Op-Ed | Toxic Chemicals in Clothing Make All of Us Fashion Victims

Greenpeace Detox Campaign Image | Photo: Lance Lee

Today, to coincide with the release of a major investigative report by Greenpeace International, Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, guest contributor Tommy Crawford, strategic communications manager at Greenpeace, highlights the dangers of the toxic chemicals contained in the clothing we wear and urges action.

BEIJING, China — Nobody wants to be a fashion victim. Desperately chasing the ever-elusive ‘cool,’ fashion victims are generally perceived as ‘try-hards,’ those who sport the latest trends and buy into transient fads, regardless of fit or personal style. These so-called victims, slaves to the vagaries of a few, have a soft spot for fast-fashion and designer labels. But high-gloss brands can conceal low-end ethics. And herein lies the crux.

The truth is, we are all fashion victims.

We are all victims of the ruthless practices of global fashion brands who prioritise profits over people and the planet. In a constant race to get products on the racks, lots of big brands resort to outsourcing production in countries such as China and Mexico. But this clothing carries a hidden price tag. In many of these countries, lax regulations give suppliers of international brands a free hand when it comes to using hazardous chemicals to dye and process our clothes. Many of these toxic chemicals are banned in the US and Europe, but sooner or later they end up in waterways and wardrobes across the globe.

Our latest investigation into this issue demonstrates just how far-reaching the problem is. Of the 20 brands whose clothing we tested — including global fashion giants Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Zara — every single one of them was revealed to have traces of hazardous chemicals in at least one of their clothing items. Calvin Klein was the worst offender, with 88 percent of the items we tested found to contain hazardous chemicals. Levi’s came second with 82 percent, while Zara came third with 70 percent. Some of these chemicals are incorporated deliberately within the fabric, while others are unwanted residues remaining from the manufacturing process.

This is an issue, because when these chemicals are released into the environment they can break down and develop hormone-disrupting and even carcinogenic properties. The worst of the chemicals included toxic phthalates (found in four of the garments we tested) and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes (found in two of the garments). Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were found in just under two-thirds of the 141 garments we tested.

These chemicals can seep into the environment where clothes are made, affecting rivers and waterways that local communities often depend upon for their livelihoods. But the toxicity doesn’t end there. Chemicals contained within clothes can also be released by people living thousands of miles away, who inadvertently pollute their local water supplies when they do their laundry.

As a result, these hazardous chemicals behave much like influential fashion trends: they travel far and wide, affecting people across the globe.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Through our Detox campaign, Greenpeace has helped to illuminate a path towards a toxic-free future for fashion. Launched last year, the campaign has been able to mobilise millions of citizens around the world to challenge major clothing brands and demand that they create fashion without toxic pollution. Through hard-fought negotiations and people-powered actions — including the world’s biggest simultaneous striptease in July last year — the campaign has secured commitments from seven international brands to clean up their supply chains and become toxic-free by 2020.

The journey will not be easy. But in fashion, safe brands have rarely shaped the future, nor reaped its rewards. In fact, true fashion has always been an act of rebellion. Yesterday’s orthodoxies need to be challenged and swept away, only to be replaced by new and innovative solutions.

This also applies to the use of hazardous chemicals, many of which can be replaced with safer alternatives. A number of companies, H&M and Marks & Spencer among them, are already pioneering green chemistry and the phase-out of some of the most harmful substances. H&M, Marks & Spencer and C&A have also agreed to pilot programmes that would disclose their suppliers’ pollution data as part of their Detox Action Plans, providing a much-needed sliver of transparency into a notoriously murky world.

For too long, fashion brands have hidden behind an elaborate marketing façade, where the nature and location of production have been de-emphasised in favour of beautiful advertising, catwalk glamour and designer lifestyles. Companies sought to hide the truth and keep that which was out of sight, out of mind for their customers and shareholders. And for too long, we allowed ourselves to be willing accomplices in this world of misdirection and splendour.

But the reality is that these big brands are perfectly positioned to eliminate the negative environmental impacts of their production. They can do this through the suppliers they choose to collaborate with, the design of their products and the control they can exert over the chemicals used throughout the production processes.

Yet where there is a way, there must also be a will. So far, a number of major fashion brands, including the world’s largest retailer Zara, remain silent, shirking responsibility for their actions as if it were last season’s fashion. This, despite the fact that clothing purchased from Zara has been found to contain hazardous chemicals, some of which can break down to form hormone-disrupting or cancer-causing substances.

Each day that passes without a new course of action only compounds the problem, as many of the hazardous chemicals used by the fashion industry persist and accumulate in the environment. Zara’s owner, Amancio Ortega Gaona — like those at the helm of any big brand — knows that he cannot continue with business-as-usual when there is widespread demand to move in a new direction. And as more and more fashion fans demand toxic-free clothing, rebelling against superficial marketing and opaque production practices, companies like Zara will need to listen or risk losing their fans and customers forever. This will be of particular concern in markets such as China, where the effects of the fashion industry’s addiction to hazardous chemicals are most harshly felt, and where many of these companies, Zara included, are pinning their hopes for future growth.

The truth is that the clothes we wear are not just a bundle of threads sewn together to make a garment. What we pull out of our wardrobes every morning tells a story about who we are today. And more and more people are demanding that this story does not turn into a toxic nightmare for generations to come.

Tommy Crawford is a strategic communications manager at Greenpeace International.

