If Soma Akhter, 25, wanted to, she could predict the colour of next year’s fashion.

Just look at the water under her bamboo-stilt house.

It glistens turquoise.

The water comes from the neighbouring textile factories. Soma Akhter herself worked in one of them, before she lost her job during the pandemic. She knows she will need to find a livelihood there again soon.

Every evening, an hour after sunset, the dirtiest water is released.

The kind that leaves its froth clinging to the vegetation and her throat swollen and raw.

The kind that leaves her unable to eat because the smell reminds her of dead bodies.

This is a story about people and water.

About melting glaciers high in the Himalayas, feeding the mighty rivers that push down through fertile plains where people have lived and farmed for thousands of years.

It’s also a story about the clothes we wear.

It may begin in an H&M store on Drottninggatan in Stockholm, where expressionless mannequins in sequin dresses gaze out at Black Friday shoppers.

Or in an Instagram feed, where the next trend is just a click away.

Fast fashion can be described in numbers. We buy 60% more garments today than in 2000 and keep each one for half as long.

Around 100 billion new garments are produced every year on Earth, or 13 for every human being. Each one is worn on average seven times. Then it’s thrown away.

Alongside China, Bangladesh has become the world’s hub for the mass production of clothing. Fast fashion accounts for almost all the country’s exports.

In addition to low wages, this poor lowland country has another competitive advantage. Cheap water.

International giants like Zara, Gap, Walmart and Levi’s have long flocked here. But the biggest buyer of all is Sweden’s H&M.

When parts of Bangladesh were hit by a power outage in early October, H&M shares plummeted on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. That’s how important the country is.

The water under Soma Akhter’s house turns magenta. Her mother Nazma, 55, peels onions to cook in the earth oven over an open fire.

Climate change destroyed the land in their home village on the Padma River and forced the family to move here. In this slum she feels uprooted and uncomfortable, but knows she can’t go back home.

Moira the goat munches on grass from a clay pot. A neighbour watches a Bollywood film at high volume.

The family came here because it’s the cheapest place to live. Just 2,000 taka, or €18, a month.

We ask who is behind the pollution – is there a connection to the H&M factory a few hundred metres away? Soma shakes her head, not daring to point fingers.

She pulls at the black and white shawl, bites on a nail. The water is now military green.

“I dream of children. But they can’t grow up here.”

A veneer of strength lies atop the fragility.

She leads the way out, across narrow planks. A slope descends straight into the canal.

Night – and with it the worst smell – are still a few hours away.

To dye clothes, and give them the right softness and texture, lots of chemicals are used. The fashion industry is now the world’s second worst polluter of rivers. Dye pigments, salts, heavy metals, ammonia, phenols and other substances are all flushed into waterways.

It is illegal to pollute water in Bangladesh. Since 2010 an environmental law has required factories that dye and wash clothes to treat their wastewater. No treatment plant, no licence.

It also violates H&M’s own standards. Customers who walk into any of the company’s 4,000-plus stores worldwide or buy online are assured that every garment is made sustainably, by factories that respect people and the environment.

Yet the factory runoff is gushing beneath Soma Akhter’s house.

It may not be widely known, but with a few purposeful clicks on H&M’s website you can find out both the country of manufacture and the name of the factory where your garment was made.

During a week in September, we click through the 3000-plus garments listed as new, in the women’s, men’s and children’s ranges.

In total, we identify 496 garments made in 96 different factories in Bangladesh. We plot them on a map. Distinct clusters emerge, an archipelago of factories.

We share the map with one of Bangladesh’s most experienced environmental journalists. He has spent many years covering water pollution and will be our guide on the ground.

The plane descends for a night landing. Scattered lanterns and fires reveal life below. Otherwise, the country, with 166 million inhabitants crammed into a third of Sweden’s land area, is invisible.

We see no motorways. No masts or flashing towers.

A few hours later, the sun will rise and the world’s sixth largest city will be transformed and filled with life.

Dhaka was founded in the fertile area between two great rivers four hundred years ago. These days, rickshaw pullers with sweaty foreheads and skinny legs crowd the congested streets, alongside Uber drivers.

