Dangerous Denim and Filthy Fashion: Style’s Steep Cost

A new campaign by STAND.earth aims to take the secret out of #FilthyFashion, starting with the giants of denim.

By Lars Van Tol

jeans on clothes line

When the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed in 2015, there was about one week’s of muted outrage from Western commentators. 1,129 victims of a terrorist attack would get an outpouring of support and outrage, but the responses were strangely muted. Some wondered how big Western brands agreed to such working conditions, and brands were pressured into evaluating and fixing their supply chains. However, the garment industry outsources in such a way that responsibility is hard to place and ignorance is easy to plead. The outrage faded, fast fashion advertorials returned to the airwaves, and etherized announcers wondered aloud how a skirt that cute could be had for under $20.

Fast fashion, meet #FilthyFashion—it isn’t a risqué new label, but a campaign by STAND.earth to address pollution that denim industry giants do not acknowledge generating. It’s largely a matter of supply chain economics. Since brands typically outsource manufacturing to contractors in developing countries, there is often no direct link between a fashion brand and the environmental damage wrought by the manufacture of its products.

STAND.earth estimates that large denim brands are hiding 90% of climate pollution, and have partnered with SumofUS to petition 7 big denim brands to acknowledge their climate wrongdoing, but more importantly, clean up their act. The 7 alleged wrongdoers are Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Express, American Eagle Outfitters, Wrangler, and Lee.

While laudable for trying to expose a titanic industry’s misdeeds, STAND.earth’s petition might not be thorough enough. The petition focuses on air pollution contributing to climate change, but there is little substantive information beyond the statistics they supply. One can scour the web for scraps of information, but the emissions are effectively a secret. We can imagine the true numbers are staggering, but they’re evasive. It seems, once again, that the fashion industry could slip away without having to acknowledge any fault.

The fashion industry certainly has a negative impact with greenhouse gas emissions, every garment company with a supply chain terminating in contracts for small factory towns is effectively insulated from the pollution generated there. Garment manufacturing burdens communities with pollution’s immediate effects, but they’re even more vulnerable to the long term effects of climate change.

From Bangladesh, to Vietnam, and into China, there is unrestrained ecocide all traceable to the fashion industry. Combined with exploitative wages and unsafe working conditions, it is easy to see why we would want to ignore how our convenience imperils the world. Fortunately, a widespread lack of interest has not stopped organizations like STAND.earth from making investigations into malpractice and attempting to raise awareness.

It has been found that denim and its manufacture is an ecological nightmare. 44 pounds of carbon dioxide are generated per pair of jeans. That fact doesn’t seem excessive until you consider that more than 200 million pairs of jeans can be made in a given factory town each year. There are a lot of factory towns where the garment industry sources products.

It has a far more dramatic impact on waterways. The production of a single pair of jeans, from growing the cotton, to dying and final wash, can use nearly 10,000 gallons of water. The dyes are highly toxic by themselves, but are used in conjunction with extremely toxic heavy metals like mercury, chromium, and cadmium. These heavy metals have a way of getting into the local environment. Chlorinated chemicals are also widely used: solvents, perfluorinated compounds, to the long-lived short-chain chlorinated paraffins, which linger in the environment and bioaccumulate in living beings, and can cause reproductive and liver damage.

Most factories in the developing world operate with extremely lax environmental standards which are rarely enforced, so there is little or no treatment of wastewater, which means that the areas downriver become extraordinarily fouled, in many cases killing the river entirely and causing a host of health problems to surrounding populations. The more dead the river, the more of its contaminants make it into the ocean.

The recent documentary RiverBlue is a scathing expose on the garment industry’s destructive effects and outsourcing shenanigans. It’s not hard to imagine it partially inspired the STAND.earth petition. The Chinese factory town of Xintang is often referred to as the ‘jeans capital of the world’, it manufactures 300,000,000 million denim articles each year, and employs about 220,000 people to do it. The East River, which runs through Xintang, was tested and had a pH level of 11.95, equivalent to ammonia. Cadmium levels 128 times the allowable limit were detected in river mud. That’s just one manufacturing area out of hundreds.

It’s important to keep in mind that new techniques for denim manufacture have been developed, some use less water, some use less toxic dyes, and some that don’t convert employment into misery and sickness. However, the fact remains that denim manufacture is currently unsustainable. Its human cost is already steep: Uzbek cotton pickers enjoy a state of employment very similar to slavery, and the International Labour Organization estimates that 170 million children worldwide work in the garment industry.

Some retailers have engaged in the creative practice of greenwashing. Spanish company Zara, for instance, recently launched a line called Conscious Collection, which is made from recycled materials. Critics immediately pointed out that fabric is only a small part of the problem—the average North American throws out 37 kilograms of clothing every year. Recycled materials don’t impact the planet like raw material, but the logistics of delivering a product across the world still consume an immense amount of energy and produce an equivalent amount of carbon. And the same workers still make the clothing.

Denim tends to be a bit more expensive than most fast fashion, but if we consider the cost paid by the developing world, the price is staggeringly far off the mark. The goal of STAND.earth’s #FilthyFashion campaign is the first step to a solution: they seek to pressure brands to acknowledge where they manufacture and what the environmental cost is. The rest of the solution depends on consumers changing their habits, voting with their wallets, and reusing what they have. In terms of sustainability we can confidently say that one pair of used jeans is worth ten new ones.