environmental regulations.

The world’s largest garment exporter is China, the most populous country on earth with 1.3 million people needing clean water as the rivers become“floating disaster zones”.   World Watch Institute found that 70% of Chinese lakes and rivers are contaminated, which leaves little fresh water for the people who rely on these sources of water.   Ma Jun, one of China’s most prominent environmental activists, says that there are “extraordinarily” high rates of cancer and other diseases in areas where people live along the countryside rivers.  Investigations conclude that the textile industry leaks carcinogens related to dyes and chemicals that may disrupt the hormone system into the water. Despite being banned in Europe or North America, some of these carcinogens can still be found in use in China.

Every year the textile industry in China expels around 2.5 billions tonnes of waste water

“There is a joke in China, they say you can predict the ‘it’ colour for the season by looking at the colour of the river,” says the co-founder of activist movement Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro. “Every year the textile industry in China expels around 2.5 billions tonnes of waste water and much of that is not properly treated.”

As the fashion industry is a huge and global entity, it is hard to track and clearly define all the processes involved in the manufacturing of garments. But by focusing on a single iconic item, it is easier to understand how we all contribute to industrial water pollution. Those in the fashion business have long known about the dirty secret behind the manufacturing of one particular item: blue jeans. The textile industry uses 3.2% of water available to the entire human race every year. “Denim, the way we are using it now, will be seen as fashion’s greatest stupidity and distressed denim is ‘insanity made visible’,” according to de Castro.But ethical denim designers have been rethinking the manufacturing process of denim jeans. While it may seem like a small step, they are part of a growing awareness around the world of the massive pollution being created by the clothing we wear.

Milan-based Italdenim turns shellfish exoskeletons discarded by the food industry into a thread coating that drastically reduces the chemicals needed to dye denim. While Spanish manufacturer Jeanologia uses an “ozone machine” and lasers to bypass the water-intensive techniques used to create worn-in-looking denim washes.

The big question now is whether the big retailers will make the right decisions in the right timeframe

Increasingly people are questioning the use of toxic chemicals and materials that leave huge environmental footprints, and they are tapping into technology and creativity to make beautiful product with values to match. The big question now is whether the big retailers will make the right decisions in the right timeframe. All those interviewed in the film share the same view – big brands and big retailers in the West today outsource their manufacturing, and with that they think they outsource their responsibility.

We have depleted natural resources and irrevocably changed our climate. By buying such a huge amount of clothing we are burdening the environment beyond its capacity. Something has to give. Jung Ma believes that once consumers understand the effects of their shopping on the planet they will use their consumer power to change the manufacturing behaviour.

That means you and me.

  • Follow the Hong-based, South African-born aggregator and agitator, Tanja Wessels on @allinasia to find out more about regional pioneers in environmentalism. Tanja gave up buying new clothes on May 10 2017.