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This image is a Google Earth screenshot of where the Pearl River meets the sea just south of Guangzhou, South China. If you look closely, a patch of purple appears in the centre of the delta. This ghostly purple hue is pollution caused by what’s going on upstream, and we are contributing to it.

It’s the indigo dye used in the production of millions of pairs of jeans and, worryingly, is just the visible extent of the pollution caused.

“Everything manufactured comes with a cost that exceeds its price”

(Chouinard & Stanley, 2012, The Responsible Company)

The region has seen the most rapid expansion of urban development in the past few decades, with the merging of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhaoqing, Foshan, Huizhou, Jiangmen, Zhongshan and Zhuhai into a single megacity (The Guardian May 2016). The town of Xingtang produces 260 million pairs of jeans annually. The photo below shows the pollution of a local river at it flows into the Dong River which eventually ends up in the Pearl River and ultimately, the South China Sea (Greenpeace, December 2010).

In their book The Responsible Company, Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley from Patagonia detail shocking statistics about the clothing industry and its impact on the natural environment. Some stand out facts about the clothing industry:

  • The water required to produce one polo shirt could provide a day’s drinking water for 900 people
  • Cotton fields contribute 165 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year
  • Formadelhyde, the toxic chemical used to preserve body parts in jars and can also cause cancer of the nose, nasal cavity and throat, is commonly used to prevent shrinkage and wrinkling in garments
  • The textile industry is the second most chemically-intensive industry in the world

So what can we do? First to simply consider the environmental impact of purchasing clothing. For years I didn’t even know that the processes involved in making garments had a detrimental impact on the environment, simply because I hadn’t stopped to think about it. Cotton is our favourite clothing of choice and yet (non-organic) is by far the most destructive to the environment. Whilst stopping buying cotton altogether is going to be a real struggle, we could consider the following.

  1. Reduce consumption. The first and most simple thing to consider is consumption. We live in a consumer society where huge corporations convince people that what they’re selling to them is important, through clever marketing campaigns and the mass media. Only by considering the actual cost to the planet of a new pair of jeans from a high street store can we reduce this consumption of items that we really don’t need.
  2. Buy organic, ethical clothing. There are many reasons that organic and fairtrade products cost more. Many chemicals (some of which were originally designed for use in warfare) are used when creating garments on mass, to speed up the processes involved. Typically this is to the increased detriment to the environment and this is why many high street stores are able to charge so little for their goods. In my experience however, organic clothing is made to last and is of a higher quality. Many organic manufacturers give thought to the longevity of their products, thereby you need to buy less of them (refer to number 1).
  3. Buy secondhand. There are now more ways than ever to buy secondhand clothing, from online stores such as Ebay and Gumtree, car boot sales and charity shops. We don’t need to create more stuff until that which is already made has been used.
  4. Repair and repurpose. When I was a child I can remember clothing being repaired when they were ripped, zips being replaced, and buttons being sewn back on. We now live in a disposable society, when oftentimes it is cheaper and quicker to simply replace something. It can be quite rewarding fixing things and everything you ever need to learn is on YouTube, there really are no excuses.


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