The drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia remains one of the single biggest man made ecological disasters of all time. Not only has this body of water shrunk to near non-existence now, but any water that does remain there has become seriously and irreversibly polluted. And this is just one of the major ecological disasters for which the multi-trillion dollar fashion industry is now responsible. As clothes become increasingly less expensive, the cost to our environment becomes increasingly more expensive — as evidenced by the drying up of this major body of water, which once traversed the borders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This is not even to mention the social impacts involved in this desperate quest for the fastest, cheapest possible clothing out there. So why aren’t we talking about all of these impacts and why do so many people still remain unaware of these very serious ramifications? Things are only going to continue to get worse if we don’t start discussing these problems and how we might go about fixing them. Perhaps we can start below, with an introduction to just some of the ecological disasters that have so far resulted from the industrialisation of the fashion industry.
1) The Destruction of the Aral Sea in Central Asia
Image: Aerial view of the shrinking Aral Sea.
To this day, the shrinking of the Aral Sea remains one of the greatest environmental catastrophes ever recorded — and it’s a disaster that has been entirely man made. Once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, People and Planet organisation points out that it used to boast a thriving ecosystem, but has now “shrunk to just 15% of its original size, mainly as a result of irrigation for the cotton industry”. According to Environmental Leader, over 53% of the world’s cotton fields require irrigation, and the majority of these are found in regions where water is scarce. Already, you can start to see the problem here. “The impacts on the Aral Sea, Central Asia are a notorious example: in the period 1960-2000, the Aral Sea lost approximately 70% of its volume as a result of diverting water to grow.” And now what water there is left is largely compromised. Not only has the salinity of the water and soil increased exponentially, but as desperate farmers apply more water to the land, they are actually just making things worse. What was once the source of a thriving fishing industry is now all but lifeless. Replaced instead by infertile soil and huge expanses of salty desert, contaminated by the pesticide residue that has been left behind. To think that one of the world’s largest inland bodies of water is now an almost barren wasteland as a result of the garment industry is a harsh reality that we all need to face.
2) Air pollution in India
The air pollution caused by the garment industry is another major ecological problem, not just for the cities most severely affected, but also for the globe as a whole. According to the Make and Do Mend organisation, which offers information about the impacts of the fashion industry’s commercial direction, it is not just the machinery that’s contributing to this terrible air pollution either, but also the vehicles that are used to transport the clothing. In fact, Kate Fletcher writes in Sustainable Fashion & Textiles that the “..average T-shirt travels the equivalent distance of once around the globe during its production”. Made and Do Mend argues that this is due to having to transport the garments between different processors. “From cotton field to textile mill to the garment factory, each stage adds to the carbon emissions.” When you add all of this up and then factor into it the “use phase” — which refers to the whopping amounts of energy that we as consumers expend in the actual washing and upkeep of our garments — the quality of our air supply seems dauntingly low. According to Business Insider, air pollution kills 3.3 million people every single year. And this problem tends to be most pronounced in areas where there are plenty of large factories like Bangladesh and India, for example. Along with other types of factories, these areas also house a significant portion of our garment production facilities, all of which are contributing daily to the scary levels of pollution present in the air. These factories contribute to the production of PM 2.5, which is “the most harmful pollutant to human health… and lodges in the lungs causing long-term health problems like asthma and chronic lung disease”. In Delhi, for example, the air contains 153 µg/m3 of PM 2.5, making it the most polluted in the world. This is what the World Health Organisation qualifies as a “very unhealthy” average PM 2.5 level. But, as we all know, serious air pollution is not just a local issue. An excess of carbon emissions also contributes significantly to global warming, creating a flow on effect not just for the likes of Bangladesh and India, but also for the world.
3) Severe water pollution in Bangladesh and beyond
Image: Dye run-off in Tirupur, India.
You would have thought that we had learned our lesson with the Aral Sea, but nope. Instead, the garment industry continues to recklessly pollute various other major water sources all over the globe. Tirupur (aka ‘Knit City’) in India is a confronting example of that. According to Newsweek, when you approach the city’s Orathupalayam Dam by road “it quickly becomes clear that something has gone terribly wrong”. Not only do the lush rice paddies and banana trees give way to a parched, red landscape within 2 miles of the dam, but the “Noyyal River, which used to be clean and clear, now runs foamy and green, polluted with the toxic runoff of the titanic textile industry 20 miles to the west, in Tirupur”. It is not just India’s waterways that are affected, either, but also major rivers like Bangladesh’s River Buriganga and the Mekong River in Cambodia. In and around these areas, life-sustaining farms are all dying and serious illnesses are cropping up, as the water sources become toxic due to the garment industry’s vicious industrial cycle.
4) Soil toxicity and the devastation of crops in Uzbekistan
Image: Barren land in the once lush region of Tirupur.
After years of dangerous pesticide use in the region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, the soil has become so polluted that vegetable will simply no longer grow. This has led to astronomical levels of malnutrition, as well as various other health effects, including anaemia, which is experienced in the region now by 99% of pregnant women. The rates of throat cancer in this area are also among the highest in the world. In fact, “Scientists have found a level of DNA mutation 3.5 times higher than normal”, according to People and Planet, “meaning health problems could be around for generations”. This is not just isolated to Uzbekistan, either. Back in Tirupur, India, crops of coconut trees have become dangerously compromised as a result of toxic runoff from the garment trees. These once bountiful fruits are now undersized and often come off the tree already rotten. Growing tomatoes, rice and turmeric are all futile, too, as soil toxicity becomes so bad and the water sources all but unusable. When you consider the fact that “between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation each year” (according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP and WHO), the gravity of the situation really begins to sink in. When you also contemplate the fact that many of our ‘fresh’ fruit and vegetables come from all different parts of the world now, it’s plain to see that these devastating ecological disruptions cannot just be passed off as someone else’s battle. These are issues that affect us all and ones that we need to be talking about more.
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