A river in China has turned blue, an indigo blue, all from the pollution of making blue jeans. In Bangladesh, tannery workers with no protective clothing treat leather with noxious chemicals, before dumping the runoff into the river. Further downstream, people bathe in the same waters that are deep black, orange, purple. Children in these areas are not able to smell and skin diseases – rashes, ulcers, boils – are widespread. Pollution, often carcinogenic, enters the food chain too: boatmen bring a haul of fish to shore, which they find floating on the surface of the black water, dead.
This is a systemic problem, driven in part by consumer demand for cheap clothing in wealthier countries. The developed world embraced free trade in the 1980s and 90s, resulting in the closure of the biggest textile factories in America and Europe, previously the hubs of global production regulated by strict pollution laws. The textile and leather industries were just two of many pollution-heavy industries that shifted across the planet towards the end of the twentieth century.
In pursuit of lower priced goods, higher profit margins from cheap labor, and nonexistent regulations, factories sprang up in China, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Simultaneously, demand, production and pollution ballooned as the west embraced the hedonistic rush of no-strings-attached cheap clothing.