New Report: African Rivers Polluted by Fast Fashion Textile Factories

Fast fashion textile factories polluting African rivers

A new report from Water Witness International (WWI) found that the world's fast fashion brands are destroying Africa's rivers by discharging untreated industrial wastewater into them. Rivers surveyed were found to have been dyed blue or made as alkaline as bleach, creating environmental and public health threats to local communities. WWI is calling on fast fashion companies to take the lead on eliminating such pollution from their practices and using fashion, a source of much economic growth for Africa, as a force for positive environmental change.

Why This Matters

The world’s rivers are being bombarded by pollution, development, and drought, and it's driving water resources to the brink. On Monday, the US federal government declared a water shortage for the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. A January 2021 study found that 1 in 3 US rivers have significantly shifted in color since 1984 due to increased erosion, fertilizer runoff, and more.

Significant changes to the water composition can eliminate all access to drinking water, harm agriculture, and create public health crises. For communities across the world, including in Africa, long-term drought brought on by climate change only further limits access to water. Environmental experts say that protecting Earth's waterways will be essential to fighting climate change, but only if corporate polluters step up to the plate.

Basic Science

Researchers analyzed rivers in Lesotho and Tanzania and found extreme results. In Lesotho, one river was visibly tainted by indigo dye used on denim. Tests on a stretch of Tanzania's Msimbazi River near a textile factory resulted in a pH of 12, the same pH as bleach. Drinking water with such a high pH can lower the acidity of stomach acid, which can cause vulnerability to pathogens or metabolic alkalosis with symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, and tremors.

The study reported that Zara, ASOS, H&M, and many others have all sourced textiles from Africa, although it did not link the companies’ supply chains to the pollution in the rivers tested. Katrina Charles, an expert on water security and quality at the University of Oxford, says that the key to forcing environmentally sustainable change in the fast-fashion industry is consumer pressure, but that solutions must include both the economic and environmental needs of textile workers and communities in places like Lesotho and Tanzania. "Making the textile industry a force for good in Africa is a very delicate balance," she said.

Governments can help communities protect their water sources from industry by investing in updated, sustainable water treatment systems. Still, many lower-income nations are unable to afford this potentially lifesaving technology. Environmental groups have urged wealthy countries like the US to invest in preserving essential resources threatened by climate change across the world. The US and Germany recently announced a partnership that aims to raise global climate ambition and support countries in need during the run-up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow this November.

The Economist: The true cost of fast fashion, November 29, 2018.

Netflix: Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj - The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion, November 25, 2019.