Fashion Blindsided


“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” – Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Textiles is one of the three top water polluting industries in the world.

At the World Water Week 2016 in Stockholm – “Water for Sustainable Growth”, the discussions on “The Next Big Paradigm Shift: From Linear to Circular Economy” started with a thought provoking keynote on why the shift is impending followed by panel discussions on the challenges on getting there. The lack of industry leadership and political will power to support this shift were typically lamented (watch the whole session here).

In China, the State Council has identified nine industries and industrial parks which it wants to see shift from a linear to a circular economy. Flow charts and plans of how to achieve these have been drawn up in the Circular Economy Development Strategies & Action Plan. The textiles industry is one such industry identified.

To deliver a win on the war on pollution and water use, it is obvious that the most polluting and most water intensive sectors will be targeted. Textiles rank among the top 3 industries for water pollution and water use. In China, the textile industry discharges double the amount of wastewater discharged by the coal industry – China produces almost half of the world’s coal, so you imagine how dirty fashion is under the glam.

With almost half the world’s cotton supplied by India and China, the two most water stressed countries in the world, it is not surprising, as per a report by CottonConnect,  that brands need to do more to help farmers extract more crop per drop (read their views here).

Tirupur is the largest hub for knitwear exports in India. Europe is the largest market for Tirupur’s garments which accounts for about 48% of the exports from Tirupur, the US constitutes only 25% of the shipments from the knitwear town.

In 2002, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) loaned $25 million to the government of Tamil Nadu and a local clothing industry group, the Tirupur Exporters Association, to finance a new water-delivery system. It kick-started a slew of investment into the project; a local consortium eventually raised an additional $220 million. The U.S. consulate in Chennai in a 2006 press release explained that before the American intervention, the local industry “was running out of water, a critical input for dyeing and bleaching.” As a side note, the release noted that the thousands of slum dwellers in the area could finally have access to treated, running water.

The USAID project, which piped in clean water from a stretch of the Noyyal in a nearby farming region, helped the local industry boom. Between 2002 and 2012, U.S. knitwear imports from India jumped from $571 million to $1.25 billion, and an estimated 56 percent of those garments came from Tirupur. But all that growth has had devastating consequences for the environment and people living in the area.

An article published in Newsweek on August 21st, 2015 states that pollution due to textile waste water has destroyed 30,000 family owned farms.  Local leader of the Orathupalayam Farmers Association, Chelliappan Udayakumar says in the article, that for generations, Udayakumar’s family farmed this land, growing local crops such as rice, banana, coconut and turmeric. “There were good jobs and good livelihood,” says Udayakumar. Now, “there is no cultivation of the land, no income.” The small-scale agriculture lifestyle that characterized the region for centuries, he says, has “fully collapsed.”

Orathupalayam village, a small town at the base of the Orathupalayam dam. Abandoned brick homes painted light blue and topped with red tile roofs dominated the main square. Plaques on the homes commemorated their erection—most date from the late 1980s, when construction of the dam began. Twenty-five years later, the Orathupalayam is one of over 60 villages that have been transformed into ghost towns.

The dam was supposed to update agricultural irrigation practices in Tirupur. But by the mid-2000s, the water was so saturated with chemicals, salts and heavy metals that local farmers were petitioning the Madras High Court—the highest court in state Tamil Nadu, of India—to not release the water into their fields. It was making farmland unusable and locals sick. In 2002 and 2003, a local university set up three camps to examine the health effects of the toxins downstream. In one of the camps, doctors found that about 30 percent of villagers suffered from symptoms—including joint pain, gastritis, problems breathing and ulcers—connected to waterborne diseases. A 2007 study by a local nongovernmental organization found that Tirupur’s 729 dyeing units were flushing 23 million gallons per day of mostly untreated wastewater into the Noyyal River, the majority of which collected in the Orathupalayam Dam reservoir. When officials finally flushed the dam in the mid-2000s, 400 tons of dead fish were found at the bottom.

The benefit to the U.S. consumer is clear: Just drive to a nearby mall and pop into H&M, Uniqlo, Gap or any other fast-fashion label, and check the clothing tags. It’s likely that they’ll say the garments were made in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, China or Bangladesh—all countries competing to make a T-shirt that costs Americans and Europeans just $5 but takes a heavy toll on the people at its source. Near critically polluted waters like Bangladesh’s River Buriganga and Cambodia’s Mekong River, life-sustaining farms are dying, potable water has become toxic and locals are now at great risk for serious illness, all as a result of industrial-scale clothing manufacturing.

Citarum River, which provides 80 percent of surface water to Jakarta, Indonesia and irrigates farms that supply 5 percent of Indonesia’s rice, was among the most polluted due to hazardous industrial waste. Textile factories in Bandung and Cimahi (Indonesia) were found to be the major toxic waster contributors to the river that was also judged the dirtiest river in the world in 2007, threatening health of 5 million people living on the river basin. The mercury, which is burned off during the smelting process, released toxic chemicals into the air and waterways, where it might accumulate in fish and water.

Citarum river Indonesia

What’s the solution?

Chinese government has highlighted recycling clothing waste and reusing of chemical and natural fibers (including cotton) as part of its circular economy plan for the sector.

There has been a shift in regulatory landscape where linear economies will be hit to protect the environment. A circular economy/ closing the loop is not a “nice-to-do” as part of a water corporate stewardship strategy/program, the government is signaling that it is a “must-do” in China. This is just the beginning; the war on pollution has just started.

How serious is China? China is spending almost US$1 trillion to clean and protect its water resources. Economic losses brought on by pollution are estimated at US$498 billion. China makes half the world’s textiles and its textile exports market is worth US$277 billion. Global apparel sales are worth US$1.7 trillion. The math is not difficult. India and other countries must do their math and come up with a solution to protect the blue planet.

References and further readings:
Main image courtsey:


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