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The Dire Consequences of India’s Textile Industry, Detailed

Much has been said about how India’s dye houses have polluted the country’s streams and rivers, contaminating resources and contributing to public-health problems. But despite the likes of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) cracking down on unlicensed units and shutting any factory that hasn’t lowered its liquid discharge to zero, several small facilities are allegedly bribing government officials to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities—and the big brands employing their services are just as bad.

A damning report recently published in Newsweek charts the “devastating consequences” India’s knitwear exports have had on Tirupur, a southern region in Tamil Nadu known as Knit City and responsible for more than half of the $1.25 billion textile and garment shipments to the U.S. in 2012.

For one, the small-scale agriculture industry near the Noyyal River has “fully collapsed” and more than 60 villages along its basin have been transformed into “ghost towns.” The story cited a 2007 study by a local nongovernmental organization that found Tirupur’s 729 dyeing units were flushing 23 million gallons per day of mostly untreated waste into the river, depleting already-scarce water supplies. Furthermore, it said the Dyers Association of Tirupur has operated in contempt of India’s Supreme Court order to reach zero discharge for the past eight years.

One instance of corruption mentioned points out that 10 tannery employees drowned in toxic sludge in February when a wall in a pit holding effluent collapsed—after the plant was approved by two TNPCB inspectors who admitted to taking bribes of more than $3,000 to approve the factory’s license.

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And even when the court has ordered dye houses to close, business has carried on as usual: Newsweek noted that Raagam Exports was ordered to cease operations in 2011, but Spanish streetwear label Desigual has been working with the factory since 2012, most recently on a shipment of nearly 260 pounds of multihued viscose dresses.

“They have the temporary license to run the dyeing unit,” Desigual’s marketing director, Borja Castaneda, wrote in an e-mail to Newsweek. “This license has been annually renewed (including the one for 2015) as they are still pending to receive the final one.” But Desigual couldn’t provide documentation of licensing—or of the audits it claims to conduct on a regular basis—and Raagam’s website doesn’t include a TNPCB permit in its compliance section.

J.C. Penney is another dubious brand. A representative for the American mass-market retailer told Newsweek that “to the best of our knowledge it does not appear that J.C. Penney has any dyeing business in that area,” while the publication said that records show the company has been taking shipments from several vertically integrated manufacturers in Tirupur for years.

“The issue, ultimately, is that the compliance measures taken by retailers like Gap, Desigual and the dozens of other firms sourcing garments in Tirupur don’t account for the complexity of modern clothing-supply chains,” Newsweek said, adding that because J.C. Penney bought from its “finishing” arms, “it could feasibly deny knowledge of the illegal dyeing operations involved.”

But even if all the polluting ceased immediately, the story said the damage is already done: It might be impossible to ever clean and restore the Noyyal River and the soil along its basin.