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The Shocking Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Fabric and Leather Industries

Inexpensive clothing has become a serious pollution problem in more ways than one. Each year, an estimated 80 billion garments are sold worldwide, and each year, Americans alone throw away 15 million tons of clothing1 — most of it having been worn just a few times. This is a trend that completely disregards the toxic toll each garment takes on environmental and human health throughout the manufacturing and distribution processes involved in its creation.

Organic cotton, which is more sustainable, accounts for a mere 1 percent of the cotton grown across the globe. Sustainable plant dyes account for an even smaller portion of the global garment industry. Great benefits could come from expanding the organic cotton and natural textile dye industries. Natural materials such as leather also have significant downsides. Leather processing has become incredibly chemical intense, poisoning areas where locals are already struggling with widespread poverty and pollution.

The Toxic Side of Leather Tannery

The short video above by Daniel Lanteigne shows the impact the leather processing industry has had in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country that has no regulations on toxic waste management. More than 20,000 people work and live in the Hazaribagh tannery district, where toxic chemicals from 200 tanneries flow freely through the open sewers lining the city streets. The Buriganga River has turned black from the toxins, and mounds of discarded leather scraps line its banks.

Yet people still use the river for clothes washing and bathing on a regular basis. As one would expect, skin ulcers, respiratory problems and chest pains are common health complaints in the area. As noted in the video, “market profitability is causing both the government and the tanners to turn a blind eye to the environmental consequences and health hazards.”

Bangladesh also does not regulate workers’ conditions. Few if any are given any kind of protective gear and are in direct contact with the chemicals on a daily basis. Most tanneries do not even have ventilation or indoor lighting. Child labor is also commonplace and unregulated.

Garment Industry Poses Serious Threat to Waterways

A recent article by Heather Pringle and Amorina Kingdon in Hakai Magazine2 highlights how the fashion industry is impacting waterways around the globe. Commenting on the leather industry, Pringle and Kingdon write:

“To transform perishable animal skin into durable leather, factory workers soaked animal hides in a series of toxic baths containing nearly 40 different acids and several heavy metals including chromium, a known carcinogen. The hides absorbed just 20 percent of these chemical brews: the rest was waste.

In all, Dhaka’s tanneries discharged nearly 22,000 cubic liters of toxic effluent daily into the Buriganga River, which ultimately flows into the Bay of Bengal …  

Faced with an environmental disaster along the floodplain of the Buriganga River, the Bangladeshi government forced Dhaka’s leather factories to move to a new industrial park in 2017, and it has promised to install an effluent treatment plant there. But the opening of the plant was delayed, and in February, residents raised fears that the transplanted tanneries were contaminating a second river, the Dhaleshwari.”

Toxic runoff from cotton growers also poses a serious threat to water quality. In Pakistan, the fourth-largest cotton producer in the world, the cotton industry has polluted much of the groundwater, rendering it unsafe to drink. Cotton also gobbles up 20 trillion liters (5.28 trillion gallons) of the Indus River’s precious water each year.

As a result of widespread water mismanagement, the Indus River now faces the same fate as the Aral Sea, situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has been nearly drained for irrigation, obliterating the once-thriving fishing economy in the area. Aral Sea fishermen of old used to catch 40 tons of fish per year. Today, the area is littered with fishing vessels lying on dry land, and what used to be a thriving seaport is now nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the water's edge.

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