Fashion Films: River Blue - What's the Connection Between Rivers and Your Jeans?

Even if you are not into pleasures of getting your feet wet in the rivers 😄... your life is nonetheless dependent on thousands of rivers staying healthy and running their course. Rivers carry water and nutrients to farm fields, keep habitats beautiful, are used in transportation and energy production. However, the irresponsible fashion industry is putting many of these rivers at grave risk. It is estimated that about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and around 20% of global industrial water pollution come from the treatment and dyeing of textiles. Each year, textile companies discharge billions of gallons of chemically infected water into our precious rivers. Thus allow me to introduce you to David McIlvride, a film director of a Riverblue - a great film talking about these exact issues.

What got you into film making?

I’ve been a filmmaker since the late 1970s when I graduated out of college with a film degree. I was eager to get into the documentary business from the start. I was drawn to this genre for its authenticity and the ability to tell stories that meant something to me. From the beginning of my career my focus has been on telling stories that revolved around “the common man” – stories of people that, usually, don’t get made. Whether it was a lady fighting for the right to die on her own terms, or the daily struggles of conjoined twins and their ability to face life with a smile on their face - these were the stories that satisfied my curiosity and pushed me forward over the past 40 years. From adventures (following a climbing team up Mount Everest), to navigating war zones (Producing the World’s Most Dangerous Places), to directing reality series of a group of young pilots, flying WWII planes in the high Canadian Arctic (Ice Pilots), I’ve been fortunate to travel the world and meet enumerable men and women who have inspired me.

RiverBlue Trailer

When and why you decided to make this movie?

A few years ago I was approached by Producer Roger Williams who wanted to produce a water-based feature length documentary. He had an interesting concept, but my initial question was, “What’s the story?”. For many years I’ve been concerned about the Planet’s state of health, so his offer to take a director’s role in the documentary RiverBlue was not only timely, but welcomed.

Water is a precious resource that not all have access to. I recently drove through California and saw the impact of drought. There were towns in which the aquifer was depleted, no rain had fallen for years and people weren’t able to wash themselves, or their clothes. When they turned on their taps, only air was expelled and drinking water had to be trucked in. I asked myself:

“Is this the future?”

The issue of water pollution and rivers is a very complex and multilayered story. There is such a plethora of examples of rivers dying, or dead, that the initial challenge was finding a story that would not only connect with a worldwide audience and but one that had something new to say. In the course of researching - looking for the hook for the documentary - I came across an article on the web that showed a Google map and an image of a river in China that flowed into a bay supplying water to Hong Kong and millions of people. The river had a large streak of indigo blue you literally 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 from 60 different foreign brands—and sent to North America. In researching the story further, I discovered nine billion pairs of jeans are made every year, and in a very toxic way. For me, I felt this distressing truth would make for a good story. A story that to that date had not been told. We sensed that a global audience would be familiar with this iconic product—almost everyone on the planet has a pair of jeans—but would be unfamiliar with the toxic manner in which jeans are manufactured and treated and the negative impact jeans have on the rivers in countries like Bangladesh, China and India. In essence jeans would be our “worst case scenario” - the “bad guy” in the story of river pollution around the world.

The River Blue Fashion Films Jeans Dyeing Industry Amberoot 3

What you want people to know?

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 in which we filmed. Toxic campaigners in China have discovered heavy metals like manganese, which can be associated with brain damage, in the rivers. They’ve also found heavy metals that are neurotoxic, carcinogenic, which disrupt the endocrine system causing cancer of different organs.

There’s been a lot of talk about fast fashion in blogs and in the popular press and its impact on the environment. With a glut of fashion hitting consumers and low and competitive pricing, it’s not just the consumer who is paying for an ever-increasing volume of clothing, but rather the environment. In her book “To Die For” Lucy Siegle asks the question: “Is fashion wearing out the world?” It’s a valid and important question and I believe that fashion is wearing out our planet. Every year, around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide. Incredibly as consumers we know very little about who makes our clothes, or the toxic conditions that exist in the manufacturing of fashion. This is one story we wanted to tell.

