The Indus Valley is where cotton cultivation and manufacturing have its roots. It has a fascinating cultural heritage and is often referred as the birthplace of human civilization. Today this region is known as Pakistan and India. And though the cultural heritage remains, the prestige it once possessed is gone.
Today Pakistan has become amongst the big world suppliers of mass production textile goods serving the needs of mastodon like Wal-Mart and Ikea. Today the industry’s infrastructure is specifically designed to serve the needs of those MNE’s (Multi Nationals Enterprises), with textile accounting for 65 % of the national exports, and contributing to 37% of the employment in the secondary sector (Khan, 1998).
An unhealthy dependence created over time, which originates from the early stages of British Imperialism in India. Fueled by western companies desire to develop their competitive advantage over the exploitation of the country’s large and cheap labor and geographical climate suitable for growing cotton. This dependence has continuously reduced its ability to innovate (Cororaton and Orden, 2008).
Under the cotton cultivation methods prevalent in Pakistan, 1kg of cotton requires 7,000 to 30,000 litres of water (Thiry, 2011). And yet outrageously excessive water use is only one issue amongst many others: Land depletion, soil erosion and ever increasing use of toxic pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers.
The processing stage of textiles production is often referred as the most chemical and hazardous stage. It entails: desizing, bleaching, sanforising, mercerizing and dying, and finally finishing. This process also requires astronomical amounts of water, and involves substantial water contamination due to the use of many different deadly chemicals (mercury, arsenic, nonylphenol etc), destructive to our health, and all of our planet’s ecosystems.
If we go back to the Indus Valley 3,000 years ago, the Sindh region of Pakistan had already pioneered the complex processing of the cotton’s fibers in spinning, weaving, bleaching, dying and printing.
In the mid 16th century Textiles from the Indian subcontinent were a great source of wealth, which spread across the Mediterranean, the Middle East and various parts of Asia. Indigo the most fabled and valued dye was extracted from the plant “Indigo Ferra Tinctoria”, which grew in abundance on the banks of the Indus River.
By the mid 18th century, the world was virtually clothed by textiles produced from the Sindh region. The natural dies were non-allergic, non-toxic and non-carcinogenic as they were made from renewable ecological crops such as leaves, flowers, root and seeds etc.
Of course this changed during the 19th century, as the British introduced the first synthetic dyes into the Subcontinent; this subsequently led to the progressive decline of natural dyes. Chemical indigo was then developed in Germany in the beginning of the 20th century, which quickly replaced the ancestral and sustainable traditional indigenous technique.
Today the dangerous business of fast fashion dominates. Countries like Pakistan heavily rely on the business it generates and to satisfy large corporations shareholders returns on investment, capacity utilization is never large enough. The consequences of mass production are frightening for our future, but yet again consumers have real awareness regarding the true implications for our future. Pakistan is simply a victim of the Western world growing demand for textile goods, and is now stuck in a very vicious circle to meet its continuous demand.
Today there is no clear understanding as to how textile mills monitor their use of water, pesticides, fertilisers etc. All certifications used are clearly only utilized as marketing tools to show buyers that they are socially compliant. Everyone is in this business on a short-term basis.
Consumers today must learn to educate themselves and investigate on the true cost of making garment. Only with this knowledge in mind can one alter an existing buying pattern and influence others to do so too.