They ring bells and honk horns, trying to squeeze through the chaos.

We’re here to scrutinise H&M’s clothes production. We randomly select eleven factories, which can be assumed to be representative. The first stop is Tongi, on the northern outskirts of this vast city.

The river water is up to the man’s knees. He lowers the huge scoop and pulls it up. Over and over again, and he never catches a fish.

Has no one told him that the ecosystem has collapsed? That the authorities have declared the black mire beneath us to be biologically dead?

Not so many years ago, the water here was so clear you could see the bottom, says Paresh Rabidas, a fifty-year-old shoemaker with heavy features. It was teeming with fish that he used to catch for his family.

“The textile mills have destroyed everything”, he says, frowning. “But what can we do? Go to the prime minister and complain?”

He mentions a series of factories by name. One of them is on the list of H&M’s suppliers – Mascotex.

“Their factory is across the lake”, he says, pointing.

Half an hour later, we step out onto a chaotic city street. A high barbed-wire wall separates us from the Mascotex factory.

Through the factory windows we can see the fans whirring and the stark white fluorescent tubes. Floor after floor of seamstresses.

According to H&M’s own figures, about a thousand people work there. They sew, among other things, sweaters and joggers with dinosaur prints for children, which are sold in sets for €25 in Swedish stores.

The guards follow us with their eyes. We pretend to be tourists and slip into a market.

Soon we find people who can point out the factory’s drain outlet. It runs under the street, in a closed canal, we are told.

We follow the canal for a few hundred metres, only glimpsing it through occasional openings. Eventually it joins the drains of several other factories. Deep under the surface, the conduit empties into the black river.

There’s no way to prove who let what out.

Concrete columns obstruct the roadway, and we are at a standstill for most of the journey. The remedy chosen for the city’s traffic gridlock is elevated motorways.

Construction has been going on for ten years, but seems to be making little progress. There is talk of money disappearing into pockets.

A giant hole stands out like a wound in the urban landscape.

This was the site of the Rana Plaza textile factory. On 24 April 2013, the building collapsed. At least 1,129 workers died.

The disaster drew attention to the industry’s appalling working conditions and death-trap factories. Some things have improved since then. But not the water.

We learn that there was never a plan for industrialisation. Factories have just sprung up everywhere.

Nayan Bhuiyan, second director of the environment department in Gazipur, just north of Dhaka, tells our reporter that almost all the factories that dye and wash have wastewater treatment plants. The problem is that they are not running.

“They don’t use the treatment plants if we don’t visit them,” he says.

Sometimes polluted water is discharged into the regular sewer, sometimes into secret side channels.

On our list we identify 36 factories in Gazipur that produce for the Swedish clothing chain.

Sometimes the locations on the map don’t match, but we find them a short distance away.

And again we discover underground channels. They join the pipes from other factories and run out under the surface. But the inspector’s and residents’ statements are not enough. We want to see the discharge for ourselves.

In the morning traffic it takes almost four hours to reach Sreepur, six miles north of Dhaka.

For centuries, people have built their homes along the rivers. The winds are cooling and the monsoons fill the rice fields with water.

Now the links in the story are broken. The fields, which would have secured the children’s future, are unusable.

Mariam Masuma, 14, is not supposed to be here. For as long as she can remember, she has heard the adults’ warnings.

“Don’t go down to the water.”

Last week, a cyclone swept by and rain came lashing down. The water was diluted and for a few days was a little clearer. But now, she remarks, it’s just as black again.

Mariam looks out over the beach. With her big black eyes and colourful shawl, she might have been one of the clothing chain’s models.

She says the swarms of mosquitoes that accompany the outflows make it impossible to sit outside in the evenings. That the slightest drop of water on her skin makes it itch.

“Sometimes it stings your eyes and burns your chest.”

Her grandfather Nasim waits shirtless outside the traditional mud house where he has lived all his life, a hundred metres from the beach.

“It used to be a mighty river. Boats could go here. We used to bathe in the water and drink it,” says the 70-year-old.

