Interview: Alexandra Cousteau On The Water We All Share

InterviewAlexandra Cousteau talks about how water cycles and life cycles are intrinsically connected.

Granddaughter of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, Alexandra Cousteau has followed her heart’s calling by educating the world on the value of water systems and the significance of their protection and management. Her organization, Blue Legacy, has traveled the world to investigate various water crises and watersheds, aiming to create public consciousness on a resource that is necessary for the survival of all.

Having recently teamed up with ColorZen to promote their revolutionary dyeing process, Alexandra has found a new angle towards approaching education on water issues. As the textile industry is one of the major polluters of waterways, and fashion has a tremendous impact on the way we consume textiles, she believes that understanding and supporting technologies like ColorZen are key to solving many problems. EcoSalon caught up with Alexandra to hear about what she’s been up to lately and discuss her views on how our society needs to better understand water.

Why do you think our society has become so disconnected from water as an essential element and that we are ruining it?

In my experience most people in the U.S., Europe and Australia have clean and safe water that comes from the tap. They don’t need to think about it, it’s just there. They start to think about it when there are disastrous events like Katrina or the drought from this summer, but we haven’t been able to shake conversation around public consciousness on water.

We have a myth of abundance in North America where people think that no matter what happens, we have the technology to fix it and we’ll always have enough clean and safe drinking water no matter how much we keep flushing it down the drain. In a time of increasingly fluctuating climates we are fragmenting and degrading watersheds we depend on, as their quality is deteriorating and the quantity is completely unpredictable. This summer’s drought was a wake up call but we seem to have these wake up calls again and again and still fail to shape the policy on how we manage water.

People should understand where their water comes from, what it takes to get to their home, what happens to it as it flows through their community and where it goes when it leaves. Most people don’t know what a watershed is let alone what watershed they live in, its problems or any ways to solve them. People need to understand that the global water crisis isn’t happening only in Africa, it’s also happening in their communities and in their own backyards. There are very important ways for people to be part of protecting that resource and I think it starts from knowing where your water comes from. Knowing what watershed you live in, what protects the quality and quantity of water you depend on and how can you help be part of the solution. When people start thinking about water in that way I think we’ll see a big change in how we manage a scarce resource.

What kinds of projects have you been working on in order to bring people closer to an understanding of what a watershed is?

My organization Blue Legacy tells stories through expedition, film, advocacy, and education explaining how we live in a particular watershed, but all of our water is connected. We had a global expedition in 2009 where we traveled to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia and the United States producing online media so people could follow along and explore these places with us.

In 2010 we traveled across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico looking at water crises. The Colorado River doesn’t reach the sea any more – it’s a 1200 mile river going through many states and supporting cities, agriculture, the environment, several industries and we use it up. We went to the Gulf of Mexico to study the aftermath of the oil spill, to the southeast where over 60% of our lakes, rivers and streams are too polluted to fish, drink or swim in, and up through the Great Lakes and to Canada. In this country we are still debating whether or not climate change is even happening, so we still have a long way to go in getting everyone on the same page about what the issues are and how we’re going to be able to solve them.

We are continuing our exploration of water issues in North America through a series of expeditions in 2013. We have several briefing events on Capitol Hill in September discussing the issues of water in this country. The water report that the Intelligence Community released recently and the Clean Water Act must really be understood so that we can make better decisions. We’re working closely with a whole network of water conservation organizations by making our film and photography available to them and I speak about these issues to thousands of people.

Tell me a bit about how you teamed up with Michael Harari and ColorZen LLC.

Color Zen contacted me, I learned about their technology and they invited me to help talk about what they are doing. It seemed like an important thing as my focus is on water resources and protecting the quality and quantity of water that our communities need to thrive.

There are over 70 different toxic chemicals involved in textile dyeing that are constantly being released into the environment and 30 or more of those chemicals can never be removed once they are in the water. Water isn’t just local, it moves around the world constantly. Water is something that we all share, so what is going into the water in China or India is ending up in the water that we’re drinking. The very nature of water makes these issues relevant to everybody, not just the countries where the dyeing takes place. When technologies like ColorZen come along, supporting, requesting and demanding that technology is part of ensuring our watershed health and that our choices don’t have a negative impact on the water we all share.

Did you have any experience with the textile industry before you got involved with ColorZen?

I knew about the general issues, but I certainly didn’t know the specifics of dyeing cotton as I do now. I found it quite shocking and that made the solution ColorZen offered exciting.

Have you looked into the effects of textile dyeing further now that you know more about it?

I’m certainly still no expert but I have done my research. It’s clearly something that needs to change and to my understanding this industry wants to change and so I’m hoping that we’ll adopt the new technology.We often think that switching to an environmentally friendly technology or behavior will cost more, which has definitely been one of the biggest barriers to change and action. That doesn’t seem to be the case with ColorZen and there are a lot of benefits to all parties in the production chain as well as to the communities where color dyeing is a source of revenue and an important part of the economy, as they don’t have to compromise or suffer the health impacts any more.

Which bodies of water are most affected by textile dyeing?

Typically it’s the rivers and streams where textile dyeing is most intensive, mainly China and Southern India. The rivers in these areas are heavily impacted, to the point where you can see them run pink, green, yellow or blue based on what the fashionable color is in New York or Paris.

Would you say apparel/textile companies are truly taking into account the necessity of water conservation?

I know it’s a concern for brands and textile manufacturers. Technology is the solution in many respects and providing people with the clothing they desire and need without destroying the environment in which the production takes place requires investment in research and development. ColorZen is certainly at the forefront of that.

Who do you think has the most power in this situation – consumers, producers or policy makers?

Consumers – we all need to be mindful of the choices we make in the products we buy and what we put on our bodies. Would you rather buy a t-shirt that is organic cotton and was dyed without the use of toxic chemicals, or would you rather buy a t-shirt that’s full of toxins, not only in the fabric but also in the land and water that was used to create it? I think that people would prefer the organic shirt, especially if there is not a big difference in price. We think it’s great if the cotton is organic but we neglect to think about the toxic dyeing process that the organic cotton went through. I think we need to expand organic cotton production to how we dye cotton so that we can make it a healthier process from beginning to end.

If global communities don’t protect the resources they have and don’t learn how to manage them sustainably into the future, they’re going to lose them. A good example of that is the Guatemala-Beliz border, which is completely discernible from an airplane because Beliz is covered in rainforests but Guatemala is a desert. All of Central America used to be a big rainforest but the Guatemalans deforested practically the entire country, whereas the Belizians maintained their forests and watersheds. One side is very poor and the other thrives with an abundance of natural resources and better quality of life.

We need to be mindful of the resources our community has, no matter where live, and manage them for the future and not make poor decisions. Those decisions end up living with us for a long time and it’s hard to turn back the clock and re-plant a rainforest or purify a river that’s been polluted by toxic chemicals.