Stacey Dooley and the environmental impact of fashion
I haven’t watched any Stacey Dooley for about five years, since I watched her programme on drug smuggling through Ukraine in 2013 and gave it this scathing review. In tonight’s BBC Three documentary (shown on BBC1; BBC Three is now online only), she tries to expose the environmental impact of the fashion industry and to test and try and raise people’s awareness of it. She visits Kazakhstan, where almost an entire inland sea, the Aral Sea, was lost because the rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate cotton fields in what it now Uzbekistan, and then to Indonesia where textile factories were shown dumping large quantities of chemicals in a river that locals used to drink, wash and irrigate crops with. She interviews the head of a local textile manufacturers’ association and tries to get answers out of big fashion bosses and the UK government, all to no avail.
In her opening sequence, she asks people on a British high street to rank six industries known for causing heavy pollution (coal/oil, beef, tourism, transport, fracking and fashion) in reverse order of cleanliness, i.e the biggest polluter at the top. Most people put oil and coal (which she grouped together for some reason; putting fracking separately is also puzzling as it produces oil) at the top (correctly) and fashion as number six, when in fact it is number two. She gets a delivery of dozens of huge industrial water tanks to demonstrate the huge quantities of water that it takes to grow cotton — a man’s jeans, supposedly, took over 15,000 litres. I found this comparison dubious, because fashion is after all a globalised industry in which fabrics are either grown (like cotton) or synthesised (like polyester), transported to countries like Indonesia where they are spun, dyed, woven and then cut into a garment before being transported again to its markets such as here in the UK. The ships and trucks used in each stage of the transportation process, as well as the factories themselves, all either burn oil or use electricity which is often generated from coal or oil, so all these forms of pollution are interlinked. And that amount of water was probably used to produce the whole batch of cotton from which the cotton used in those jeans came from, not just the cotton in the jeans.
As an example of the environmental impact of cotton, Stacey is taken to see the Aral Sea on the Kazakh/Uzbek border, where both of its main water sources were diverted during Soviet times to irrigate cotton farms in Uzbekistan which turned the sea bed into a desert and destroyed a thriving local fishing industry on the Kazakh side. She mentions that these projects started in the 1960s but does not mention that the Soviet Union was still in existence then and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were Soviet republics; this decision would have been made in Moscow. She does not mention that in fact many western clothing companies try to avoid using cotton sourced from Uzbekistan because the state uses forced labour on its cotton farms, including child labour, although the boycott may well be less than 100% effective. In addition, water loss was greater because the channels were poorly constructed and leak, though even if that were not so, it still would likely have reduced the size of the Aral Sea considerably. She does not address the politics of this at all and does not explain why she does not attempt to visit the cotton farms or talk to Uzbek officials (Uzbekistan is still a dictatorship and people critical of the regime disappear). Furthermore, overuse of water is a major problem everywhere cotton is produced and the usual issue is the use of water from aquifers such as in the USA and India which will not last forever; at least if the over-irrigation from the Amu Darya river in Uzbekistan is reduced, the Aral Sea could recover.
She also visits a part of Indonesia where there are textile plants which pollute local waterways considerably, especially the Citaram (pronounced Chitaram) river which is used by local people for all the usual purposes, causing major health problems. She talks to local environmental activists who say they have been threatened by thugs employed by the textile companies; they also say that if people are seen filming, the companies close the outflow pipes until they have passed on, although we did see a large amount of coloured liquid being discharged straight into the river. She arranges an interview with the head of the local textile manufacturers’ association who says all the right things, telling her that there are standards and all that and he’d like to see there be no pollution from the industry but that he has no power to force companies to stop polluting; she seems convinced that his explanation is genuine, when it struck me as straightforward PR talk.
Later on she interviews a group of fashion vloggers or ‘influencers’ who seemed unaware of the pollution caused by the fashion industry; she opens a bottle of the river water from the polluted area in Indonesia and they all say how foul the smell is. It’s assumed that their clothes are all from the factories implicated in her programme, but they may or may not be and finding clothes that are not from developing countries is extremely difficult nowadays; all the major stores, including upmarket ones, sell clothes made in China or South Asia. She lectures us that we should shop less, but nothing is said about alternative fabrics other than recycled cotton; she only briefly mentions the fact that the oceans are being polluted by microplastics which includes fibres detached from polyester clothing during washing, and does not mention that a lot of ‘fashion’ clothing, especially for women, is made of these materials and not cotton.
She also attends a summit on sustainability in Copenhagen and tries to talk to a number of bosses of fashion companies, such as ASOS, but none of them will speak to her and she starts plaintively asking why they will not speak to her when they’re here to talk about sustainability. In response to another refusal, she professes bafflement that someone paid to communicate will not communicate (with her). She has much the same response when the environment secretary, Michael Gove, refuses her an interview and instead gets his secretary to send her a very brief statement. Of course, any serious investigative journalist would have had much the same response, but whining about it seems a bit unprofessional and they may have been briefed about her because she has a history of inappropriate and juvenile conduct in her programmes.
I have to say that her presenting style has not changed much since 2013 when I last watched enough of one of her shows to review it. The gushing emotion, the banal observations presented as if they were deep insights, the inappropriate touchy-feely behaviour are all still there. The only countries she visits are the ones where it is easy to film, namely relatively open places where there is no danger of her or her crew coming to harm, and while the environmental impacts are important, so is the prevalence of sweatshops and dangerous working conditions, which she does not touch on at all in this programme. And she does not really get to the bottom of why fashion is such a destructive industry, which is that the industry dictates that fashions will change each season and that the things people (again, especially women) bought last season will go off the shelves and “out of fashion” and completely different things will be sold now, much of it poorly made so that it will not last. To change this needs more than just for people to “shop less”; it requires organised boycotts and political action to force up the quality of clothing being sold.
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