Write-up of BBC Documentary by Stacey Dooley Fashion’s Dirty Secrets
There has been a lot of activity on social media recently about plastics, waste, fear for the health of the planet, and this is the latest documentary by the BBC on the severe environmental and health impact of fast fashion in developing countries. The link to the programme (Iplayer) is included in the title, although this will not be shown indefinitely.
Stacey Dooley seems to have shot to fame as a presenter of a string of BBC documentaries, but appears to have taken the time to do her homework on this subject, or have it done well for her. In the UK we (a very generalised “we”) spent nearly 50 Billion pounds last year on clothes, which are getting ever cheaper, and our insatiable appetites for throwaway fashion are getting ever greedier (a habit fed by the constant cycle of new clothes which brands make us feel we need to have before they are gone forever and replaced by next week’s collection). She reveals the dark underbelly of fashion which is the second most polluting industry only after oil, causing great environmental disasters for which no-one seem to want to take responsibility.
A survey of passers-by showed that many think fashion to be the least polluting after oil, beef, transport, tourism, and fracking, whereas it is the second most polluting. The general public are unaware because this is kept hidden. Creating vast quantities of new garments every year uses an enormous amount of water, fertilisers and pesticides, and one staple favourite – cotton jeans – is one of the worst culprits. In Kazakhstan, we are shown the paltry remains of the Aral Sea which used to span 68,000,000 meters squared, and shrunk drastically since water was diverted for feeding cotton production since the 1960s, and the rivers are drained before reaching the sea. An expanse of water the size of Ireland has receded in four decades.
The lack of water determines the seasons and ecosystem – no water means there is only a dried up land mass, closer to a desert. The water mass helped keep the seasons mild, the sea life is gone, winters are colder, summers are hotter; it is much windier and there are huge dust storms carrying particles of chemicals from the cotton plants. The fishing industry has died out, and many people suffer now from TB, strokes, cancers and high blood pressure, from the chemicals in the air. Illness accompanies poverty in the Aral Region, because of the excess chemical by-products of cotton manufacture. A heavy cost for the production of excess garments for the Western world.
Lucy Siegle states that the business model for fast fashion is fast moving and based on high volumes and low prices. Whereas there used to be 4 Seasons of clothes, now there are up to 52 collections a year to be “on trend”. Stacey carried out another experiment showing how much water was used in producing the clothes which passers-by had in their bags – they had to guess how many litres, and most were shocked and upset, if not embarrassed. Damage to the environment is not just in developing countries – UK waste includes dumping clothing and micro fibres being washed out of clothes into the sea. At a Sustainability Summit in Copenhagen, she was amazed that the brands would not comment on her findings. As she said, it looked like they had something to hide…
Paul Dillinger Head of Innovations at Levis said that they were working towards the chemical deconstruction of cotton and using less water. He felt there would have to be a regulatory solution to force the fashion industry to comply. Safia Minney, MD of Po-Zu shoes, added that cotton was not the only problem; the same was true of producing shoes with thousands of toxic chemicals and that she was championing eco-friendly labels. She stated that the UK had exported its clothing and shoe industry and its toxic chemical bomb with it. What is needed is the removal of chemicals which are harmless to the environment and human health. The idea of cheapness has to be set against the human and environmental cost.
A trip to Indonesia showed the environmental devastation of rivers and nearby areas due to factories producing fashion garments. The local Citarum river was purple and black in areas, frothy in others due to a lack of oxygen in the water, with some waste pumped at night or in underwater pipes. The heat and smell were described as disgusting. Wildlife was dead and rotting. 50 factories use the river and samples were taken for testing. People nearby complained of skin diseases and paid for clean water for young children, otherwise they use river water for their daily needs. Heavy metals were found in the water eg mercury (causes brain damage), cadmium, lead (lowers a person’s IQ) and arsenic. Some activists had blocked up pipes despite threats.
Speaking to the Chairman of Textile Manufacture, he stated that regulation was not followed and he had no authority to close factories down. He stated that Western companies should ask about environmental concerns and not just the price, but they often only want to proceed if the price is right. He felt our planet could not survive the continuous depletion.
Back in the UK, neither the brands nor the Secretary of State wanted to listen or fobbed her off with short statements. Stacey approached fashion bloggers (“Influencers”) and showed them her findings. They were shocked and voted to include talk about sustainability in their vlogs to engage their audiences to look at consumption habits. It was interesting to see how the tide turned once these influencers took the lead.