Report: Fashion Kills Africa’s Rivers

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about fashion – an industry that creates excess waste, thereby contributing to global warming and which is also notorious for exploiting its workforce, especially so for the fast fashion side.

One immediate consequence of the pandemic has been a drop in consumer spending on fashion, which caused production and profits to plummet throughout the textile and apparel industry. With many people working from home, discretionary purchases of clothing to wear to the office was not a priority, especially in the face of such an uncertain future. At this point, no one can say whether this short-term trend is temporary or permanent. The appetite of younger people for fast fashion seemingly remains unabated, but their custom alone cannot sustain the industry.

This recent Water Waste International report, How fair is fashion’s water footprint?, caught ny eye. The report tracks the global fashion industry’s destructive impacts on Africa’s water supplies and on workforce health.

Many well-known brands source textiles in Africa, including Adidas, Calvin Klein, H & M, Izod, Levis, M & S, Reebok, and Tommy Hilfiger.

According to the report:

Pre- pandemic, Africa’s fashion exports generated revenue of US$ 4.6 billion a year, a figure which exceeds the annual flow of aid into Africa from any European donor. Africa now has an important toehold in the global fashion industry that in 2019 was worth US$ 2.5 trillion and employed 75 million people.

Yet when one looks at the impact this textile production has on Africa’s water supplies, the situation is depressing. I imagine one reason producers have gravitated to Africa is because countries have lax environmental standards – which means textiles can be produced at a lower cost:

Although pockets of good practice exist, our research shows that production of clothing, including for high street brands in Europe, the UK and the USA is killing Africa’s rivers through polluting discharges of untreated industrial wastewater. We find that the sector competes with communities and nature for access to scarce water, and that in some cases, factory needs are prioritised over the human right to water. We also find that factory workers, around 80% of whom are women, often lack access to safe water, washing facilities and toilets, and that this undermines their dignity, wellbeing and health, including through exposure to Covid-19 transmission. Notably, a lack of access to clean water and toilets in the workplace is a widely recognised indicator of modern slavery.

The report is short and is well worth a read. Although much of the evidence presented is anecdotal, the report’s analysis rings true to me.  I’ve visited many textile producers, mainly in India and Indonesia,  as I’ve researched my book on Indian textiles and I know from my first-hand experience how thirsty textile production is – even the artisanal variety that I’ve focused on.

From the report:

Reliable water quality monitoring data is not widely available, but we find credible evidence in all countries of non-compliance with pollution control law bytextile and apparel manufacturers and impacts on human health and nature as a result of untreated wastewater discharges. The textile industry produces potentially toxic metals, dyes, bleaching agents, and other pollutants with cardiovascular, respiratory, carcinogenic, and neurotoxic impacts on human health. Without proper treatment, wastewater discharges render rivers lifeless and unfit for use. Whilst some businesses are taking a responsible approach to wastewater treatment, our case studies also show how untreated effluent from textiles manufacture has contaminated the water needed by many thousands of vulnerable people for domestic use and food production, and how downstream businesses have been forced to close as a result.

Like many such reports, this one is long on discussing the problems inherent in textile production, but when it moves to solutions, falls a bit short as It places the onus for fixing things\mainly on the industry that’s created the problem in the first place, including producers, retailers, and investors, although to be sure, mention is also made of the role consumers and governments in both producing and consuming countries might also play.

The report notes:

Multi-national companies and the investors behind them have phenomenal power to shape how water is used, and they respond to market forces, consumer demand, stakeholder, and shareholder pressure.

This statement is certainly true, but will these companies and investors use that power to force change? I don’t think so – at least not at the moment. These entities profit handsomely from the current situation.

To elaborate on what Water Waste International thinks must be done:

Our analysis shows that everyone has a role to play in ensuring that global fashion, and the cotton, textile and apparel production behind it, has a fair water footprint – so that the sector’s socio-economic benefits in Africa and elsewhere do not come at the cost of polluted rivers or the denial of human rights to workers and communities. In the following table we set outwhat producers and suppliers, brands, retailers, buyers, investors, governments in producer and consumer countries, the media, citizens and consumers can do. Water Witness and our trusted partners stand ready to help all these stakeholders to learn from our findings, and to collaborate to forge the fairer water footprints, and the fairer water future we all need.

As for specifics:

To avoid perpetual and catastrophic water crises we must ensure that our water footprint is based on sustainable and equitable water use. The production of everything we consume – must be based on good water stewardship, which means:

taking water from rivers, lakes and aquifers in step with natural replenishment to avoid resource depletion.

pollution control and treating chemicals, sewage and industrial wastewater properly to avoid resource degradation.

looking after water ecosystems and preparing for floods and drought.

realizing the human right to water, so that everyone has access to clean water, toilets and handwashing facilities.

Most of us now take access to free-flowing unlimited supplies of potable water for granted – an assumption that will soon change. In fact, the day of reckoning has already arrived in he western U.S., where drought has stressed water supplies. So reports such as these, which spotlight how we’re fouling our waters are important – as a starting point for showing what must now change.

