The high cost of India’s cheap garment exports

The garment industry is exacerbating India’s growing water crisis.

An Indian Hindu devotee performs rituals in the Yamuna river, covered by chemical foam caused due to industrial and domestic pollution, during the Chhath Puja festival in New Delhi, India on November 2, 2019 [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

Two winters ago, while driving into Delhi at the crack of dawn, I found myself staring at looming soft mountains of candy pink foam rising from the grey surface of the river Yamuna. This surreal image with its perfectly complementary hues could well have been from a fashion editorial made for Instagram. But, ironically, the tableau was representative of the dark face of fashion that remains in the shadows – the face, not just of the rising consumption of clothes around the globe, but also of the true cost of cheap, ready-to-wear garments that we are quick to buy and discard.

The heaps of toxic foam that engulf the Yamuna, for large parts of the year, are linked to the phosphate content of detergents in the wastewater of cloth manufacturing units. Several such units are scattered all over the northern Indian state of Haryana, which borders Delhi. In the small town of Panipat alone there are hundreds of dyeing units, and many of these units release toxic waste into the river.

Drains that carry these effluents run through villages, polluting their potable water. Until recently locals would use the water, despite it being variously coloured with chemical dyes, but now they claim it is not even fit to use for their cattle. This state of affairs has serious repercussions for the majority of Haryana’s population because they depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to cultivate crops that have been traditionally grown in the state with the scant usable water that is available.

Thousands of these same farmers have joined what has been called the biggest protest in world history. Their immediate demand is that the government rolls back laws, which they claim favour large corporations over small farmers. But these laws are simply the proverbial last straw – the agricultural sector in India has long been in distress and water scarcity is one of its most pressing problems.

While farmers have been greatly affected by toxic waste from dyeing units, they are not the only ones. In 2019, the Delhi state government had to shut down supply from sizeable water treatment plants because the level of ammonia generated by industrial waste was higher than what they could treat. This did not solve the problem, either. For more than 33 days in 2020, the level of ammonia in water remained above treatable levels, directly impacting over a third of Delhi’s water supply.

It is a well-known fact that water stress in India is extremely high: 50 percent of the country’s population is deprived of access to safe water, and even for the rest, both surface and groundwater are running out rapidly. Unsurprisingly, alarms have been raised about India’s water scarcity around the world, including in a report by the US-based World Resources Institute that ranks it 13th among the world’s worst affected nations. What is, perhaps, lesser known is how India’s garments and textile industry is adding to this stress and the role that global fashion brands are playing in precipitating the water crisis.

The last decade has seen the meteoric rise of what has come to be known as “fast fashion” – retail brands producing inexpensive knock-offs of runway trends and fostering a culture of consumption where affordable and trendy clothes are bought and discarded in quick succession. Social media fuels the demand for fast fashion through influencers, easy e-commerce, and a culture of wearing clothes for the ‘gram.

But the key to sustaining this nearly $2.5 trillion fast fashion industry is that the volume of clothes produced and sold should be high, and prices low. Low prices are achieved by keeping production costs low and low production costs, in turn, come at the expense of environmental protection and workers’ rights.

Countries in which most of these retail brands are based, however, have developed strict regulatory frameworks with respect to pollution and labour rights. So, they outsource production to countries such as India, China, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where labour and compliance costs are far lower. And for a small share of the enormous profits generated by the fast fashion industry, these countries end up paying a heavy price – including the erosion and pollution of their water resources.

India exports garments, fabrics and raw materials for clothing, footwear and headwear, and every stage of production, for each of these items, is heavily dependent on the consumption of water.

Take the example of Indian cotton, which is in great demand because it is, on average, the cheapest in the world market. This year alone, cotton exports are predicted to go up 40 percent in comparison with the previous year. But cotton, unfortunately, is also a very thirsty crop, requiring up to 22,500 litres of water for the production of merely one kilogramme – roughly the quantity required to make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.

If this statistic does not look worrying enough to you, consider this – back in 2013, 85 percent of Indians could have been provided with enough water to satisfy their daily needs for a year with the amount of water used to produce India’s cotton exports. Think about what that means in a country where children in 100 million homes do not have access to water.

In addition to consuming inordinate amounts of water, the garment and textile industry further exacerbates water scarcity by contributing substantially to water pollution. Tiruppur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu is known for its garment production for global fashion brands, recording some $3.5bn worth of exports every year.

Stories from villages around this hub echo the stories from Panipat and other textile and garment hubs in the country. Untreated wastewater from dyeing and bleaching units have transformed the Noyyal river into a toxic sewer and rendered the agricultural land around Tiruppur largely unproductive, taking away the livelihoods of thousands of farmers.

Some of the wealthier farmers in the area have taken to mining water in desperation but with each passing year, they have to dig deeper to access water. In 2003 the water level on average was 304 metres (1,000 feet) under the ground but it has been dropping at the rate of 15 metres (50 feet) per year. They know that they have to make as much money as they can before the water runs out, and the cruel twist in the tale is that they sell the water they mine to the very dyeing and bleaching units that have rendered vast swaths of their lands barren, taking away their primary livelihood.

