11:28am UK, Sunday August 02, 2009

Emma Hurd, Africa correspondent

Two of the world's biggest clothing retailers have promised urgent action after their manufacturing operations were exposed as causing serious environmental damage in Africa.

Pile of Gap labels

Gap and Levi Strauss are supplied by a factory in Lesotho (Pic: Sunday Times)

Gap and Levi Strauss are both supplied by a factory in the tiny nation of Lesotho that has been found to be polluting waterways and dumping hazardous waste.

An investigation by the Sunday Times showed that the Taiwanese owned factory in the capital Maseru is discarding potentially dangerous chemicals along with left over fabric.

The waste is being dumped at an unguarded landfill site where swarms of people, including young children, are free to sift through the rubbish for something of value to sell.

Bags of caustic soda are littered among the tonnes of denim off-cuts that are trucked to the site each week.

Gap label

Garment labels are strewn across the landfill site

There are also hundreds of Gap and Levi's garment labels, zips and studs scattered around the site.

"These companies say they are helping Africa," local environmentalist John Bumasaka said.

"But this is polluting our land, our air and our water. How is this helping Africa?" he asked.

Many of those scouring the dump claim to be suffering from respiratory problems from inhaling the smoke from the burning rubbish. Some also say they have suffered skin sores from touching some of the chemicals.

"I just couldn't stop the itching," one woman said, showing where a rash had spread across her hands and arms.

The Taiwanese company is also accused of polluting a local stream with foul-smelling blue effluent.

Blue effluent in stream

The blue liquid emerges from the factory and runs into a local stream

The Sunday Times filmed the contaminated liquid emerging from the garment factory and flowing past dozens of homes.

"It smells so bad that it makes us cough," one resident said. "It is making us sick."

The company claims that the pollution is caused by a recently broken pipe, but the residents say the liquid has been seeping from the factory for years.

Both Gap and Levi Strauss have promised urgent investigations into practices at the factory following the Sunday Times report.

In a statement Gap said it had placed the supplier in Lesotho "on notice" until all of the issues are "adequately addressed.

"Any factory that makes our products must adhere to our comprehensive and strict standards - it's non negotiable," Dan Henkle, Gap Inc's Senior Vice President of Global Responsibility, said in a statement.

Levi's said it was "disturbed to see that the local water is polluted", adding that the company was "deeply committed to the health and safety of the workers making our products and to supporting the communities in which we operate."

Source: Skynews.com