The Environmental and Human Cost of Making a Pair of Jeans
Americans do love their denim, so much so that the average consumer buys four pairs of jeans a year. In China's Xintang province, a hub for denim, 300 million pairs are made annually. Just as staggering is the brew of toxic chemicals and hundreds of gallons of water it takes to dye and finish one pair of jeans. The resulting environmental damage to rivers, ecosystems and communities in China, Bangladesh and India is the subject of a new documentary called The RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet?.
It is estimated that 70 percent of Asia's rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by that continent's textile industry. In scene after scene in the film, the dark frothy spill off can be seen rushing out of dye facilities while a cadre of scientists and environmental experts detail the public health crisis that has resulted from the largely unregulated manufacturing process.
Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue has won 13 awards globally including Best Documentary at Raindance in London and will be receiving the Green Drop Award from Filmambiente at the World Water council on World Water day, March 22. Three years in the making, the film follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by the chemical waste and the local communities who rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. These communities suffer from a high incidence of cancers, gastric, skin and related issues afflicting both their residents and factory laborers.
Mark Angelo (left) paddles a river devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries with Roger Williams (right).RiverBlue
The Chemicals in Your Jeans
What makes the process of making jeans so poisonous to people and planet? Consider just one of the most popular types of jeans today—distressed. To get that "lived in" look, denim is subjected to several chemical-intensive washes. Campaigners from the environmental group Greenpeace, who tested the outflows near dyeing and finishing facilities in the top denim producing towns in Asia, found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang one of the locales featured in the project. Toxic campaigners in China also discovered heavy metals like manganese, which can be associated with brain damage, in the rivers.
These chemicals don't stay put. They can also be transported to our North American oceans, atmosphere and food chains and accumulates in places far away from their original source.
Where Should the Change Be?
The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes faster and cheaper for the consumer? "Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health," explains Angelo.
The solution the film's producers unveil is two-fold: through innovation and consumer education there can be change.
Director David McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans which didn't do damage to the environment. He found the father of distressed jeans: Francois Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago. "It took 40 yrs. before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong," says Girbaud of using permanganate in the 1970s. "If people knew that the spraying of permanganate on your jeans to give you that acid- wash look was killing the guy doing the spraying, would you still want that look? I don't think the customer is aware of what is happening abroad. We have to change the process of making jeans and brands have to be willing to invest because we are destroying the planet," says Girbaud.
A Better Jean Through Technology
In California now, the designer was trying to re-establish himself as manufacturer of good jeans when McIlvride found him. "He led us to the Spanish company, Jeanologia where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) and eliminating water without increasing the cost," says McIlvride. They are now considered a leading industry innovator.
Jeanologia distressed jean.
It was a trip to China in the mid 90s that made Alex Penadés and the other execs at Jeanologia want to change the way they did business. At the time the company was a jeans washing consultancy for finishers researching and investigating industry solutions.
"Once we saw the pollution in the rivers and the workers exposed to the chemicals we knew we had to innovate." Jeanologia now creates technology to treat and finish jeans (giving them a certain feel or aesthetic). "We started searching for ways to make garments in a more sustainable way. We have been dyeing clothes with water since the beginning of time and we faced the reality that even though it had been done this way in the mass consumer world, it was not sustainable," explains Penadés.
Jeanologia began working with Girbaud in 2003 and still does. They developed several technologies using light and air to finish jeans using little water and no chemicals. "It wasn't pretty at first and for designers the look is the most important thing," he says referring to their first prototypes back in 1996. "It took us a while to get better to convince industrial finishers to make that shift," says Penadés who works with brands like Levi Strauss, V.F. Corp (makers of Lee and Wrangler)., PVH Corp. (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger), Inditex (Zara), H&M, Uniqlo and Marks & Spencer among others. Today, laser technology can give a pair of jeans a worn look instead of sandblasting or hand sanding which can be lethal or detrimental to workers and the environment. Their G2 ozone treatments introduced in 2005, fade down the color of a jean instead of using chemicals like bleach or hypochloryte. In 2011, they unveiled eflow technology that uses air (nanobubbles) instead of water to dye jeans and give them properties like softness and wrinkle repelling. The company is also expanding, working on the technology for knits, wool, cottons and blends.
Using these innovations, an average pair of jeans requires just a glass of water to finish when it used to require 300 liters. "It requires a big capital investment," says Penadés of the technology. Depending on the business model the capital investment is made by the dyeing and finishing facilities or brands. "In the beginning it was like preaching in the desert," he says. "Everyone was comfortable doing things in the same way as always. Why should anyone change their methods of production if they are doing well?"
Jeanologia has Environmental Impact software to measure the footprint of every style and brands know where they are and how they can improve. Penadés has seen the tide started to change. Three years ago, about 16 percent of the jeans in the world were made in a sustainable way he says. Now 35 percent of the jeans are made more sustainably. "About 6 billion pairs of jeans are made a year so that means 2 billion pairs are now being made in a more sustainable way."
Innovation Through Science
While filming the movie, most denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. Italdenim, one of three denim manufacturers in Italy, invited them to film at their facility. President Luigi Caccia had been making denim for more than 40 years when he too realized rivers were dying and workers were becoming sick from the chemicals they were exposed to. In 2014, he sought to create a cleaner dyeing process. First his company invested in a machine, the only one of its kind in the world, that takes indigo dye and uses electrochemicals (Co2 and O2) and no water to make the colors for their denim.
They then found a company using chitosan, which comes from the waste of the food industry (it is the natural derivative of chitin which is the exoskeleton of shrimp and crab) and applied it to the yarn after dyeing it. "It creates a shell to protect the color so dyes will not rub off and less dye is needed overall to color the denim. This new process saves chemistry, water and energy and is biodegradable. Because there are no chemicals, the process doesn't create skin problems. "Your skin absorbs 65% of what you put on it, good or bad. We introduce chemicals to our skin with the food we eat, the environment we live in and our clothes. You can choose if you want to smoke or not but no one tells you that your denim may be harmful to your body," says Caccia.
The Cost to Make a More Sustainable Jean
Italdenim sells their denim to 30-40 brands around the world including Joe's Jeans and Mother Jeans in the U.S. "It was important to find solutions that did not increase the cost of the fabric so it would be available to all. If a brand wants to buy a sustainable denim it should cost the same as the alternative. We should be able to produce that or we should find ourselves a new job."
Penadés says brands have a choice to manufacture in a traditional way or a sustainable way. "The water and energy of traditional production is costly and so is pollution. Today, including the capital investment, you can produce the same product at the same price. Brands can do it. If the consumer is aware they have to request these kinds of products today. Consumers must also know what their impact on the environment is because of their acts of consumption. It's all about co-responsibility."
Girbaud agrees. He now hears customers asking where things come from and how clothes are made. "Brands are finally talking about this, too. I just hope I live to see the changes."
Watch the trailer for RiverBlue below:
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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