Caviar, how Cotton swallowed a Sea and Hope

When you think of luxury, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Private jets? Private islands? Or Private chefs perhaps?

What about luxurious food? The kind you imagine the Queen of England would have with her perfectly formed cucumber sandwiches while dining with an oil billionaire?

I’ll bet Caviar will be at the forefront of your mind. Today it is associated with wealth, something eaten in fancy restaurants and big mansions only.                     

Caviar in gold tins

Yet despite its present-day image of opulence, Caviar was once considered peasant food. As early as the 12th century it was farmed by Russian fishermen and for centuries afterwards considered cheap peasant food, served with porridge, and eaten daily by the bowlful.

In the U.S.A, during the early 1900s, the supply of Caviar was so abundant and cheap that it was served in bars for free along with drinks, essentially playing the same role as the complementary bowl of olives or nuts in a contemporary bar.

From its humble beginnings, Caviar, the salt-cured, unfertilised eggs of the Sturgeon family of fish, has grown more and more popular.

So popular in fact that the Sturgeon, a species that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs is now near extinction in the wild.

Scarcity however is a good thing, a good thing that is for the person in possession of the limited commodity and the person with the means to acquire it. Others will no doubt debate its ‘goodness’.

Today for example, 32 ounces of Almas Caviar will cost you around £20,000, a long way away from staple diet of medieval Russian fishermen.

These days in order to keep up with the demand for Caviar, Sturgeon farms have been created and they are now the main source of Sturgeon and hence Caviar in the world.

One place however where wild Sturgeon was once abundant was the Aral Sea, a body of water which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Despite its name the Aral Sea is actually a lake and was once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world covering an area the size of the entire country of Ireland.

At its peak in 1957, it produced more than 48,000 tons of fish and made up around 13% of the entire fish stocks of the Soviet Union.

Vintage Black & White Photo of the Aral Sea

So what, you might be wondering? Yes, it sounds like a place worth visiting if I am ever in the area and I may even get some cool photos for my Instagram feed… Well, take a look at the diagram below…

The first diagram shows the Aral Sea as it would have appeared to Alexander the Great when he described it as an obstacle to his army over 2000 years ago and last diagram as it appears today, with around 90% of its water lost.

So, what happened to make the Aral Sea disappear?

The simple answer is cotton.

Cotton Fields

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union made the choice to divert water from the Aral Sea’s two river sources – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya to irrigate the surrounding desert area and grow cotton.

In 1967 the fishermen of Tastubek, a village situated on the coast of the Aral Sea and at the time famous for its Caviar, started to realise something was wrong.

They began noticing the Sea was disappearing, retreating further and further away from their village – the tide went out but never came in and soon the village of Tastubek along with the other fishing villages on the Aral Sea’s coastline quickly found themselves transformed from coastal communities into desert villages.

Despite the already abundant natural richness of the Aral Sea and the communities whose entire way of life was linked to the sea, the Soviet authorities made the choice to sacrifice it in order to irrigate a desert to grow mass produced cotton.

Today the 60,000 sq km of water, that once made up the Aral Sea has disappeared and fishermen, at least those who stayed in the region, have found themselves transformed into desert nomads and camel breeders. 

Its water was diverted to quench the insatiable thirst of the cotton fields of Uzbekistan leaving in return vast volumes of pesticides and insecticides that gradually become more and more concentrated as the Aral Sea levels shrank.

For thousands of years the ancient Aral Sea was a life giver, giving its people food, trade, and travel. Today, where once the communities around the Aral Sea had an abundance of freshwater fish and Caviar,  the environment is now so polluted that pregnant women are warned not to breastfeed their babies because the drinking water is highly contaminated.

The result we are left with is an irrigation project meant to transform a central Asian desert into a fertile land of plenty has been mutated into an environmental catastrophe. Today it is known as the ‘Quiet Chernobyl’.

Fast Fashion is born as the Aral Sea disappears

 

Maslow's hierarchy of needs diagram

 On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, clothing forms one of our basic physiological needs. For most of human history this need was met using natural materials like animal skins, linen or wool and most clothing was made in the home and for a specific person in mind.

