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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.

The solution the film's producers unveil is two-fold: through innovation and consumer education there can be change.

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.


RiverBlue

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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In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying "there is a joke in China that you can tell the 'it' color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers."

In China, the factory of the world, it is estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. This sobering film is being screened worldwide this year, which premiered March 21 to a sold out crowd at the U.S. at the 25th Annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. The film will be featured at the Cleveland International Film Fest April 3-5 and at many other festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

In the opening scene of the new documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.”

[facebook https://facebook.com/EcoWatch/videos/1482521458427453/ expand=1]


In China, the factory of the world, it is estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. This sobering film is being screened worldwide this year, which premiered March 21 to a sold out crowd at the U.S. at the 25th Annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC. The film will be featured at the Cleveland International Film Fest April 3-5 and at many other festivals throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The film examines the destruction of rivers in Asia caused by the largely unregulated textile industry. It also connects today’s consumer appetite for fast fashion as a cause of this environmental degradation and explores how manufacturing innovation could help solve this global problem.

Co-directed by award-winning documentarians David McIlvride and Roger Williams and produced by Lisa Mazzotta, RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet was almost three years in the making and follows internationally celebrated river conservationist, Mark Angelo, as he paddles the rivers devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries. Angelo explained that these waterways in China, India and Bangladesh are devoid of life even as local communities rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing. The water in these rivers has become a public health crisis with a high incidence of cancer and gastric and skin issues afflicting those who work in the industry or live nearby.

Mark Angelo paddles a river devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim and leather industries.RiverBlue

One river the film looks at is the Buriganga in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of 50 million, home to a proliferation of textile mills and leather tanneries. This river has become one of the most polluted in the world. The tanneries which supply hides to fashion accessory industries use chemicals that can disrupt the hormonal and nervous systems to those who handle them. In the film, young children are seen working with skins and experts have said this has resulted in long term health problems.

One day while filming there, McIlvride knew what the work they doing was most urgent when they met a local journalist who said to him, “don’t you see you are killing us over here.”

In Kanpur, India alone there are more than 400 tanneries dumping toxic chromium into the water supply which subsequently turns up in cow’s milk and agriculture products.

“We are committing hydrocide,” said Sunita Narain, director general of Center for Science and the Environment in India. “We are deliberately murdering our rivers.”

The question the film poses to viewers: Are brand-name clothing corporations disregarding the environment in their zeal to make their clothes cheaper and cheaper and what role does the consumer play?

Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health,” explained Angelo.

The impetus for the film came from a photo McIlvride found online. He and Williams, producer and director of photography, wanted to do a film on rivers. McIlvride found, on Google Images, a photo taken by NASA of China’s Pearl River with a dark blue streak of pollution running through it.

“It was the area of China where most of the blue jeans are manufactured,” he explained. “I thought everyone wears jeans. We could bring this problem to the world stage.”

The team thought if these rivers are being destroyed, what is the human impact? The film drills down to look at how jeans are made, specifically distressed jeans that are so popular now and how the chemicals used in the distressing process have been especially detrimental to workers, rivers and surrounding communities.

This decline has not happened overnight but rather over decades. For the denim industry, it started after the signing of the much talked about North American Free Trade Agreement. From the 1960s to the 1990s, El Paso Texas was the blue jeans capital of the world producing 2 million pair of jeans a week. The North American Free Trade Agreement allowed brands to find cheaper labor outside of the U.S., initially denim manufacturers left for Mexico and subsequently to China, Indonesia and Bangladesh where wages were low and environmental regulations weak.

As prices for denim jeans plummeted and consumers bought more of them, it was the waterways that paid the price. Today, the average American buys four pairs of jeans a year. In Europe they buy 1.5 jeans a year. Now in China’s Xintang province (where the movie’s polluted river photo came from) 300 million pair of jeans are made a year. Consider that one pair of jeans uses 920 gallons of water and many mills produce without water treatment plants.

The solution the film’s producers unveil is two-fold: through brand and mill innovation and consumer education and change.

McIlvride was determined to find brands making jeans without environmental damage. He located the father of distressed jeans: Francoise Girbaud who introduced the eponymous stone washed jean decades ago.

“It took 40 years before we realized what we made and what we did was wrong,” said Girbaud in the film.

In LA 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,” Mcllvride said, “where they distress jeans by engraving images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) eliminating water without increasing the cost.”

While filming the movie, denim manufacturers barred the filmmakers from shooting inside their facilities. It was not until they edited the film, that an innovative, Milan-based brand allowed them access. Italdenim has put money into water treatment at their mill and created a dye fixant made with chitosan (derived from the exoskeleton of crabs), a substance that is not dangerous for laborers to touch and saves money by allowing reuse of the wastewater.

“Going forward, the leaders of the fashion industry and other industries will have to be much more aggressive in cleaning up and make sure they are not making money off environmental destruction,” said former Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, one of the experts interviewed in the film.

Angelo agreed: “I think all corporations have to be accountable for their environmental practices. No one has the right to damage or destroy a river. More within the textile sector have to commit to a fashion industry without pollution. And, the consumer has the power but has to seek out clothing made in an environmentally friendly manner. That would go a long way to improve things.”

McIlvride hopes the movie will be an agent of change and thinks teens and college students, who buy the most fast fashion, are the ones who can make the most change.

“They are the ones who should know about this and try to cut back on their consumption. If they see the impact of these retailers, I think they would be receptive to change because they are socially conscious,” he said. “We want this to have an impact on the consumer level. We want consumers to ask themselves, ‘do you really need to buy more clothes.’ Consumerism is the problem.”

We are hoping we are taking the same route that the organic food movement took. When consumers learn more they will make different choices.

Kathleen Webber is a journalist who has covered fashion for more than 20 years.

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