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Fashion’s Wake; The Real Cost of Clothing

You always hear the phrase, “Earth’s limited resources”; it’s constantly tossed around, but no real weight is given to it. What happens when the phrase "limited resources" becomes "NO RESOURCES?"

Beginning in the 1920s, the former Soviet Union has diverted rivers feeding the Aral Sea to solve their own cotton farming irrigation problems. The repercussions of the fashion world’s insatiable thirst for new fashion trends in the last few decades stepped up an insatiable “need” for more textiles, like cotton, diminishing a seemingly boundless water supply. The result? An inland island sea all but disappears and an entire region is reduced to desert, all in less than 50 years!

 
                Aral Sea Depletion

Today, the Aral Sea is a shadow of its former self, decimated by human influence. Imagine the shock of anyone who saw the Aral Sea in its prime, seeing it today: instead of grass, sand; instead of sea life, camels; and instead of hearty, hardworking fishing crews, abandoned ships, anchored to the desert.

The decision to irrigate fields for cotton and turn desert like land into arable fields through irrigation has destroyed the Aral Sea and its surrounding region. Today, the irrigation network encompasses 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams and more than 80 reservoirs (Athawale). While it helps feed cotton production, by the 1960s it was choking the Aral Sea. Once the world’s 4th largest lake, by 2007, the formerly magnificent body of water was just 10% of its original size. Despite many warning signs, the need to produce cotton for the textile industry outweighed the impending outcome seen today.

 
       Abandoned Ship in the Former Aral Sea

The consequences reach far beyond the Aral Sea, spanning the entire region: (Athawale)

  • All industries related to the water—gone. As the mass of the lake decreased, overall salinity increased, and led directly to the death of millions of fish—a result that destroyed fishing and increased hunger for far more people.
  • Animals are unable to survive. Hundreds of thousands of metric tons of salt and sand have made their way into the air, reducing animal survivability so severely that local government implemented a decree to limit the slaughter of animals for food, hoping to preserve the few species that could withstand the conditions. 
  • Water is undrinkable. Thanks to bacteriological contamination and pesticides, the quality of drinking water declined. Additionally, humans have seen an increase of anemia, cancer, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and viral hepatitis, attributed to polluted air, water and poor diet as food in the region has suffered in quality.
 
Chart Comparing Salinity and Sea Level of the Aral Sea
   

Today, we know that things must change, that we must find ways to restore the land we have neglected for so long, and that we must restore balance to regions afflicted with consequences stemming from the world of fashion.

Recognizing the necessity for change, the Government of Kazakhstan and the World Bank sponsored a project beginning in 2003 to save what could be saved of the Aral Sea. A dam was built to enclose what is now referred to as the Northern Aral Sea, or the Small Sea, which has positive results. “The Small Sea, which was over 80 km away from the fishing village of Tastubek in 2010, lied only 10 km away in 2016. In the Small Sea, fishing production has expanded from 600 tonnes in 1996 to 7,200 tonnes today” and more than 15 species of fish have reappeared (Athawale). Furthermore, these same reports show that diseases caused from unhealthy drinking water are expected to decline, the salinity of water will stabilize, and even more fish species will return.

A good start, but not the final solution.

 

Paul Dillinger, head of Levi's global product innovation points out that large companies in the fashion industry must shift their own focus toward sustainability as well, to reduce the water footprint of cotton production. Speaking to Stacey Dooley of the BBC, he also explains, “This is a big industry. It’s so broadly decentralized that affecting change is nearly impossible” (Sanghani).  He calls upon others to step up and take steps, however small, also citing that there should be a regulatory solution to help kickstart an industry-wide initiative.

Dooley also shared some of the many negative effects fashion production can have in another conversation with British Fashion Influencer, Niomi Smart.  Startled after hearing this, Smart agreed change should be made, saying “The few Pounds we spend for an item of clothing isn't the true cost - the real cost is the millions of gallons of clean water that was used to grow the fabric, or the millions of gallons of fresh water that was polluted with toxic chemicals to dye the clothes.” And "It’s a situation that needs addressing – and fast. There has to be a sense of urgency now because to be totally honest with you, we’re running out of time” (Sanghani). She hit the nail on the head.

   

Here at TexereSilk, we agree completely.  We devote considerable efforts to finding the most sustainable fibers and manufacturing standards but recognize that no solution is perfect yet. This outlook has directly led to our decision to produce Bamboo products, and even though there are eco-concerns regarding production, our mindset to focus on our planet, our future.  As consumers and producers, we may not be perfect, but Earth’s cries for help can no longer go unanswered. If we continue with current trends, the Aral Sea will be joined by plenty more regions in poverty and hopelessness. No matter what's being done, the Aral Sea will never regain its luster of just 50 years ago. As human beings we must be more aware of the consequences our choices have. Fashion will likely never become fully eco-friendly, but TexereSilk will be at the front of the line as alternatives become available. It is our mission.

     

*Special thanks to editor Jeannette LeSure

Works Cited

Athawale, Ankita. “The Aral Sea Eco-Disaster: Fashion Turned a Sea to Sand.” Fabric of the World, 3 Apr. 2018, www.fabricoftheworld.com/aral-ses-eco-disaster-how-textiles-made-a-sea-turn-to-sand/.

Sanghani, Radhika. “Stacey Dooley Investigates: Are Your Clothes Wrecking the Planet? - BBC Three.” BBC, BBC, 9 Oct. 2018, www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5a1a43b5-cbae-4a42-8271-48f53b63bd07.

   
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