More grievous, perhaps, than the effects of the textile industry’s wastewater on human livelihoods, is its impact on human health. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, sections of the river Chambal, downstream from a viscose manufacturing plant, turn black with streaks of red and produce an unbearable stench. In addition, large quantities of viscose rejects that are dumped on the bank are washed into the river during monsoons. It is no coincidence that those who live around this stretch of the river often suffer from cancers and birth defects.

These ailments and several others have been linked to the chemicals used in the production of viscose. Concerns have also been raised about the link between viscose production and deforestation because it is made out of wood pulp. But, even so, as a cheaper alternative to silk, viscose remains the lifeblood of the fast fashion industry. And 83 percent of the world’s viscose is sourced from India, China and Southeast Asia.

These cases from Panipat, Chambal, Delhi and Tiruppur are not isolated instances – stories of depleted water resources, toxic water pollution and the horrifying consequences of both, abound across India in pockets where products that are part of the global supply chain of fashion are made. Why then, one might ask, have the country’s regulators not clamped down on the practices of units that are endangering lives in more ways than one?

The reasons are interlinked.

For one, India needs the jobs generated by the industry. The country is short of at least 100 million jobs for its burgeoning youth population and the textile and garment industries, being labour intensive, generate substantial employment. But in order to generate and retain these jobs, producers, as well as policymakers, need to ensure that fashion brands do not move production to other countries that compete for these jobs, particularly Bangladesh, which has multiple advantages over India, including economies of scale, lower wage rates, and tariff exemptions from China and the European Union.

This necessitates keeping the costs of production as low as possible and on this account, governments routinely face pressure from the market to go easy on the creation and enforcement of environment and labour regulations. The situation is made worse by rampant corruption, collusion and moral hazard – fines as well as bribes solicited for violations are eminently affordable in comparison with potential profits.

Dystopian scenes in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, bear testament to the state of India’s regulatory regime. Despite activists flagging concerns and lodging complaints, the river Waldhuni, which supplies water to the Mumbai Metropolitan Area, routinely runs red with dyes from textile industries, and blue dogs, afflicted by indigo dyes, have been known to roam the city’s streets.

On the rare occasion that there is a sincere attempt to enforce regulations, they are easily circumvented. Take, for instance, the curious case of Shiv Vihar – an area in Delhi, that had earned the epithet of “cancer colony” thanks to the hazardous waste emitted by its jeans dyeing units. Taking cognisance of places such as Shiv Vihar, the Supreme Court of India ordered the closure of all polluting industries in Delhi.

But the inhabitants of Shiv Vihar, who are engaged in the dyeing trade, found a loophole – the colony is on the border Delhi shares with the state of Uttar Pradesh, so, if they moved slightly, they would technically be outside the city limits and therefore no longer bound by the order.

On cue, the polluting units were surreptitiously moved by a couple of streets. When activists brought this to the attention of regulators, the latter said that since these units now no longer exist on paper, they could not be shut down because in order to issue notice to them, the regulator would first have to regularise them. In this manner, blue dyes, in the hues of the latest trends off the runways in New York and Paris, continued to flow, and wreak havoc, from the drains of Shiv Vihar.

This Kafkaesque tragedy begs a larger question – why would the workers of Shiv Vihar defy an order that was in the interests of their own health and safety? Why would they continue to work in deplorable conditions, handling toxic chemicals with bare hands, for the small sums of money they earn in dyeing units?

The answer is simple: if the units shut down, alternative means of livelihood would be hard to come by and they would run the risk of starvation and utter deprivation. The choice they face is between immediate and long-term despair, which is not much of a choice.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation. Facing cancellations of export orders from global brands, the industry has been struggling for survival and laying off workers, often without due process. To make matters worse, the Indian government – partly in a bid to encourage local manufacturing and partly due to the recent military standoff with China – has raised tariffs on imports, thus adding to the financial pressures faced by an industry that relies heavily on imported raw materials.

In these circumstances producers, who prioritise profits over the greater good even at the best of times, are even less likely to follow stringent regulations. And workers, facing an acute financial crisis, are even more likely to take up hazardous and punishing jobs.

In order to ameliorate this situation, policymakers have to urgently address multiple dimensions of the problem at once. Fashion brands, too, need to rethink their production templates and embrace scientific innovation, ethical practices and greater transparency, instead of simply investing in marketing campaigns that seek to greenwash their wrongdoings. But the buck finally stops at us – the consumers.

We may not have the power that policymakers and big corporations hold but we certainly have more choice than marginalised people from less-developed countries who are forced to bear the brunt of the toxic by-products of the fashion industry.

We have the choice to think about the true cost of an item on sale, over and above the attractive sum listed as its marked-down price; to ask ourselves some hard questions about what we consume and how much; to find ways to hold both governments and brands accountable for their interventions, or the lack of them; and to refuse to let the seductive imagery created to sell fashion obfuscate the stories of the men, women and children knee-deep in the toxic foam of faraway rivers, washing clothes and struggling to eke out a living at great personal cost. If we do not, we are complicit in their ruin.

Reporting for this article was supported by The ReFashion Hub.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.