The way clothes were made also remained constant for most of history - a person from Norman England for example would not have found too many surprises in the way clothes in Elizabethan England were made.

Medieval and Elizabethan Clothing

                  Medieval Costume            Tudor Costume

Things rapidly changed during the Industrial Revolution, which along with new inventions like the steam engine, dynamite and photography also introduced textile machines, factories, and ready-made clothing.

The invention of the sewing machine in 1846, for example, contributed greatly to a fall in the price of clothing and an enormous increase in the mass production of clothing.

The Industrial Revolution also introduced us to the concept of sweatshops were some of the production of mass-produced clothing was outsourced to be made by poor working-class women in their homes for exceptionally low wages.

The Early 20th Century

Mass produced clothing really took off following the second World War. The fabric restrictions and more functional styles that were made necessary by World War II led to an increase in standardised  production for all clothing and resulted in consumers becoming even more comfortable with the idea after the war.

The 1960s saw the birth of the teenager, children born after war with memories of rationing and destroyed cities during their formative years. They rejected the ideas of their parents and grandparents and wanted to break free from their traditions and rules.

They wanted their freedom, their own music and to be able to represent these ideas in the one place there were completely free too, through the clothes they wore.

1960s Teenage Fashion

                              1960s teenagers in Carnaby Street, London

Big corporates share the blame but not as much as 99% of it

The fashion brands of the day rushed in to fill this rapidly growing demand for cheap affordable clothing from the emerging teenage market.

One of the ‘innovations’ they came up, an idea borrowed from the earlier sweatshops of the industrial revolution was outsourcing their production to increase profits.

And as they looked around the world, and in particular to the newly independent former colonies or broken of parts of former great empires, they found the perfect locations for their textile mills, a new river source in sense to quench the thirst for cheap affordable clothing.

Their new discovery being made around the same time the Aral Sea started to be drained to grow cotton.

Many of the high street fashion giants we know today started in this era as small shops focused on providing affordable trendy clothing to the young baby boomers.

Fast Fashion speeds up

The fast fashion trend, started in the 1960s, has only sped up in the intervening years. Where once there were two fashion seasons: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, there are now 52 “micro-seasons” per year. 

Much of the clothing produced today is designed to be out of fashion almost as soon as it leaves the shop and consumers are encouraged to buy more and more and more… as if somehow filling their wardrobes with low quality, cheap t-shirts and dresses will fill the existential black hole within them.

Fast Fashion Store

 

Affordable fast fashion is not cheap…someone else is paying the price

Today the global fashion industry is worth £2tn (£2,000,000,000,000) and brings the UK more than £30bn a year in revenues.

In 1965, 95% of the clothing worn by Americans was made in America, after decades of fast fashion that figure is now around 2% with the rest outsourced to more ‘economical’ places.

Today we purchase over 100% more clothes than we did in the 1960s and on average only wear them around 7 times before getting rid of them.

We often hear calls about the airline industry and the need to improve our carbon footprint, and rightly so.

However, to give some perspective the entire aviation industry is responsible for 2% the world’s total carbon footprint. The clothing industry is responsible for 10%, five times more than all those jumbo jets burning gallons of fossil fuels in the sky.

So, what you might ask? Well to paraphrase a famous line by Winston Churchill ‘Never in the history of mankind has so much been  paid by so many for so little’.

Our environment is being destroyed and vulnerable people across the globe are being exploited, to utilise our valuable natural resources in producing items that have almost no value even to the people spending  their hard earned money to buy them.

The real price of fast fashion is  paid by mainly poor women in developing countries. For example, women like the 1000 Bangladesh i garment workers in 2013 who lost their lives when the Rana Plaza apparel factory collapsed.

In this instance the garment workers were forced back into a building that was justifiably suspected to be unsafe, in part as a result of pressure on the factory managers to meet their short production deadlines for the fast fashion industry.

Garment Workers Protest March

The real price of fast fashion is paid by home-based garment workers in Lahore, Pakistan, the majority of whom earn less than a $1 a day.

The result being fast fashion  buyers in developed countries, like the UK and USA are being subsidised by garment workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh earning less than a $1 a day, a fresh new take on the concept of the ‘Ragged Trouser Philanthropists’.

