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Report: Fashion is Dyeing Africa’s Water Blue, Burning Locals’ Skin

A new report from Water Witness International (WWI), a U.K.-based organization focused on sustainable water resource management, uncovers extreme water pollution in certain African countries that support the global fashion supply chain.

Researchers looked specifically at waterways in top sourcing countries such as Ethiopia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius and Tanzania, and found some of the river flow had a pH of 12—the same as household bleach—as well as high levels of carcinogenic chemicals. In other areas, water was visibly polluted with blue dye from denim production.

According to the report, the polluted runoff threatens the local communities’ health and crops that are irrigated with the water. Contact with the pollution also results in skin burns and disease.

Despite the global denim industry’s strides in sustainability over the years, water remains one of the major points of contention and the sixth of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Water effluent ranks high on the list of water-related challenges, as toxic chemicals can make their way to local water sources.

“Pollution from textiles production is a very significant problem in Africa,” Sareen Malik, executive secretary at the African Civil Society Network for Water and Sanitation, said in the report. “Untreated effluent from textile factories is killing our rivers—there is no life downstream. These businesses need to stop polluting Africa’s waters. We need economic growth, but it must never come at the expense of our environment and the health of our children.”

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Currently, African cotton supports more than 3.5 million smallholder farmers, WWI reports. The apparel sector can generate up to 60 percent of national export revenue, and as much as 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), with key consumer markets in France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, East Asia and the U.S. The report identified nearly 50 apparel labels, including denim brands, that source from Africa like Levi’s, G-Star, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap and more. Fast-fashion apparel companies such as Asos, Zara, H&M and Mango are included in the list.

However, researchers were unable to tie the tainted water directly to any specific brand. Many of these labels have a strong sustainability reputation and have previously shared details surrounding their commitment to water stewardship. Earlier this year, G-Star launched a men’s and women’s collection made with the C2C Certified Gold Melfort Denim O leveraging a dye process that uses 15 percent less indigo, 70 percent less chemicals, no salts, and produces no salt by-product during the reduction and dyeing process. As a result, the process allows the brand to save water and leave behind clean and recyclable water effluent.

In March, Gap Inc. announced new water goals that would improve access to drinking water for an estimated 2 million people in Indian cotton-growing and textile-manufacturing communities by 2023. Efforts included water conservation tactics as well as sustainable dyeing techniques and wash methods that would ensure cleaner waterways through innovations such as bio-softeners, foam dye, Washwell and the usage of recycled and organic cotton. Its charitable arm, Gap Foundation, also pledged to donate $12,000 to global non-profit WaterAid, which will help connect women—the demographic most commonly affected by lack of water access—with improved access to drinking water.

Many standards for water stewardship already exist in the industry, including the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) international standard, which recognizes good performance on water through third-party audits. H&M and PVH—which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein—and the Industrial Parks Development Corporation in Ethiopia are committing to good water stewardship by aligning with this standard.

Other initiatives include the Higg Index, a suite of tools for standardized measurement of supply chain sustainability; the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global multi-stakeholder nonprofit alliance; Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit that creates leaders in the fiber industry; and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), a group of apparel and footwear companies working toward responsible chemical usage.

Researchers are calling on fashion stakeholders to take more aggressive action through good water stewardship, factory certification and better transparency, and emphasize that they “are not calling for an end to fashion sourcing in Africa,” but instead demanding “action and assurance that sourcing and production of goods in Africa are based on sustainable resource use, decent working conditions and basic principles of social justice.”