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

Greenpeace Detox Campaign Image | Photo: Lance Lee
  • Guest Contributor

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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