In the years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed more than 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers laboring to make clothing for largely Western brands, consumers have become increasingly aware of the human cost of making cheap clothing. But the environmental cost, which is no less pressing in the age of global climate change, can be harder to internalize. No one wants to buy a shirt that a person died to make, but what about a shirt that a river died to make? For many, the latter doesn't hit home in quite the same way.
This gap is what the filmmakers behind the documentary "RiverBlue" are trying to fill. Following conservationist Mark Angelo around the world, the film examines rivers in China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Zambia, England and the U.S., and notes the ways that they've been effected — usually for the worse — by the garment industry. The implications of toxic and polluted rivers, the film makes clear, are negative for people and planet alike.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that toxic dyes from textile manufacturing and heavy metals from leather tanning are often dumped directly into rivers in countries where environmental regulations aren't strict or well-enforced. Through interviews with local conservationists and ample footage of brightly colored or chemical-foam-ridden rivers, the film draws a connection between the fashion industry and the crisis facing some of the world's most significant arteries.
"Waterways have taken the brunt of [economic] development," notes water consultant Stuart Bunn in the film. "The approach that's been taken... has been focused firstly on development and the economy, and that's been done with a full acknowledgement of what that will do to the environment."
Ecological concerns for local wildlife are the most immediately obvious. In rivers like Bangladesh's Buriganga, which often serves as a dumping ground for chemicals from the country's buzzing garment industry, that means the river is incapable of supporting almost any animal life.
But there are human impacts to take into account, too. Angelo describes a local man who was cleaning fish that he'd found floating dead on the river — killed by a factory's chemical dump made earlier in the day — that he planned to feed to his family and sell in the market. Elsewhere, the tannery-polluted waters of India's Ganges river are used to irrigate farmland that will grow crops for human consumption. Both examples serve to demonstrate how chemicals so toxic they can totally wipe out aquatic flora and fauna end up being ingested by unwitting humans.
As a result, there are entire "cancer villages" that crop up alongside polluted rivers in rural China, and children who completely lose their sense of smell just by walking through the tannery district in their city in Bangladesh. The fact that much of the harm is inflicted on people and geographies far from the Western customers who actually consume the fashion in question is particularly striking.
"If everyone on this planet lived the way North America does, we'd need eight planets," remarks sustainable designer Nicole Bridger in the film.
While the picture "RiverBlue" paints is a dark one, it doesn't end in utter despair. After providing an overview of the current damage being done, it turns to rivers like the Thames in England to point out how a river can rejuvenate itself if given the chance.
"Forty years ago this river was in real trouble," says Angelo of the Thames. "There were no signs of life, primarily because of the pollution." Today, he notes, the Thames boasts more than 125 species of fish and plenty of waterfowl, in large part due to increased legislation against toxic dumping.
Innovation in manufacturing technology is also cause for hope. "RiverBlue" highlights the work being done by companies pioneering new techniques that minimize pollution and water waste. One such company, Milan-based Italdenim, has found a way to turn shellfish exoskeletons being discarded by the food industry into a thread coating that drastically reduces the chemicals needed to dye denim. Another, the Spanish manufacturer Jeanologia, is using lasers and an "ozone machine" to bypass the water-intensive techniques typically used to create worn-in-looking denim washes and distressing. Both argue that these new technologies aren't just for tree-huggers — they're for smart businesspeople, as well.
"If you save chemicals, first of all, you save money," insists Italdenim president Luigi Caccia. "Then you save nature."
When it comes to changing fashion's impact on the world's waterways, the film suggests, everyone has a role to play. Big brands like Gap, Nike, Zara and Puma, all of which have been linked to toxic water issues in the past, can, of course, have some of the largest impact by changing their own practices. But smaller brands that can pave the way by showing what's possible in the realm of eco-friendly innovation are important too. The media can help by continuing to educate the general population and holding large brands accountable. And every consumer can vote with their dollar by choosing eco-friendly products whenever possible.
"We cannot do much about history," notes human rights activist and former Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo. "But moving forward, let's make sure the leaders of the fashion industry... become much more aggressive in cleaning up their acts."
"RiverBlue" will premiere in 20 cities worldwide on Nov. 19, and will be released online on iTunes on Nov. 27. To find a screening near you, check the "RiverBlue" website.