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Op-Ed | People Power Can Clean Up Toxic Fashion

In order to reduce fashion’s environmental impact, people must pressure the suppliers to fashion’s biggest brands to publicly disclose their pollution, says Tristan Tremschnig of Greenpeace.
Greenpeace's Detox Catwalk in Bandung, Indonesia | Photo: Greenpeace/Hati Kecil Visual
  • Tristan Tremschnig

HONG KONG, China — Behind the façade of beautiful advertising and catwalk glamour is an ugly story that the fashion industry has ignored for far too long: toxic pollution.

Up to 3,500 chemical substances are used to turn raw materials into textiles. Approximately 10 percent of these are hazardous to human health or the environment. It takes around 7,000 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans — most of which is tainted by chemicals during production and eventually disposed of into our waterways. The result is public water systems laced with chemicals like PFCs, which can accumulate in human tissue; NPs, which mimic oestrogen and cause the feminisation of fish; and phthalates, which, though banned in the EU, are widely used in the global production of our clothes.

Brands have the power to drive change from the tail end of the supply chain and force suppliers to publicly report how much and what type of pollution they are discharging. This is powerful, because it empowers local communities and journalists — as well as the brands themselves — to find out and take action when factories aren’t fulfilling their detoxing promises.

After four years of campaigning, 18 companies that together make up 10 percent of the global retail industry, including Valentino, Burberry, Marks & Spencer and H&M, have begun to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chains as part of Greenpeace's Detox My Fashion campaign. This is having a ripple effect across the global supply chain.

Finally, fashion is starting to clean up its act and it’s doing so under the glaring light of public scrutiny. Due to pressure from brands including Uniqlo and Inditex, some of the same factories that would have once been polluting water are now responding to pressure from the global market and are taking steps to improve the quality of water that they discharge.

This is what hundred of thousands of people can do when they are united in the belief that beautiful fashion should be made free from hazardous chemicals. When people around the world sign a petition, join social media storms or take part in street theatrics outside shops, we can hit companies where they’re vulnerable: their branding. People power is hundreds of thousands of people shining a spotlight on fashion’s dirty secrets and demanding that there is another, less destructive way for the industry to operate.

But despite this progress, we still cannot say that the fashion industry has stopped polluting our water.

In many of countries, lax regulations mean that many suppliers to international brands still have a free reign when it comes to using hazardous chemicals to dye and process our clothes. We must hold brands to their Detox promises and urge other brands to step up to the challenge, and then use their support to drive more policy change in countries where clothing manufacturing takes place, such as Indonesia, Mexico and China. Greenpeace has already successfully campaigned for some chemicals to be regulated by national authorities, such as the regulation of as PFCs, nonylphenols and phthalates in China in 2013. The challenge now is to make this a broader trend and to level the playing field across different geographies.

Toxic chemicals and pollution is only one side of sustainability in fashion. There are still many dirty secrets in the fashion industry's closet. As a tragic reminder, this month we will commemorate the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where thousands of workers tragically perished, their deaths a symptom of an industry in a constant race to get products on racks — and to hell with regulations. Brands must take individual responsibility for all the ethical and environmental issues raised in their supply chains — and at Greenpeace we support the calls of NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, UNI Global Union, and IndustriALL, who demand that our clothes do not cost people their dignity and safety.

What we pull out of our wardrobes every morning tells a story about who we are today and where we are heading. I want to feel confident about my children’s future. Toxic free clothing is a first step, but to take fashion to the next level of sustainability, it is up to the industry to do what it does best: find creative, innovative solutions.

Tristan Tremschnig is the communications strategist for Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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