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  1. drumlin woodchuckles

    Let me mount once more upon my johnny-one-note hobby horse of protectionism versus free trade to suggest that if America were re-protectionised, we could ban all this eco-destructive production from Africa from entering our protectionized economy at all. We could limit the American consumer to relying on the American producer operating under enforceable American eco-standards and labor-standards in growing the fiber and making the textile and then making the garment.

    Without hard rigid protectionism, this problem cannot be solved. Or even addressed. Or even perfumed.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Protectionism by itself would not solve this pollution problem happening in NW Georgia which is already in America.

        What protectionism would do is provide a wall behind which we could prevent such pollution with the heavy foot of government regulation, prosecution, etc. Because with protectionism, the PFAS- Forever Carpet Company would not be able to say: ” either you give us blank check permission to standingly violate this law or we will outsource our carpetmaking to a place where no such law even exists”. Which they can currently do today under Free Trade. Because thats what Free Trade is designed to let them do.

    1. James Simpson

      How would you deal with the vast rise in prices? Or the lack of skills to make stuff in the USA (or here in the UK)? Autarky is a libertarian, survivalist ideal, not one which seems practicable. Remember that slavery began in the USA mainly to make cotton-growing profitable. Perhaps you suggest using the USA’s two million prisoners.

  2. upstater

    Thanks for your environmental and fashion reporting J-L, always must reads. Anything goes if it makes money…

    Coincidentally, I came across this article today about textiles and carpeting polluting northwest Georgia water supplies with PFAS, the forever chemical:

    My daughter moved to France recently and had to purchase a washing machine. Apparently starting in a year or two, new washers will be required to have filtration to remove microplastics before draining into sewer systems. Synthetic fabrics decompose over time and microplastics end up in water. I can foresee that such filtration in homes will require regular cleaning, maintenance and repairs. How about not having garments spewing microplastics in the first place?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Forbidding plastic fiber garments would be good in an ideal world. In the meantime, we can either pre-filter the washer-water for microplastics before dumping it, or we can not pre filter it.

      And are we really going to retro-ban the trillion or so plastic fiber garments already in existence and in use?
      And physically round them all up?

    2. Brunches with Cats

      Well, I’m sure there are those in the commentariat who would support everyone running around naked or at least minimally clad, but if the world’s population is have basic covering against the elements with no fabrics that shed microplastics, that would mean going back to all-natural fibers for 8 billion people, and not just for clothing, but also bedding, fabrics for use in the home, etc.

      Cotton is water-intensive. Jerri-Lynn had a great report recently on a pocket of sustainable cotton in India, but IIRC, it’s currently quite expensive and beyond the reach of most people. Linen uses less water, but there’s a reason it’s so expensive. Grazing sheep and goats for enough wool for even a fraction of the world would be environmentally disastrous. I suppose there’s bamboo and hemp, although I don’t know about the resources involved. Who knows what other technological wonders we could come up with for non-petroleum based fibers? And we’ll have to, if we’re going to leave the fossil fuels in the ground, but good luck coming up with alternatives for the masses before the we’re all roasted, baked, and fried.

      All but a few synthetic fibers come from petroleum, and even the so-called natural ones such as rayon have some environmental issues. Eliminating garments (and home goods) with microplastics means no polar fleece, no down alternative for jackets and pillows, no fake fur (shall we go back to the real thing?), no wrinkle resistant poly cotton blends, no nylon pantyhose or socks, no neoprene for diving or protecting your laptop, etcetera ad nauseam.

      Aside from declaring lycra spandex as one of the greatest inventions known to womankind, for the record, I prefer natural fibers for comfort and breathability, and they just feel better (wool actually reduces heart rate). I often lament the crapification of even the better brands with polyester (mostly) and other synthetics. I about fell off my chair recently when saw a $250 designer blouse online made of 100% polyester! Finding clothing made of all-natural fibers is getting more and more difficult, even at thrift stores, where I do most of my clothes shopping. Lately, I’ve started buying 3X and 4X sizes with enough usable fabric for cutting a new garment.

      Meanwhile, Walmart is selling running pants made of recycled plastic. Little girl sea turtles everywhere will want a pair. In Barbie pink. /s

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Well then, microplastic particle pre-filter capturing for washing machines. And dry cleaning machines. Which would also work if microplastic capture and disposal is the issue.

        And if “the world” still makes more non-garment plastic than garment plastic, then more microplastic comes from the non-garment plastic sector than the garment-plastic sector anyway.

        1. Brunches with Cats

          Don’t even get me started on microfiber sheets and towels. They’re marketed as durable, cushy, soft on the skin, etc., But to me, they feel like … well, plastic . And who knows how much of this stuff ends up in the Mariana Trench? Worse still, microfiber rags are highly recommended by the pandemic experts as THE solution for disinfecting the home and workplace. From what I’ve read, it really is efficient, but at what cost to the environment?