The pollution came with the textile factories about ten years ago.

Nasim remembers one of his cows going down to drink.

“It collapsed and died. On the spot. It was then we realised it was toxic.”

As recently as last year, he tried to grow rice again.

“It won’t grow. Everything just dies.”

The garment factories have been interested in buying the family’s land, but only for a fraction of what it is worth, says Nasim. His son, Mariam’s father, has had to take a job in one of the factories in order for the family to survive.

The monsoon continues to drench the country. And the poison is spreading.

No one from the authorities has ever tested the soil or the groundwater here. No one has checked on the health of Mariam and the other children. No one can really say how dangerous it is to live here.

A few skinny goats graze on the grass. Nasim’s face changes, becoming pleading.

“You have seen for yourself what it is like. Please do something for my grandchildren.”

There was a time when clothes were worn, mended, and mended again, until they fell apart. Today, 50 billiongarments are tossed out within a year of being made.

It is estimated that the fashion industry consumes anywhere from 20 to 200 trillion litres of fresh water. Groundwater is being depleted while huge amounts of microplastics from synthetic fibres are released and end up in fields, forests and oceans.

Under a nearby bridge, the water is forced out of a concrete pipe.

It is thick, with a red-black hue. Bubbling and fizzing, smelling of chemicals and decay at the same time.

The colour and stench are clear indicators that the water is polluted. Soon a cluster of men gathers around us. They all live in the area. They are furious.

“They are poisoning and destroying! Every day they release water in different colours, yellow, green and red,” says Helal Uddin, 35, a dapper man who works as an electricity inspector for the mayor of Sreepur.

He and the other men are in agreement: the contaminated water comes from two nearby factories that share the drain, Taqwa Fabrics and Aswad Composite Mills. Both are located just a few hundred metres away.

Taqwa makes at least six garments that are currently on sale at H&M, including a small red tricot sweater with Santa print, which sells in Swedish stores for around €4.50.

Aswad Composite Mills is also on H&M’s supplier list, although the address is for its sister factory west of Dhaka. Aswad makes, among other things, light blue tops, which sell for around €6.25.

“I’ve passed here every day since the Taqwa factory was built. I saw when they built the pipe and how two years ago they covered it and built a road on top,” says the electricity inspector.

Once, he and some other villagers tried to complain. For a few days the water was clear, then everything went back to the way it was.

“Taqwa’s representative said they had no choice but to pollute. Otherwise the factory would disappear and everyone would lose their jobs.”

And the police?

“They do nothing. They take bribes.”

We look out over a dystopian landscape of squawking birds, plastic bags and garbage. Helal says that respect for nature has been lost. When water can no longer be used, people just dump everything in it.

We make our way down to the outlet. The water feels greasy to the touch, like tar mixed with ink.

A newly built street, which runs above the canal, serves as a market. It sells papaya, ginger, beans, root vegetables and lettuce – all grown and washed in the untreated water.

Soon we’re standing outside Taqwa Fabrics. Up to four thousand people work here, according to H&M’s own figures.

A beggar with one arm sits at the gate.

To avoid being turned away, we introduce ourselves not as journalists but as hydrologists from a Swedish university. We ask why the factory is discharging dirty water.

“We actually run the treatment plant… often”, the guard says before falling silent and summoning a manager.

The gates open and close. A truck with chemicals drives in. Larger trucks with clothes roll out.

Two men emerge, and introduce themselves as engineers. They claim that it is normal for the water to be black.

And the stench?

“It… might be coming from another factory”, says one.

“Can we see the treatment plant?”

“We’ll have to ask the plant manager.”

The plant manager shows up, then turns back to whisper with the engineers. He parrots their message to us, word for word.

A visit is no longer an option.

“Email our head office.”

All around us, seamstresses stream out for their lunch break. Under the bridge, the water continues to pour out.

It is reported that, in the wake of the pandemic, the fashion industry is using colour like never before. In Western cities thousands of miles away, grave-looking models in bonbon pink are strutting down catwalks.

“Dopamine dressing” is supposed to boost neurotransmitters and make us feel good.

