Mark Angelo looks at textile pollution. Picture / Supplied.

Change Agent: Mark Angelo

We talk to the founder of World Rivers Day

How dirty is your denim? It’s one of the big questions asked in the documentary RiverBlue, which looks at the devastating impact the fashion industry — in particular denim manufacturing — is having on waterways and workers’ health. The film follows renowned river conservationist Mark Angelo as he travels down some of the world’s greatest rivers, including some of the most polluted. Angelo is the founder of World Rivers Day and has possibly paddled more rivers than anyone else on the planet. He talks to us about what we should be aware of.

How are rivers suffering because of the textiles and fashion industry?
A number of the better-known problems confronting rivers have been well-documented over the years but it has always bothered me that the massive environmental impact surrounding the fashion industry, ranging from textiles to leather goods to denim, has often flown under the radar. Yet, this industry, in its totality, is one of the world’s biggest industrial polluters, emitting mercury, cadmium, lead, copper and other toxins directly into many of the world’s rivers.

China textile jean pollution. Picture / Greenpeace Asia.

How are countries such as China and Bangladesh suffering the cost of pollution left behind from manufacturing textiles?
In China we spent time filming along the Pearl River in the city of Xintang, which over the past 20 years, has become the “blue jeans capital of the world”. That has come at an alarming environmental cost and the area is now so polluted the health of workers is being compromised. Although jobs in the area are sorely needed, a growing number of people refuse to work there because of health fears. In Xintang I spent time with a local fisherman who, two decades ago when I first went there, made a viable living catching fish in the Pearl River.

The river is now virtually dead (largely as a result of the polluted run-off from denim mills) and, just to eke out a living, he spends his days dredging the muck on the river bottom, sifting for worms he can sell to fish farms and pet stores. He feels he has “lost his dignity”. Elsewhere while filming I had the chance to revisit the Buriganga River in Bangladesh, and that was another unsettling experience. For most of the year outside the monsoon season the lower Buriganga River is now more chemicals than water and it has become a “dead river”, due largely to the pollution from the tannery (or leather) district in Dhaka, one of the most toxic sites on Earth.

Pollution is not only taking a severe environmental toll it’s also having a serious impact on public health. People who work in the tanning district end up handling toxic chemicals like chromium each and every day, often without protection. Those nearby are exposed because the toxins from the mills run directly into the river. Much of this leather is sent to the finest fashion houses in Europe, Asia or North America and consumers are often completely unaware of the environment and social footprint attached to it.

What is the solution? 
The pollution issues we witnessed while making RiverBlue are something we should all be concerned about. The toxins coming out of Asian textile mills go into rivers and oceans and some are now showing up in the tissue of North American polar bears. This highlights the fact that everything is interconnected. We want RiverBlue to be a positive agent for change. First and foremost, we want to increase awareness of the issue.

China textile worker. Picture / Greenpeace Asia.

From a consumer perspective, how can we be more aware of the issues surrounding the fashion industry?
Our hope is that more and more people will start to ask questions about what they buy, and how it was made. I’m a strong believer in the importance of “conscious consumerism” and this can drive change. We believe major manufacturers have to focus more on embracing ethical and sustainable practices. The technology is there to simulate a popular product like acid wash jeans using lasers and air rather than harmful acids.

There are certification processes available, such as Bluesign, that can track the footprint of textile products from cradle to grave. Far more companies have to embrace the use of this kind of certification. There’s a growing interest in legislative reform in countries such as the United States that will look more closely at how major textile producers are doing business overseas.

Given the severely polluted state of many waterways that are chronicled in RiverBlue and the extent to which they’ve been impacted, is it possible to turn things around for these rivers?
Certainly there are many waterways around the world that have been severely damaged - but I also believe we should never give up on any river. As an example, I think back long ago to my youth and the very first time I paddled the Thames River in England. At that point, it was classified as a biologically “dead river”. But then, there was a massive effort to clean it up and, while that took many years, the river eventually sprung back to life. So I think that highlights the fact that, if you put a plan in place, properly address the issues, and do the right thing, then we can turn things around. I think there’s a lesson there for the fashion industry.

• To find out more and watch the film trailer see

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