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14 comments

  1. Greenpeace makes an important point in what they are saying, and always has ever since they published their first Detox report: Lack of transparency in supply chains is a massive problem, and – evidently know – both a strategic as well as operational risk. The results probably are highly accurate, as is the methodology.
    There are a few things though that Greenpeace purpose ignores (and it IS purposely, because they know exactly where the practical challenges lie): 1) some – mind you, by far not all – of those chemicals are not easily replaceable; 2) even companies of the size of M&S are increasingly ‘small fishes’ buying from overseas suppliers, and they face very real challenges in order to convince these suppliers to comply with their standards 3) the very same brands mentioned in this report are overall best-in-class – this is a fact that should not be forgotten, and points at the scale of the problem we’re facing; 4) Greenpeace does not promote best practise along side blaming the bad ones – there _are_ best practise dye houses out there. Only in relation to best practise their demands become tangible and verifiable.
    This all said, it is evident by now that every single fashion company – be it brand or manufacturer – needs to take the risk buried and hidden in their supply chains a lot more serious. Not only because of campaign groups like Greenpeace, who creates a huge reputational damage to the companies mentioned, but also because at the back of campaigns legislation will become progressively tighter (REACH, bio-cidal regulations, to just name 2), and most importantly because of the cost savings made by getting it right the first time around:
    Taking the example of a dye house: water that needs little cleaning because of the lack of toxic chemicals in it, saves a) money spent on chemicals and dye stuffs b) money spent on cleaning the water c) money spent on regulatory tests d) money spent on fines if the tests are unfavourable. These are but example of course, and a similar line up of cost-benefit analysis is easily created for virtually every single process in the fashion supply chain. Risk management and sustainability is pure business sense.

  2. Great article. Thanks for sharing. It has really shed light into an issue in the fashion industry many people probably didn’t know existed. Any tips on what us smaller retailers/designers can do to ensure that our business conducted overseas is ethical and environmentally safe. Is there certain questions we should be posing to the suppliers and manufacturers we work with.

    jsidhu from Surrey, BC, Canada
  3. Thanks so much Greenpeace for shedding some light again and again on urgent issues that requires everybody’s (brands, customers, press, designers, investors etc.) attention and commitment.
    Thanks Tommy for this contribution on BoF which allows pure fashion readers and players to read this kind of warning.
    Thanks Pamela for your comment which is also enriching.
    We all have to contribute, it cannot be a niche movement, fashion has to be ethical and sustainable, period.

  4. It has been long time I am trying to point out,why most of commercial product price get increased but apparel,I am conserned customers healthy upon they thought they buy the cheaper price compare the regular retailer.

    But green peace make it clear,there are definitely have something to do with the chemicals in it.

    I used to have big Manufature business produce in china or other country outside of USA.

    I decided to put myself “out of business” last year,starting focuss people’s health function fabric development,even it exaused of saving and good luck is,I finally get something called Trilux,combined Germany technology and produce in domestic,I am expecting to reach out people like green peace or me,consider the health of fashion to united together,to share our effort together for future growth.

    Jason from Paterson, NJ, United States
  5. Excellent article, Tommy. I was agreeing with you the whole way through. While I appreciate H&M’s efforts to become more green when it comes to the chemicals the clothes are made with, it’s kind of a catch 22 because regardless of the chemicals, the amount of garments they manufacture and sell is so ridiculous that it still impacts the earth badly because people are shopping so much at places like these and the clothes are ending up at dumps, mostly unused. Some action is better than none, but the two kind of cancel each other out, no? At any rate, thank you for this great piece!

  6. THe brand should have social responsibility otherwise no need to buy any garment from them..why?!

    Karen from Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey
  7. An eye opener. Seems such a shame. Early this year some bags from Tory Burch were found with toxic lead and covered by ABC news. Nothing happened as the bags were taken off the shelf but sold to poor ignorant employees in ASia by it’s Managing Director. Shame on brands like Tory burch

    Louis lai from Hong Kong
  8. This is terrible! Ever cheaper clothing to be better? enterprises should be responsible for compliance, at every point!

  9. We make Natural Dyes as a solution for community, but it’s hard for consumer to move to Natural colors. Big brands also say No to Natural products. I don’t know why?

  10. Great post BTW, I think stories like these and the anti-sentiment of child labor will effectively change how we think about clothes and fashion. I work for Indigenous.com and I see more and more consumers becoming more aware of what actually goes into their clothes. Thanks for the post, it helps us all.

  11. stop DIESEL jeans !

    DIESEL was found in this report to make TOXIC clothing
    AND worse…
    Diesel was caught recently giving a FALSE STATEMENT to consumers in which the company claimed to have stopeed deadly sandblasting of denim. in fact it was proven by the CLEAN CLOTHES CAMPAIGN that diesel just MOVED their sandblasting from turkey to bangledesh

    Obviously DIESEL feels its ok to LIE TO CONSUMERS and KILL WORKERS

    while other companies entered into a real dialog about environmental issues; diesel seems to think it can just tell lies and use its huge PR machine to protect itself

    MBen from Verona, Veneto, Italy
  12. Though there is still a great deal of work to be done, as you have astutely pointed out, the fact that the second largest apparel company in the world is making strides toward more sustainable practices gives me hope for the future. H&M not only works from the inside, they also reach outside the factories by providing incentives to consumers as well. Their recent “Don’t Let Fashion Go To Waste” campaign encouraged customers to bring in apparel from any clothing store in exchange for coupons off of new items at H&M. These steps may seem small, but having consumers GIVE old clothes in order to RECEIVE new clothes at a discounted price is a pretty inspired idea–plus, as a result of the campaign, H&M has given 3.2 million garments to charity. Enlightening article! Would love to hear about some other mindful clothing brands for next year’s resolution perhaps?

    Helen Wahle from Beverly Hills, CA, United States
  13. It also makes Fashion Serial Killers out of us all … that is, all of us who continue to blindly purchase from the toxic mass market.

    Teresa Wright from Canada