'We all have a pair of jeans': Polluting fashion industry goes under the lens

Conservationist Mark Angelo has crossed paths with many a fisherman over the better part of two decades spent paddling down the Pearl River near Xintang, China.

He returned 25 years later — but a lot had changed.

"This time around, we went out with those same fisherman — and the river is now dead," he told host Michelle Eliot on CBC'sB.C. Almanac. "[One] fisherman that I went out with now has to resort to sifting worms out of the muck."

Angelo is one of many critics that accuse numerous denim textile factories in the city that's also known as 'blue jeans capital of the world' for polluting the river. The controversial subject is now part of a new documentary, RiverBlue, that explores the polluting effects of the global fashion industry.

RiverBlue

The film's title is a nod to how many rivers change colour after chemicals from factories end up flowing into them. Angelo helped produce the film, and is a prominent voice throughout its narrative.

"I had been to all of these rivers before, and it always bothered me — the impacts of the fashion industry flew under the radar. It didn't get the media or the notoriety it deserved, yet the impacts were so severe.

"Next to oil ... fashion is the most polluting industry in the world"

Angelo says on average, over 3,000 litres of water gets used to make a single pair of jeans, with much of the untreated waste flowing back into major waterways. For more specialised types of clothing, the water usage can double, he said.

Consequently, the mass production of these materials often take place in factories where workplace standards are limited. Angelo says there's also a severe impact to the health of workers, who are constantly exposed to frontline chemicals.

He says the low price-tags attached to our clothes does not account for the widespread environmental and health costs;

An agent for change

But Angelo says there are innovations happening within the industry that are shifting away from polluting agents.

The latter parts of the film focus on potential solutions, for example, a design process that use lasers and compressed air to create the distressed look in a pair of jeans — as opposed to the standard use of chemicals.

"There's these advances going on, more companies need to embrace them," he said.

But Angelo maintains that in order for the industry to shift, consumers need to point them in the right direction

"We want this film to be a positive agent for change," he said. "We talk about the importance of conscious consumerism. When people buy a product, don't be afraid to ask how its made, and where did it come from."

"Your choice. Your voice."

With files from CBC's B.C. Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: 'We all have a pair of jeans': Polluting fashion industry goes under the lens