Mark Angelo, our world paddler and key storyteller in the documentary, speaks of how aside from being critical habitats for wildlife, waterways such as rivers provide vital resources. Many people rely on this water for drinking, for farming, and for food. Yet we saw, during our filming, over and over again that these vital water sources are often abused by industry and treated as if they are private sewers.

RiverBlue Fashion Films Article Series at Amberoot Textile Jeans Toxic Polluted Citarum River in Indonesia 4
RiverBlue Fashion Films Article Series at Amberoot Textile Jeans Toxic Polluted Yamuna River in India

The textile industry is chemically intensive. We witnessed a lot of chemicals running through factory floors, eventually ending up in the river. We also documented the spraying of potassium permanganate—without any masks—used to distress jeans, while filming in blue jean factories. Francois Girbaud, one of our interview subjects and the man who is credited with creating the stonewashing of jeans and using permanganate in the 1970s, told us that this chemical is killing people. “If people knew that the spraying of permanganate on your jeans to give you that acidwash look was killing the guy doing the spraying, would you still want that look?” he questioned us.

The River Blue Fashion Films Jeans Dyeing Industry Amberoot 2

While we expose the dirty secret behind our blue jeans, we also give some examples of people and technologies that are making a positive affect in the production of blue jeans. The “godfather of blue jeans,” Francois Girbaud, now understands how damaging the techniques he developed to give us that ‘lived in, distressed look’ have been to the rivers around the world. Today Girbaud is working with technologies like laser and air to accomplish the distressed look. Both technologies reduce heavy water consumption used in the washing process of blue jeans and also takes chemicals out of the equation.

There is a growing faction of people concerned with the way large brands are manufacturing their product and who believe the fashion industry as a whole needs to be more ethical and environmentally friendly in their production processes than ever in the history of fashion. That’s the good news – people are starting to question the status quo.

Our documentary, RiverBlue, is created to affect a positive change in the fashion industry. The sooner that people are aware of what is happening and how they can help, the sooner that we can stop destroying our rivers and harming the people that use them.I don’t stand alone when I say that clean water is not only a basic human right - it is the world’s most threatened essential resource.

You and your clothes: tell me all.

Even before the production began, I was never “a clothes horse”, preferring to buy and wear a typical creative filmmaker’s uniform of t-shirts and blue jeans. I wore my clothes for years - in fact I still have one jacket that I bought when I was in high school back in 1967, and still wear today. I, still, hardly buy new clothes and if I was to go out shopping today, I’d be questioning the labels, asking how the t-shirt (or pair of jeans) were made and if it was manufactured in an ethical manner, with little, or no, impact on the environment.

Any future plans you'd like to share?

I’m still excited to get out of bed, read the newspapers (or online stories) and keep my eyes open for the “next story.” I’m beginning research on another film, but this time I’ll be going to my roots, so to speak, and tell the story of a person who is having a positive effect on his fellow citizens, and the world. I think it’s time for me to pursue a story that will bring smiles, tears and inspire the next worldwide audience. Being a documentarian, is something I’m still passionate about and there are still so many stories to tell.

You can watch RiverBlue on Vimeo. Visit RiverBlue official page. Follow David McIlvride on Twitter and Instagram.


Read the story about perhaps the most environmentally friendly and ethical global denim brand - MUD Jeans and and checkout their jeans we sell on our international online shop.

Learn about the certifications ensuring that no toxic chemicals were used in the apparel production Green Screen and GOTS. Checkout the GOTS product range we sell on our international online shop.

What do you think of RiverBlue? Share your thoughts by tweeting us @Amberoot, or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!


This article is part of the article series "Fashion Films":

The River Blue - What's the Connection Between Rivers and Your Jeans?
The Stink - Your Health and Chemicals Lurking in our Clothes

chemicals | citarum | david mcilvride | denim | fashion industry | Indonesia | jeans | river | RiverBlue

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