Global fast fashion brands are helping drive pollution that has dyed African rivers blue or turned their waters as alkaline as bleach, according to a report published on Tuesday.
Water Witness International's (WWI) report featured the polluted rivers in Lesotho in southern Africa and Tanzania to highlight the risks posed as global brands increasingly source garments from contractors in Africa, attracted by cheap labour and tax incentives, according to a Reuters report.
Global brands could force better practices, but so far their presence in Africa has done little to stem rife pollution, water hoarding by contracting factories or even ensure adequate water and sanitation for factory staff, Nick Hepworth, director of WWI and author of the report, said.
Also read: How to fix the 'broken' fashion industry
"The flipside is that (fast fashion) could be a force for change," he continued, but brands and investors needed to take the lead.
In Lesotho, researchers found a river visibly polluted with blue dye for denim jeans. Samples taken from Tanzania's Msimbazi river in Dar es Salaam, meanwhile, tested a pH of 12, the same as bleach, near a textiles factory, the report said, adding local communities use the Msimbazi for washing, irrigation and more, the Reuters report states.
It identified some 50 international brands that source or have sourced their clothes from African nations, including Inditex's Zara, ASOS and H&M, but didn't tie the pollution to any company's supply chain.
Zara did not provide a comment. ASOS and H&M confirmed they source from Africa but pointed to initiatives to ensure sustainability or address water risks, according to the report.
Brands can and do make environmentally sustainable clothing, and consumer pressure was key to encouraging more, said Katrina Charles, an expert on water security and quality at the University of Oxford who has worked with governments in Africa and Asia.
The textiles sector offered opportunities for African nations, including growth and jobs, but these would not pay off if pollution management and adequate working conditions weren't ensured, she said.
"Making the textile industry a force for good in Africa is a very delicate balance," she said.
Earlier this year, a coalition of more than 200 rights groups had said fashion brands, especially the fast fashion ones, should fix their "broken industry" by ensuring millions of pandemic-hit workers receive their full wages and by guaranteeing severance pay if jobs are cut.
The #PayYourWorkers campaign said brands and retailers that made a profit in 2020, like Nike, Amazon and Next, could stop garment workers "going hungry" and set up a severance fund by paying manufacturers the equivalent of $0.10 more per t-shirt.
Fashion companies cancelled orders worth billions of dollars in the first three months of the pandemic as covid-19 shuttered stores worldwide, leading to wage losses estimated at at least $3.2 billion.