What do the catwalks of Paris have to do with 25,000 miles of exposed sea bed thousands of miles to the east? While all eyes have been fixed on designer collections and members of the front row, the true cost of the fashion industry has been revealed in a shock announcement by NASA that the Aral Sea in Central Asia has now completely dried up.
The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest lake, home to 24 species of fish and surrounded by fishing communities, lush forests and wetlands. While the lake was salt water, the rivers that fed it were fresh water. In the 1950’s the Soviet Union began using the rivers to irrigate the surrounding agricultural area, a process that has been continued to this day by Uzbekistan’s brutal dictator Islam Karimov.
The exposure of the bottom of the lake has released salts and pesticides into the atmosphere poisoning both farm land and people alike. Carcinogenic dust is blown into villages causing throat cancers and respiratory diseases.
The fashion industry is linked to this horror of dictatorships and environmental devastation by the fact that the crop being grown with the river water is cotton – 1.47m hectares of cotton. A hugely water intensive crop, one shirt can use up to 2,700 litres.
“Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world,” says fashion designer and environmentalist Katharine Hamnett. “Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year and a million hospitalisations.”
Reflecting on the loss of the Aral Sea, Hamnett states: “This is not just climate change this is an extinction issue. As Vandana Shiva said ‘no species has deliberately designed its own extinction’, but with industrial agriculture we have. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, causing human misery, enormous cost of life and gigantic environmental devastation.”
The harvest of Uzbek cotton is taking place right now – it started on the 5 September and is expected to last until the end of October. The harvest itself is also a horror story, on top of the environmental devastation, this is cotton picked using forced labour. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are systematically sent to work in the fields by the government.
Under pressure from campaigners, in 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but it is a ban that is routinely flouted. In 2013 there were 11 deaths during the harvest (pdf), including a six year old child, Amirbek Rakhmatov, who accompanied his mother to the fields and suffocated after falling asleep on a cotton truck.
Campaigners have also managed to get 153 fashion brands to sign a pledge to never knowingly use Uzbek cotton. Anti-Slavery International have worked on this fashion campaign but acknowledge that despite successes there is still a long way to go.
“Not knowingly using Uzbek cotton and actually ensuring that you don’t use Uzbek cotton are two completely different things,” explains Jakub Sobik, press officer at Anti-Slavery International.