INTERVIEW: RiverBlue Documentary Director on Denim Pollution

We caught up with Riverblue film Director David McIlvride, to talk in-depth about the source of much destruction on our global waterways, from textile and tannery manufacturing. 


RiverBlue is a Canadian feature documentary focused on an around-the-world journey by river, culminating in one of the most ambitious river documentaries ever undertaken. Featuring internationally acclaimed river advocate Mark Angelo, who has quite possibly paddled more rivers in his lifetime than anyone else on this planet, Mark has sadly watched the decline of the rivers that he loves.

In the documentary, he and the film crew journey through some of the most pristine to the most devastated rivers- the result? The first real in-depth look at the source of much destruction on our global waterways, from textile and tannery manufacturing.
The RiverBlue team says that “the denim industry will serve as the worst-case scenario in the film, revealing the disturbing instances of how we can show such little regard for what nature has given us.

Jeans Workshop in Guangdong Province

We caught up with RiverBlue Director David McIlvride, who has written, directed and produced some of the most respected documentary series’ on television for broadcasters such as Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel and History Channel to ask a few questions about the documentary.

BF+DA: Did Mark discover the pollution while paddling? What drove him to have a focus on this?

DM: Mark Angelo has been a life-long river advocate, a passionate paddler who has traveled on more than a thousand rivers around the world.  Having paddled globally for more than four decades Mark has sadly watched the decline of the rivers the world over and wanted to bring awareness to the issue in what he has called “his last paddle.”

Roger Williams, the Producer of RiverBlue had previously worked with Mark and approached Mark about documenting some of the rivers Mark had paddled on in the past and collectively making a global environmental documentary on rivers. Mark knew that his health was starting to limit his paddling ability, so he wanted to make one last global journey to see what state the world’s rivers are in today.

As far as discovering pollution while paddling, the answer to that is we (the production team) did a lot of research into the locations prior to traveling to the places we ended up filming in. What Mark did discover was often worse than we imagined, even with prior research. For example, we knew the tannery district in Hazaribagh (Bangladesh) was one of the world’s most polluted places (as done by a survey by the Blackwatch Institute) – but we didn’t realize how bad it was until we stepped out of the car and the smells hit you.  It was so powerful (and terrible) the bad smells took your breath away. As Mark made his way through the tannery district, he found it disturbing how bad the chemical flow had basically killed the river and that at various times of the year, you could light the river on fire.


BF+DA: What was the most disturbing place you went to in terms of denim pollution-why does it stand out so much?

DM: One day, I came across a story that showed a Google map and of an image of a river in China that flowed into a bay that supplied water to Hong Kong and millions of people.  The river had a large streak of indigo blue you could see from outer space.  The pollution was coming from an area that billed itself the “blue jeans capital of the world” due to the amount of jeans they manufactured (200 million pairs of jeans per year including 60 different foreign brands) and sent to North America.

We traveled to the city of Xintang on the Pearl River. While there, we were able to get into a blue jeans manufacturing plant. Inside the plant, chemicals ran through channels in the floor, leading outside.  The cement floors were also wet with polluted water and chemicals used in the distressing of blue jeans.  Workers sprayed jeans with chemicals (giving that “acid wash” look) without any masks. Francois Girbaud, the man who invented acid wash jeans back in the 70s, tells us that these workers are “killing themselves” with the toxic spray.

The Pearl River (which runs through the city of Xintang) was basically a ‘dead river,’ filled with garbage and chemical runoffs from the blue jean and textile manufacturers based in the city. We went out on a small boat with a former fisherman who now dredges the bottom for worms he sells as goldfish food. He talked about how growing up, he used to fish the Pearl and could bring in large catches. Today, there’s no fish in the river. They’ve basically lost their way of life, so there’s a real human impact on the local population who still get their drinking water from the river and bathe and wash their clothes in the toxic waters.

Blue jeans are much dirtier than you might ever guess. That ubiquitous distressed denim wash is the result of a several chemical-intensive washes. We spoke on camera with campaigners from Greenpeace who when testing the outflows near the denim towns found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang, a city we filmed in.


BF+DA: We have been labeled consumers. We consume. We consume at insane speeds. How do we get people to care about polluted rivers each time they go to buy a new pair of jeans?

DM: In her book To Die For, Lucy Siegle asks the question: Is fashion wearing out the world? I think she asks a valid and pertinent question.  Today’s large retail companies have come up with a profit driven model that sees “fast fashion” hitting the stores in increasing numbers.  This has led to billions of pieces of clothing being manufactured at cheap costs – but at heavy costs to our environment in places like India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and China.

In regards to jeans, our wish to have “distressed jeans” that look like they’ve been lived in, is having a huge negative impact on the environment. The more the consumer knows about what goes into a pair of jeans, the amount of water used and the fact that much of the toxic water finds its way into the rivers, I think they will begin to seek out labels and brands who care enough about their environment that they manufacture their jeans in an ethical manner. There is a growing base of “boutique manufacturers” of jeans who are coming up with new technologies to eliminate water from the jeans process and in turn, don’t put chemicals back into the ecology of our planet. You just have to do a little research and read labels to find who those labels are.

Who are some of the heroes in the fashion industry? I see you cited Nudie and Francois Girbaud, who else stands out?

Nudie is an ethical jeans manufacturer, yes (they are also the line of jeans I wear) and even Levi’s have committed to detoxing their jeans by the year 2020.  They could be doing more, but at least their trying with their waterless jeans line. Jack and Jones are making jeans using laser to distress their jeans – which is a good thing. Tortoise Jeans are ethically making jeans (although small in numbers). Monkee Genes (sold in Topshop) are making sustainable jeans using organic cotton, bamboo and ensure that no chemicals are used. They also have a tag line “No slave labour. No Child labour. No blood. No Sweat. No Tears.” Kuyichi, a denim line out of the Netherlands (and found on Amazon) were the first brand to produce organic jeans.  They are using ethically certified factories.

BF+DA: Riverkeeper just partnered with H&M, what do you think about collaborations with fast fashion chains. Aren’t they part of the problem?

DM: Any time that a large chain partners with an environmental group like Riverkeeper it’s a good thing. Even if a company takes a small step forward, it’s always better than continuing down a trail where pollution is the norm for that company. Greenpeace International Executive Kumi Naidoo told us that, for him, it was frustrating to have large companies come in with sustainability plans in which they were going to cut back on their polluting ways, only to find out that months later, those brands were back to doing business the same polluting way. Concrete and working plans along with strong commitments from the executives of the brands which are polluting rivers is what we need.

I think the consumer does have a say in the health of the rivers of our world. Through social media, pressure put on fashion brands to clean up their act and detox, I’m sure we could have a positive effect on the health of the rivers in many places around the world.

In the film, Orsola de Castro, an eco-fashion designer from London, England tells us that the fashion industry has to have “transparency, no toxicity, traceability” and that “consumers will demand to know who, where and how our clothes are being made and if the manufacturing of our fashion is having a negative effect on the environment.”

I don’t think we have much of a choice. It’s often mentioned that the next war will not be fought over oil, but rather water.  I think that’s a strong possibility as we keep growing in population, while at the same time, losing our integral water resources. The rivers are like the capillaries of our planet and we can’t live without them – the planet would die if we lose rivers to pollution.

Don’t forget to RSVP for our Riverblue documentary screening March 22!

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.

Images: RiverBlue