The real price of fast fashion is paid by the former fisherman of the Aral Sea who are now camel breeders in an area so poisoned they have the highest cancer rates in the region and amongst the highest infant mortality rates in the world

The environmental costs are also extremely high, with 80% of the under used clothes ending up in landfills. And because a large proportion of them are made using non-biodegradable materials to keep the costs down, were they will emit methane, a more dangerous gas than carbon, over the next 200 years it will take for them to decompose. 

The Short Life of a Fast Fashion Item

Today a typical journey for a fast fashion item might be to  start its life in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan using the water that once flowed into the Aral Sea.

It is then shipped to Pakistan and woven by a woman in Lahore as part of her 12-hour day shift, for which she will earn less than a $1.

Next it ends up in one of the major fast fashion  retailers in a city like Cardiff before being bought for a ‘bit of retail therapy’. It gets worn a couple of times, but the owner is soon bored with it or maybe it starts to fall apart due to its poor quality.

It ends up in the local charity shop and when it doesn’t sell because “Hey, what the point of buying it second-hand in a charity shop for £1 when you can buy this week’s trendier version brand new for £2.50?.

Finally, it gets sold on to a textile recycling company and ends up in a second-hand market in a developing country like Ghana and if it still does not sell there, in a landfill poisoning the local population.

Globalisation has created many benefits for humanity, but this is an example of it at its worse. Poor people in developing countries being exploited to fill a vacuous need by poor people in developed countries, with other poor people in poor countries being poisoned  for the financial benefit of wealthy corporations and their owners.

But wait, you were promised Hope in the title.

When the water levels of Aral Sea dropped to a 10th of it is original size, it split into two much smaller bodies of water.

In Kazakhstan, it became the North Aral Sea and in Uzbekistan the South Aral Sea. Both bodies of water were on the same downward trajectory for decades until a choice was made.

In the 1990s, the World Bank stepped in with a £66m($87m) rescue project for the North Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. The rescue project was to build the Kokaral dam  including constructing a 12km-long (7.5 mile) dyke across the narrow channel that connected the North Aral Sea to its neighbour to the south, with the aim of reducing the amount of water spilling out into the South Aral Sea. 

The project was completed 15 years ago in the summer of 2005 and the results surpassed all expectations.

Scientists who worked on the project had predicted the water levels in the North Aral would increase by 3.3m (10.8ft) over the following 10 years. It reached that milestone just 7 months later.

In 2006, the annual fish catch in the North Aral was 1,360 tons, which comprised mostly of flounder – a saltwater species. By 2016, the Aralsk Fish Inspection Unit recorded 7,106 tons of fish as freshwater species have returned, including pike-perch, breams, asp, and catfish.

Men like Aldanbek Kerinov in Tastubek remember listening to their grandfathers’ tales of a time when fish was so plentiful, they fed it to their animals.

Thanks to the rebirth of the Aral Sea he has been able to give up his low paying jobs where he struggled to provide for his family and return to the sea, fishing like his ancestors have done for centuries.

Fashion is not frivolous and our fashion choices matter

The fashion industry is worth around £2tn ($1.5tn) annually and has made many people wealthy while simultaneous paying many its  workers shockingly poor wages.

It has a huge impact on our environment and if we are truly serious about climate change it is one of the areas in which we can affect change right now and ‘vote’ with every consumer choice we make.

We use fashion to express ourselves however if we unthinkingly follow the latest trends then what does this say about us…Are we the most conformist nonconformists in history? Rushing to express our individuality every week as dictated by someone else so we can dress like everyone else? 

And should the price for this conformity be paid for by the fishermen of the Aral Sea or the poor women being exploited in garment factories in Bangladesh?

Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomena and while it might seem like it will always be with us, there is no reason it cannot disappear as quickly as it appeared. Think of the many things that first appeared in the 1960s that are longer around today.

It is man-made and it can be unmade by us. The damage done to the North Aral Sea is being reversed and  we can do the same with fast fashion.

But it will only happen if we each individually make the choice to vote with our hard-earned money and make more mindfully consumer choices.

Our choices matter, it is our very own superpower even if we do not realise it yet and every choice is the beginning. 

Smiling Fisherman on the Aral Sea

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