Our insatiable appetite for cheap jeans is turning inland lakes and seas into desert wastelands: Devastating assault on the fashion industry reveals how the trend for disposable fashion is threatening the lives of millions and turning inland freshwater lakes into deserts because of cotton farming.
Globally, 35 million hectares of cotton are under cultivation. To control the numerous pests feeding on the cotton plant farmers have long relied on heavy application of insecticides, which leads to the pollution of surface and groundwater. In developing countries cotton growers use a full half of the pesticides used in agriculture.
Recent advancements in technology, including the ability to modify the cotton plant’s genetic material, have made cotton toxic to some of its pest. This reduced but did not eliminate the need for insecticides. Farm workers, particularly where the labor is less mechanized, continue to be exposed to harmful chemicals.
Competing weeds are another threat to cotton production; generally tilling practices and herbicides are used to knock back weeds. A large number of farmers have adopted genetically modified cotton seeds that include a gene protecting it from the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). That way, the fields can be sprayed with the herbicide when the plant is young, easily eliminating competition from weeds. Naturally, glyphosate ends up in the environment, and our knowledge of its effects on soil health, aquatic life, and wildlife is far from complete.
Another issue is the emergence of glyphosate resistant weeds. This is an especially important concern for those farmers interested in following no-till practices, which normally help preserve the soil structure and reduce erosion. Reliance on glyphosate resistance makes it more difficult to control weeds without turning the soil. Especially problematic in the southeast US is Palmer’s amaranth pigweed, a fast growing glyphosate resistant weed.
Conventionally grown cotton requires the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers. Such concentrated application means much of it ends up in waterways, creating one of the worst nutrient pollution problems globally, upending aquatic communities and leading to dead zones starved of oxygen and devoid of aquatic life. In addition, synthetic fertilizers contribute an important quantity of greenhouse gases during their production and use.
In many regions rainfall is insufficient to grow cotton but the deficit can be made up by irrigating the fields with water from nearby rivers or from wells. Wherever it comes from, the water withdrawals can be so massive that they diminish river flows significantly and deplete groundwater. Two thirds of India’s cotton production is irrigated with groundwater.
In the United States, western cotton farmers too rely on irrigation. Obviously, one could question the appropriateness of growing a non-food crop in arid portions of California and Arizona during the current multi-year drought. In the Texas Panhandle, cotton fields are irrigated by pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Spanning eight states from South Dakota to Texas, this vast underground sea of ancient water is being drained for agriculture far faster than it can recharge. In northwest Texas, Ogallala groundwater levels have dropped over 8 feet between 2004 and 2014.
Perhaps the most dramatic overuse of irrigation water is visible in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where the Aral Sea declined in surface area by 85%. Livelihoods, wildlife habitats, and fish populations have been decimated. To make matters worse the now dry salt and pesticide residues are blown away from the former fields and lake bed, increasing the frequency of miscarriages and malformations among the 4 million people who live downwind.
Another negative consequence of heavy irrigation is soil salination. When fields are repeatedly flooded with irrigation water, salt becomes concentrated near the surface. Plants can no longer grow on these soils and agriculture has to be abandoned. Salination has happened on a large scale in much of the former cotton fields of Uzbekistan.
The Aral Sea in Central Asia
Our insatiable appetite for cheap jeans that has turned an inland sea into a desert: Devastating assault on the fashion industry reveals how trend for disposable fashion is threatening the lives of millions and turning inland freshwater lakes into deserts because of cotton farming.
Today, the scrubland that was once the Aral Sea in Central Asia is dotted with camels searching out sparse tufts of grass against a flat, sandy horizon. Only the bizarre sight of boats marooned hundreds of miles inland gives any clue to the area’s history. In just four decades, what was once one of the largest inland bodies of water on the globe has shrunk by more than two thirds – an area the size of Ireland – leaving behind a poisonous dust bowl.
And the reason? Our insatiable appetite for cheap jeans – and the rapacious cotton farming that feeds it at almost any cost. In a devastating assault on an industry that dictates so much of our high street economy, fashion has become one of the biggest environmental disasters to hit the planet.
An example, with Britons buying twice as many clothes as a decade ago – last year we spent £50 billion – there is mounting concern about cheap, disposable fashion sometimes branded ‘look and chuck’. It reveals that, around the globe, millions of gallons of clean water have either been diverted to growing cotton, or have been hopelessly polluted by the toxic chemicals used for dyes and manufacture. The facts are stark: to grow enough cotton to make a single pair of jeans can take 3,400 gallons or 15,500 litres of water.
But that is only part of the issue – because the fashion industry’s pollution problem is also out of control. Factories connected to high street brands have been dumping chemicals from clothes production into Indonesia’s Citarum River, says Dooley, threatening the lives of millions.
