Indonesia's textile industry is worth a whopping US$20 billion, and supplies global fashion brands around the world. It has also left a huge environmental footprint. But a recent court victory could change everything. The question is: will big fashion brands catch up fast enough?
I remember the first time I came to Rancaekek district, on the Indonesian island of Java. It was in 2011 during the dry season. This area is one of the many industrial areas in along the Citarum river – considered one of the most polluted waterways in the world. I saw a black river and thousands of hectares of rice fields that couldn't be planted anymore. They had been irrigated for far too long with water from a tributary of the Citarum river, the only water source in the area.
"It comes from the textile factories upstream," one old farmer told to me. "It discharged [wastewater] all the time," the other farmer replied. "Since the industry began to bloom in the early 1990s, our life has changed, our river and air is polluted, our paddy fields have become unproductive."
The effects of pollutions are widespread. A recent study (in Indonesian) showed that total economic loss due to industrial pollution in the area had reached a staggering IDR11,4 trillion (US$838 million) between 2004 and 2015.
Toxic waste inside the Waste Water Management Installation (IPAL) PT. Insan Sandang Internusa, in Sumedang, West Java.
Rancaekek is long known to host textile companies including some of the biggest companies in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. These companies export most of their products abroad, including to several big fashion brands. It's no secret who they are. Anyone can simply ask any of the hard-working, low-paid workers fighting for survival there and they will tell you what brands their products are being sent to.
How people power is reshaping the fashion industry
In December 2015, not much had changed – even four years after the first global fashion brand committed to Detox to clean up their supply chain. People still didn't know what kind of chemicals were being dumped into their river, and their land was still polluted. But what had changed was people's spirit and determination.
Knowing that dozens of brands had committed to Detox their supply chain, Greenpeace Indonesia, together with community groups Pawapeling, Walhi (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), and Legal Aid Bandung, filed a lawsuit against the government's decision to continue issuing wastewater discharge permits to three textile companies – PT. Kahatex, PT. Insan Sandang Internusa and PT. Five Star Textile.
And they won!
In May 2016, I witnessed the joy and gratitude of hundreds of people who heard the court's decision. The judge decided to suspend, cancel and revoke government decrees that legalise pollution.
Wastewater discharges from those three companies can now be considered illegal.
Evidence revealed that permits were given without consideration of the supporting and carrying capacity of the river and no study was conducted to establish if the discharges would impact aquaculture, animals and plants, quality of soil and groundwater. There was no monitoring and evaluation before issuing permits. To prevent further destruction, and taking into account the precautionary principle, the judge decided to grant the entire lawsuit.
This unprecedented decision gives us hope that a clean and toxic-free river and future in Indonesia is possible. It proved to me that people power can prevail!
Now fashion brands must move fast!
In 2015 one high ranking Indonesian official said that people in Rancaekek are prone to cancer due to industrial pollution. This is not surprising. Big brands must understand that it's not about their brand's image. People's health and lives depend on fulfilling your commitment and cleaning up their supply chains. As big multinational brands they have powerful leverage on suppliers and policy makers.
Millions depend on the health of Indonesia's rivers, water, and land. We won't stop fighting. Fashion brands must Detox before it's too late. Stay tuned as we look at how well the brands are implementing their Detox commitment in the Detox Catwalk ranking in July this year.
Ahmad Ashov Birry is a Detox Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
CORRECTION: correction in the currency conversion from IDR to USD has been made from IDR11,4 trillion (US$1.02 trillion), which is incorrect, to "IDR11,4 trillion (US$838 million)"