How much are you willing to pay for a pair of jeans? Forty or fifty dollars? A few hundred dollars? An ecosystem? The welfare of other human beings? Your own health?
The price tag for fashion often hides what we're really paying to keep up with trends.
The documentary RiverBlue is sounding the alarm on what damage we're causing as consumers—to others and to ourselves—and what we can do about it before it's too late.
At the Vancouver International Film Centre, river advocate Mark Angelo from Burnaby talked to the Georgia Straight about the film that he appears in and will screen at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival.
"The clothes we all buy is probably the most common way by which all of us contribute to water pollution and environmental degradation around the world and yet it's probably the least known in terms of it being a major polluting issue," Angelo said. "Our goal is to bring that to light and certainly we want to create a much greater awareness of the impact of fashion on the global environment on our waterways but at the same time, we want the film to be a vehicle for positive change."
Narrated by Canadian star Jason Priestley, the film exposes what we can't see in the shops while hunting for clothes. From Bangladesh to Indonesia to China, Angelo visits activists and journalists in these countries who are trying to raise awareness of the environmental damage that factories are causing.
The working conditions are beyond appalling—they're horrific.
Angelo said they often saw workers walking barefoot through pools of cadmium or handling chemicals with their bare hands.
Writer-director David McIlvride said Bangladesh was the worst place that they visited.
"When we stepped out of the car in that one area where the tanneries were, where they're making leather…we stepped out of the vehicle and it's probably the only place where I almost threw up," he said. "You could set the river on fire very easily there and yet there was a whole community of maybe 40,000 maybe 100,000 people who were actually living within this area."
One advocate even told them that the kids who lived there have no sense of smell or taste at four and five years of age.
While some people may think that because it's all happening over there, it doesn't really matter to people here. But it does, as pollutants and water know no borders and eventually reach every part of the planet.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, a lot of this manufacturing's taking place in other parts of the world. Why should we care?'," Angelo said, "but when you see pollutants released from an Asian textile mill ending up in the tissue of a North American polar bear, you realize how everything is interconnected. So these are issues we should care about regardless of where we live."
The documentary also shows how water from these polluted rivers are used to irrigate farms, thus working their way into the food supply. That's not to mention how the pollutants also end up in sealife, which become seafood for diners.
Angelo emphasized that this film is not about being anti-fashion or anti-jeans. Rather he said it's about changing the ways jeans are made, and he hopes to ignite consumer activism by raising awareness of these little-known issues.
"The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world," he said. "At the same though, it's an industry that is very consumer sensitive. So I'm a real believer in conscious consumerism and my hope is that if many people become aware of the issue, if many more people begin to ask questions, then that can be a real driver of positive change."
He cited the example of how the food industry has changed due to consumer awareness and shifting purchasing habits.
"Who would've guessed a decade ago that there would be this really substantial market for organic products or free-run eggs….The reason that's occurred is because there's a demand for it. People have been requesting it. People have been asking questions. Well, I'd like to think that over the next few years, the same thing will happen with the fashion industry."
The film shows that, yes, there are solutions, and that once-dead rivers, like England's River Thames, can be cleaned up and revitalized.
McIlvride said they made sure the film wasn't just "doom and gloom" for viewers.
Although it took a while, they did find some companies who are changing their procedures for the better.
"Most of the people we met felt really guilty about their hand in the pollution that was happening so they said they couldn't live with themselves anymore," McIlvride said.
Italy's Italdenim uses crushed shellfish exoskeletons, something discarded by the food industry, as a natural fixing agent for jeans instead of chemicals. Meanwhile, Spain's Jeanologia is using lasers and air (their machines convert oxygen into ozone) to create the look of distressed jeans—not only does this eliminate the use of chemicals and water usage but it's also economically competitive.
As the film demonstrates, change is possible. And in the end, a big portion of the power lies in the hands of the consumers to inquire about, demand, and support change in the fashion industry.
"The solutions are out there but they have to be embraced in a much more extensive way," Angelo said.