Serious problems are already evident in the UK, too. The trend for cheap, disposable fashion means more than 300,000 tons of clothing are dumped in landfill in Britain alone each year, which last year worked out at 235 million items.
Meanwhile, microfibres from fleeces and sportswear are now a significant cause of plastic pollution in our rivers and oceans: 700,000 fibres are released in a single domestic wash.
‘It’s impossible to go down any high street without being bombarded by images luring us into buying cheap clothing. But the few pounds we spend on an item of clothing isn’t the true cost.
‘It’s costing people their livelihoods. It’s costing millions of people their health. In fact, it’s costing us the earth. It’s a situation that needs addressing and fast. There has to be a real sense of urgency now because to be totally honest with you we are running out of time.’
In fact, there is growing momentum on the issue, with many officials now recognising the need for urgent action. Last week, for example, Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee wrote to Britain’s ten biggest clothing retailers asking them to reveal their environmental footprint.
They quoted evidence that British shoppers buy far more new clothes than any other European nation. The firms involved, all high street favourites and supermarkets, include Marks & Spencer, Primark, Next, Arcadia, Asda, T K Maxx, Tesco, J D Sports, Debenhams and Sports Direct International. Most churn out hundreds of new fashion lines a year, constantly updating their stock and fuelling trends.
‘Instagram is fuelling this as people are adopting a ‘look and chuck’ mentality – we’ve got a lot more fast fashion. ‘If you look at Italy’s fashion market, there’s much more focus on high-end clothing and people tend to save up and buy just one or two garments, like Max Mara coats, which are timeless.
‘Ours is much more trend-driven. This year it’s yellow, last year it was pink, this autumn it’s check – pretty soon you’re exhausted. Everyone’s doing it, it’s Topshop, M&S, H&M, they’re all fast-turnaround, high-turnaround, relatively cheap clothing.
Cheap fashion amounts to ‘consumer catnip’. Its most dramatic illustration comes from Central Asia, a major hub for cotton production. Yet here, it has now become as dangerous to the environment as plastic.
Cotton producers in Uzbekistan – the world’s sixth largest cotton producer – have diverted water away from the Aral Sea to giant cotton farms, profoundly impacting the livelihood of farmers and fishermen in neighbouring Kazakhstan. The sea has almost vanished and vast quantities of chemicals were left on the sea bed, poisoning millions of people and farmland.
The loss of water has had a profound impact on the region. Summers are now as hot as 45C, and winters dip to minus 30C. There are no longer trees or plants to stop the wind, and huge dust storms whip up in seconds. An entire ecosystem has died, the fishing industry has been annihilated and thousands have lost their jobs. Equally, it is much harder to grow crops and to farm animals.
‘I don’t think you understand the enormity of the situation until you’re here. It’s affected everything. It’s affected unemployment. There’s been a public health crisis. It’s affected the weather. It’s affected the seasons. We understand what plastic has done to the earth – we’re fed that every day and rightly so – but did I know that cotton was capable of this? Of course I didn’t. I had no idea.’
The health crisis has seen an increase in strokes, blood pressure and cancer in the local communities. It is believed to be linked to the toxic pesticides which were dumped in the water by cotton factories. As the water has receded, the pesticides have turned to sediment on the dusty ground, only to be spread into the air by the billowing winds.
‘These sandstorms are so vast they can be seen from space,’ adds Dooley. ‘When the sea first vanished, they contained vast quantities of pesticides which had been washed in to the Aral from the cotton farms and left on the sea bed. They poisoned people and farmland. Millions across the region were affected and the impact is still felt today.’
Meanwhile, chemicals dumped into Indonesia’s Citarum River, already one of the most polluted waterways in the world, are causing similar devastation. The local army has spent months trying to clear the sea of plastic floating down the river.
But just as toxic are the levels of mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic now present in the waters.
Factories are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection, dumping their waste at night, or pumping it through underground pipes into the river. The result? Lurid-coloured water, frothy waves, and a lack of oxygen – causing a putrid stench, dead birds and rats and devastation to local families who rely on the water for drinking, bathing and washing their clothes. More than 28 million people have been affected by the polluted water.
The problem here is the sheer enormity. The scale of what’s going on is just breathtaking. It’s hard to think the clothes I’m wearing could be causing so much damage. But I can now see how this industry has become such a threat to the planet.
In the past, there were autumn, winter, spring and summer collections of clothes, retailers now work with more than 50 collections a year.
‘To tell people I’m never going to shop again would be completely dishonest,’ says Dooley. ‘Of course I am. But I do recognize how powerful I am as a consumer and I do want to go back to owning clothes and loving clothes and not consuming them in the way we do now.’