Written by: Helen Regan, CNN

When Haji Muhammad Abdus Salam looks across the trash-filled river near his home in one of Dhaka’s major garment manufacturing districts, he remembers a time before the factories moved in.

“When I was young there were no garment factories here. We used to grow crops and loved to catch different kinds of fish. The atmosphere was very nice,” he said from Savar, just north of the Bangladesh capital.

The river beside him is now black like an ink stain. Abdus Salam said waste from nearby garment factories and dye houses has polluted the water.

“There are no fish now,” he said. “The water is so polluted that our children and grandchildren cannot have the same experience.”

Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest garment manufacturing hub after China, exporting $34 billion worth of garments in 2019. And clothes made, dyed and finished in the country often end up in main street shops across the United States and Europe.

But as consumers browse through the season’s latest color trends, few will spare much thought to the dyes used to create everything from soft pastels to fluorescent hues — or their toxic history.

Fashion is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution, thanks in part to weak regulation and enforcement in producer countries like Bangladesh, where wastewater is commonly dumped directly into rivers and streams. The discharge is often a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts and heavy metals that not only hurt the environment, but pollute essential drinking water sources.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change said it was “striving towards minimizing the negative effect on environment from the largest export generating sectors including ready-made garments and textiles.”

Minister Shahab Uddin said in a statement e-mailed to CNN that a range of measures were being taken to address pollution, including updating conservation and environmental laws, imposing fines on polluters, monitoring water quality, setting up centralized treatment plants, and working with international development partners to improve wastewater treatment.

“Monitoring and enforcement activities … are playing a vital role in combating the pollution caused by illegal polluting industries. We have a policy and legal framework in place to address the environmental pollution issues of the country,” he said.

change is happening. In Bangladesh, there are signs textile producers are taking environmental responsibility more seriously, with brands committing to initiatives, such as the Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT), that tackle water, energy and chemical use in the industry.

And some Bangladeshi factories have environmental “best practices and are developing their own connections” with suppliers, said PFI Hong Kong’s Obser. But “it remains a challenge to fully eliminate those smaller non-compliant ones because the fashion industry is very intransparent and price focused,” she added, saying many companies do not have the training, knowledge or the funds to treat wastewater discharge or invest in new waterless or environmentally-friendly technologies.

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change said it has made it mandatory for all polluting facilities to install effluent treatment plants and operate them “optimally.” And under a new environmental policy called Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD), textile dyeing, finishing and washing industries “must submit a time-bound plan to reduce, recycle and reuse the wastewater,” Uddin said.

“There is definitely room for further improvement,” though rapid urbanization, high economic growth and industrialization all exacerbate the country’s environmental problems. “These challenges cannot be eliminated overnight,” he added.

Other countries have also been taking steps. In China, a range of tough new environmental policies have been enacted in the past few years, including a 2017 crackdown on textile and other polluting factories that saw the temporary closure of thousands that were found to be flouting environmental laws. In 2018, the Chinese government introduced a new environment protection tax aimed at cutting polluting discharge, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Ma said factories and dye houses are increasingly being moved into industrial zones with centralized wastewater treatment plants, or being threatened with fines and closure if they don’t comply with regulations.

Results have been “dramatic,” with many of the dead, black rivers he once saw coming back to life.

Original story here