          In any case, you make a good point. Unless Jerri-Lynn or someone in the commentariat knows otherwise, I don’t believe researchers have figured out how to determine whether microplastics in wastewater came from clothing or home textiles. They just lump it into one source, ‘textiles.”

            1. James Simpson

              I see any choice we make as disastrous. I’m glad, in a ghoulish way, that Brunches with Cats has presented the non-plastic route so clearly in its enormous consequences. We have painted ourselves into a corner, whether it’s clothing, transport, food or any other mass market.

        2. Ian Perkins

          I’m not sure nanoplastics can be filtered out from washing or dry-cleaning machines at all easily.

          1. Sue inSoCal

            I agree. (Thank you Jerri-Lynn. I’m a fan of your textile reporting.) I’m not satisfied that these micro plastics can be removed either. Take Modal, which in my rather uneducated opinion, is plain old micro plastic, yet marketed as “eco friendly,” particularly by the likes of H&M. I bought into it many years ago. I found that the edges rub off off the fabric quickly and then it’s landfill city.

            I, too, keep clothes for years. (I mean in some cases 40+! All my sweaters are from Europe and are OLD, and many, yes, darned.) When I became aware of the situation, I swore off fleece, and synthetics. My cottons are also old, lots are from thrift and I air dry now. I doubt many folks will go to these lengths, even though in practice, I don’t find it that onerous.

            All we’ve read since Covid opening up (eye roll) is “you can’t wear two year old clothing. You need a whole new wardrobe.” It just never stops.

  3. Carla

    “How about not having garments spewing microplastics in the first place?

    WAY too smart.

    I mean, if not turned into plastics, where will all the US’s fracked oil go?

  4. Maritimer

    I am a brand, a badge. I consume therefore I am. Where will my next idea come from? A TV channel, a movie, a video, or a sign, or an App, or a news conference, or a sponsored journalist, or a celebrity shill, etc.

    Hurry, I want to consume some more right now.

    1. Rod

      Your point is well taken.
      And if the messaging were redirected to reduce and conserve instead—backed by an established effective system supporting that??

      DW makes a point, again, on Free Trade, practiced without a collective ecological consciousnesses, that is hard to ignore.

      Consumers have been groomed to forget their Market Clout— if no one wants to buy your crap, you’ll soon have no Businesses.

      Closed loop Mfg. is part of any solution across the board.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Right now, all that members of the eco-green-minded minority can do is learn, develope, enhance, etc. their Green Superior BetterCulture and sullenly live it in plain sight of the inferior majority and Merchants of Dreck.

        In the clothing field, that would mean wearing slow fashion, slow unfashion, revelling in visible display of the unstylish, the lame and the obsolete in outerwear, buying used whenever possible, maintaining it for years or quincades or decades if it is that durable.

        If enough greenie meanies do that, they/we can keep alive a superior sidestream economy of superior sidestream producers alive against the possible arrival of better days.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          It probably comes down to Mark Ames’s ” Elite Versus Elitny”. We will have to be the elitny here, the Proud GreenBoys.

  5. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Jerri.

    It’s not just rivers on the mainland, but the lagoon in Mauritius and other coastal areas in the Indian Ocean basin, e.g. Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where the industry chases cheap labour, tax breaks etc. Plus further afield in Mali and Senegal. It’s often the same firms.

  6. R

    It is not clear that grazing enough sheep etc. to produce wool would be disastrous. Sheep farmers in the UK have trouble giving the wool crop away. The problem is that UK wool is largely hard-wearing because the animals live tough outdoor, upland lives and it is better suited to carpets than thermal vests. We need to teach the world to wear more Aran jumpers and thick socks!

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I still have and wear some such jumpers – which I bought when I lived in the UK from 1983-1988. Hard wearing and they still look good, although I wouldn’t want to wear this wool close to my skin. I also have a mohair jumper my (English) mother-in-law knitted for me before she passed away. That’s more delicate and not nearly so scratchy.

    2. Brunches with Cats

      Seriously? Designers in the sustainable fashion movement should be lining up for that wool. I’m sure it could be used for outerwear, such as the great coats and capes that showed in Paris and Milan for this fall/winter. If it’s too crude for that, then what about upholstery? Saddle blankets?

      If and when fossil fuel production diminishes to the point that hydrorocarbon-based fibers become too expensive, unwanted natural fibers like that wool might suddenly become highly marketable. But I wonder, despite an oversupply in one lonely harsh climate, how many more-sensitive areas of the planet would be desertified to produce enough wool to meet global demand? Or are you suggesting that there might be many other harsh climates that could support the production of that type of wool?

      As for the thick wool socks, I’m with you there. Just wish I could find ones that last beyond a couple of years. Either that, or I’ll have to learn to darn. I still remember my mother using a blown lightbulb to repair worn-out heels, but she never taught me how to do it.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        A Full Metal Hansen FeeTax/Dividend plan could make petro-fibers too expensive to use in America.
        But only if we defect from the Free Trade World System and erect a Big Beautiful Wall of Ecological Economic Protection around the United States of Autarkamerica to keep enemy foreign production out of our country.

        National Greenism in One Country.

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