October 17, 2021

River Blue Shows Us How Our Clothes Affect Rivers

I just saw River Blue, a documentary about how the fashion industry affects rivers in developing countries. It was hard to watch, but it inspired me to contact my favorite brands and ask them how their textiles are made.

When NAFTA was passed in 1994, US apparel companies flocked overseas to find cheaper manufacturing, first to Mexico, then across the pond. The problem is, manufacturing in those countries is cheaper because people are paid less and because factories aren’t forced to adhere to environmental standards. Simple things like wastewater treatment simply don’t exist in India, Bangladesh, and China. Because China has been the world’s factory, especially post-NAFTA, they are starting to clean up their act. But their workers are also able to demand higher wages, so brands that compete on price keep finding countries willing to let them use factories that exploit their people and the water they need.

This documentary went behind the scenes, with a very thorough look at how leather is tanned in these countries and how denim is processed. They also showed some stunning state-of-the art denim processing being done in Italy. Spoiler alert because it’s so awesome- Italdenim has a special trick for making denim with far less chemicals and water- shellfish! They use discarded shells from crabs and such to grind it into a powder called Chitosan. Before dyeing the denim, they soak the fibers in Chitosan. It works as a natural fixative and makes the dye hold better.

Knowing there are solutions and companies using them makes any documentary easier to watch. This one focused on how much the textile industry has destroyed rivers that people depend on for drinking water, for agricultural water, for fishing. Yet what gave me hope was knowing that other rivers have died and been reborn. The Hudson river, The Thames, even the Los Angeles river have all been far worse off in the past than they are now, thanks to environmental activism. We can do the same for the rivers of these other countries.

This week has been Fashion Revolution Week. It began as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, and has expanded into a week of raising awareness about the importance of sustainability in fashion. Fashion Revolution has put out this great index to the top 100 brands on their transparency.

Contact YOUR favorite brands and ask them- Who made my clothes? What’s in my clothes? My favorite things are my Swrve jeans and my Dainese jacket. Swrve answers the first question in their FAQ here. The “brand name” fabric they use in their blk label line is Schoeller, which is the Gold Standard of eco activewear fabrics, but their stretch Cordura blend denim is not from Schoeller.

My friends at Dainese got back to me immediately when I asked them where Dainese gets their leather. After watching the film, I was horrified to think it might have come from Bangladesh. More about why, here. Dainese’s leather comes from Brazil and is tanned in Italy. I found this 2003 article about how Italian tanneries treat effluent, then this 2015 article (pdf) explains the Italian tanning industry is still growing. My jacket was sewn in the Ukraine, where pay might not be as good as in Italy, but at least the leather was tanned in Italy, a country that doesn’t allow tanneries to dump untreated effluent into their rivers.

Swrve replied to me first thing Monday morning with this:

Hi Susanna-

We use a Factory that is on the cutting edge of sustainability.

They are the first garment factory in Pakistan to be LEED certified, use innovative waterless washing when possible, recycle and treat water, etc. etc.


They are also really good on social responsibility, so they are a great company to work with.


But the highlight of the entire film for me was discovering the genius that invented stretch denim! They interviewed Peter Golding, and now I want to build him a shrine. Or at least thank him. I’ve lived in stretch denim since I was 14, and really have to force myself to wear anything else. Now if someone would just invent a biodegradable elastin, we’d finally have fully biodegradable jeans. Then fast fashion would be worth buying, don’t you think? There is biodegradable elastin for use in wound treatment, perhaps it could be adapted for a longer life. The challenge is deciding what you’re selling- disposable clothing, or clothing meant to be passed down to future generations.