According to the World Bank, 72 toxic chemicals are only used in dyeing. They are implicated in various skin diseases and cancer.


A dark room, covered in maps with waterways dotted on them. An office, in downtown Dhaka.

Sharif Jamil, one of Bangladesh’s best-known environmental activists and leader of the organisation Bapa, explains the back story: There are 30 inspectors across Dhaka to check thousands of factories.

“They don’t have the knowledge, the equipment or the capacity. The penalties are low and the corruption extreme,” he says, sipping his cardamom tea.

The tentacles of the garment industry reach deep into politics, we are told. Several ministers and dozens of parliamentarians and mayors own factories themselves.

Some industries pollute openly, others covertly. Sometimes they have two or three factories, one of which is a decent one that they show off to foreign clients.

“But everyone, or almost everyone, pollutes”, says this grey-bearded man.

It could be that the treatment systems are broken or have become undersized as production has increased. But the most common reason is money.

The chemicals required have become more expensive. The price of electricity has doubled. Running the treatment plants costs around €0.05 per litre. For a factory that uses 10,000 litres an hour, 12 hours a day, that can mean the difference between profit and loss.

“H&M is like any Western buyer. They talk a good game about the environment and working conditions one day, and the next day, when they negotiate price, they have forgotten all about it. Competition is extreme. It is a buyer’s market.”

The honking from the street intrudes, faintly, as if from another world.

“The clothes buyers don’t take responsibility. The water is being destroyed, while climate change is eating our country. It’s a disaster.”

Trend cycles are getting shorter, collections are getting tighter. The younger generation is reached through paid collaborations with influencers on Instagram. Clothes are being forced onto the market.

H&M and competitor Zara launched 11,000 new lines between January and April this year. The Chinese company Shein, which has burst into the market, launched over 300,000. There is talk that fast fashion is transitioning into something else.

Ultra-fast fashion.

They move like a mighty ocean wave through the early morning in Savar, the heart of the fashion district, west of Dhaka.

Young women, in their thousands, soon to be swallowed up behind the steel gates of factories.

We’re back in Soma Akhter’s neighbourhood, where the colours of fashion can be predicted by the colour of the wastewater.

The school is a stone’s throw from her home. The walls are covered with rainbows and photographs of the nation’s assassinated founders, icons that every child is expected to recognize.

The smell of fast fashion reaches here, too. It makes the kids cover their faces at recess.

Principal Lucky Ahmad is exasperated. During the monsoon, the schoolyard overflows and mosquitoes are everywhere.

The headmaster has demanded that the factories stop the pollution or at least erect a barrier to the river, but to no avail. Of the 342 students, at least 90 percent are children of textile workers.

“They can’t concentrate. This ruins their studies.”

We walk into a classroom, where grade five is learning English.

“Who’s making everything dirty?” we ask.

“The textile mills”, the children reply in chorus.

We talk to several residents in the neighbourhood. Here, too, the testimonies are consistent and specific: the water that runs next to the school and under Soma Akhter’s house comes from al-Muslim, a group of companies that owns several factories.

They point to the canal, which runs under a road here too.

It ends at an eleven-storey building that shades an entire block. A blackboard lists the factories inside, all owned by al-Muslim. The largest is on H&M’s list.

The A.K.M. Knitwear factory, which employs thousands of seamstresses, produces 90’s Straight Baggy Jeans, sold for around €26.50. And at least twelve other products. It washes, bleaches and dyes.

H&M makes around three billion garments every year. The figure is set to rise further.

The messaging, at least, is clear. The company is leading the way towards sustainability across the industry. In just a few years, H&M will be one hundred percent renewable and circular.

But criticism is growing. A review by the Changing Markets Foundation found that 96% of H&M’s environmental claims were unfounded or misleading. This earned the company a rock-bottom ranking.

The clothing chain’s “Conscious choice” collection, for which customers pay extra, has in some cases been found to be less sustainable than its regular range. Both Norwegian and Dutch consumer authorities have been cracking down on H&M’s environmental promises. The Swedish chain has promised to do better.

Increasingly, however, others are asking whether fast fashion can be sustainable at all. Perhaps what really concerns the fashion chains is something else.

Protecting sales and growth by creating a green facade.

Sabur the ferryman navigates through a labyrinth of water hyacinths, his mouth full of beetroot and tobacco. A dead minnow, washed in during the recent cyclone, floats by.

We are in a special export zone, exempt from taxes. Here are the fine factories at the top of the textile pyramid, a long way from the small washeries, village workshops and sprayed cotton fields. This is where the clothes were made for Adidas in the last World Cup.

And yet it’s like coming to ground zero of environmental destruction. A place so poisoned that the coconut palms along the beaches no longer grow nuts.

Shahid Mallick brought us here.

He grew up along the river and has since seen it destroyed. Now he divides his time between his job as a climate researcher at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio and his field work here.

With his lush hair and energetic countenance, he looks younger than his 53 years. Shahid is trying to mobilise the people along the rivers against the factories.

“People think they have no chance against the rich and powerful. I want to wake them up.”

The sky is pale. The midday heat is oppressive, thirty-two degrees. The climate crisis is driving up temperatures, even in the tropics.

Shahid says global warming makes it vital to protect the freshwater we have on earth, because water shortages will soon become acute.

“Hundreds of new factories can be created. But you can’t create a new river.”

According to the website, H&M has 35 employees working on sustainability in Bangladesh. None of the many local residents we interviewed had ever seen any inspectors.

Shahid Mallick urges the foreign chains to involve local residents and get them to speak up.

“This would give a true picture of emissions. If that’s what you want.”

The think tank Planet Tracker warned earlier this year that fashion companies are basing their sustainability promises on “zombie data” – information that is false, unreliable or impossible to verify.

Like water from hidden underground canals.

Sterling Denim, the workplace of more than four thousand textile workers, rises like a colossus above the surrounding shantytown, three miles northwest of Dhaka.

Behind the camera-monitored walls, at least a dozen garments are made for H&M, including skinny jeans in children’s styles, priced at around €22.50.

The pattern is repeated. Once again, residents point out how the outflow pipe is hidden under a dirt road. The blue-black water all spills into a wetland.

This will be the eleventh and last H&M factory we visit in Bangladesh. And the fourth that we can link to pollution. Together, the four factories produce at least 39 garments that are now sold at H&M.

Their emissions may be in violation of Bangladesh’s environmental laws.

“Everyone here knows where the filth comes from”, says Sohaq Islam, 21, a textile worker himself, but at a different factory.

He points up at Sterling’s building, the only one on this side of the water. He tells a story that has become familiar.

“The pollution is worst in the evening, when it’s dark. It’s impossible to be here then.”

Some kids are flying a homemade kite. The older ones kick a soccer ball.

This is a story about people and water. About the clothes we wear, and about responsibility.

The spotlight could just as easily have been shone on Kapp-Ahl, which states on its website that it helps the vulnerable in Bangladesh.

Or Lindex, which claims to “exist” to empower and inspire women from cotton fields to fitting rooms.

Or any of the other Swedish or foreign brands that, unlike H&M, have chosen not to disclose the factories in which their garments are made.

We can also shine a light on ourselves.

It is not poverty that is destroying the water in Bangladesh. It is our demand and our affluence.

We’re back in the H&M store on Drottninggatan in Stockholm. Christmas shopping is underway, employees are folding garment after garment.

Downstairs, in front of the entrance to the children’s department, one garment blazes like a Christmas tree. The red kid’s sweater with Santa print from Taqwa Fabrics: “Best price SEK 49.90 [around €4.50]”, the sign calls out.

The text on the inside is smaller and almost hidden, but is there as a reminder of the garment’s true price. “Made in Bangladesh.”

Footnote: Aftonbladet contacted H&M during the week for an interview. The fashion chain chose to respond with a written comment. In it, Shariful Hoque, responsible for water issues within the H&M group, states that the company takes the information seriously:

“We are in close contact with our business partners and have launched our own investigations to gain further clarity on these specific issues.”

Read the full response here.

Translation by Voxeurop.