Greenpeace Exposes Toxic Chemicals in Zara, Other Fast-Fashion Brands

Zara, Greenpeace, toxic chemicals, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fast fashion, disposable fashion

How toxic are your threads? If you’re a fan of cheap, disposable fashion, the answer isn’t one you’re going to like. A new investigation commissioned by Greenpeace found residues of hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals in clothing made by 20 leading high-street brands, including Armani, Benetton, Calvin Klein, Diesel, Esprit, Gap, Levi Strauss, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara. As the world’s largest apparel retailer, Zara was among the worst offenders. “Zara alone churns out 850 million clothing items a year,” says Li Yifang, a toxics campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “You can imagine the size of the toxic footprint it has left on this planet, particularly in developing countries like China where many of its products are made.”

Zara, Greenpeace, toxic chemicals, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fast fashion, disposable fashion


In April, Greenpeace purchased 141 items of clothing, including jeans, trousers, T-shirts, dresses, and underwear made from both natural and synthetic materials, from authorized retailers in 29 countries and regions. Tests at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and at independent accredited labs worldwide found that all the brands had at least several items containing hazardous chemicals, including some classified as “toxic” or “very toxic” to aquatic life.

All the brands tested by Greenpeace had at least several items containing hazardous chemicals.

Roughly two-thirds of the samples contained nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), a textile surfactant that degrades to the more environmentally persistent nonylphenol (NP) when released into the environment. NP is a hormone-disruptor known to accumulate in fish and other aquatic organisms. Named a “priority hazardous substance” under the EU Water Framework Directive, NP has also recently been detected in human tissue.

But the chemical traces weren’t just the result of the manufacturing process. In the case of of clothes with high levels of phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride more pliable, they were incorporated deliberately within the plastisol print on the fabric.

Two items, both from Zara, contained cancer-causing amines from the use of AZO dyes.

All 31 of the samples of plastisol-printed fabric tested positive for phthalates, which the United States has banned from many garments and children’s products because of their links to reproductive abnormalities (including reduced sperm counts and testicular atrophy) and certain types of cancer. Two items, both from Zara, contained cancer-causing amines from the use of AZO dyes.

“The testing results reveal how much toxic chemicals these brands are dumping in China and other developing nations where products are made and regulations are loose,” Li says. “As the world’s biggest fashion retailers, the likes of Zara have no choice but to change their practices, not only for its consumers but also for the communities affected by its irresponsible suppliers.”

Zara, Greenpeace, toxic chemicals, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fast fashion, disposable fashion


Around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide, the equivalent of just over 11 garments a year for every person on the planet, according to Greenpeace. The growing volumes of clothing being made, sold, and disposed of magnifies the human and environmental costs of our clothes at every stage of their life cycle, which means that even minute quantities of toxins can cumulatively amount to the widespread dispersal of damaging chemicals across the globe, the group says.

80 billion garments are produced worldwide, the equivalent of over 11 garments a year for every person on the planet.

“The worst part is, as fashion gets faster and more globalized, more and more consumers worldwide are becoming fashion’s victims while contributing to the industry’s pollution,” Li adds. “But it doesn’t have to be so. We’ve already witnessed commitments from sportswear giants such as Adidas, Nike, and the Chinese brand Li-Ning, to eliminating the use of all hazardous chemicals in the entirety of their supply chains.”

The three brands are among a group of manufacturers and retailers, which Greenpeace refers to as “engaged,” that have agreed to phase out all toxic chemicals by 2020. Others that have pledged to do the same are C&A, H&M, Puma and, most recently, Marks & Spencer.

Detox “greenwashers,” defined as brands that have declared a zero-discharge intention but have not made credible individual commitments or action plans in their own right, include G-Star Raw and Levi’s, while “detox laggards,” or brands with chemical-management policies and programs that have yet to make a credible commitment to zero discharge, count Zara, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfier, Mango, and Gap among their numbers. The group also referred to Esprit, Metersbonwe, and Victoria’s Secret as “discharge villains” for their lackluster or nonexistent policies and programs for chemicals management.

+ Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up

+ Greenpeace

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5 Responses to “Greenpeace Exposes Toxic Chemicals in Zara, Other Fast-Fashion Brands”

  1. Artisanaworks says:

    Thank you for your continued efforts to educate the consumer concerning the ongoing disregard for health and environment by the apparel industry & manufacturers. Sadly, even small, uninformed cottage industries, may also be producing goods infiltrated with harmful elements.

    I have embraced the immergence of natural dyes used in the apparel and home furnishings arena…but with any fabric dyeing process, much water is consumed to properly remove all excess dye. However, water of questionable quality is often used in the dying process in many countries, and may contain toxins to begin with. This extinguishes any good that natural dyes bring to the table. This should be a concern.

    I am convinced that the consumer, if educated and conscientious about issues good health and the future of our planet, holds great lobbying power. Too often, wrongs are not righted until it is felt in the pocketbook.

  2. ecoalet says:

    The article makes no mention as to how much of these substances was found.
    We should all remember that “The dose makes the poison”.
    Trace amounts of many substances can be found almost anywhere.
    Anyhow the article is very interesting, for example taking into acount the gigantic amount of garments produced (and discarded) yearly in a world-scale.

  3. Jasmin Malik Chua says:

    @ecoalet: You can find specific numbers in Greenpeace’s report, which is far more comprehensive than anything we’d be able to write.

  4. jozomi says:


    I work in the textile industry for a while. I have been selling fabric for years and therefore I’m specialized in dyeing stuff. Since I have moved to China, I had countless meetings with the big players in the garment industry, trying to explain to them that the fabric they were using for their production was not up to standard and that one day or another this could have terrible consequences. The answer was always the same: “we moved to Asia to have competitive costs and this is our target, if Chinese supplier can give us the fabric at this price, we don’t care”. You have to understand that most of the time these big companies are not training their purchaser and/or their merchandisers the right way. These guys are doing a 9 to 5 job and are not aware of the consequences of such issue. Plus their head office are putting tremendous pressure on them to keep the cost lower and lower every year no matter what. On top of that, you can add the lack of professionalism of the people working for this companies. I mean by that, that often the bribes, the close relation doesn’t help to have the correct product. I would say, also, that the main reasons is the greed of the big companies. They are asking prices, that every professional, in his right mind would tell you that are impossible to match if you want to keep the quality. So, yes, these big companies know what they are doing and I’m truly thanksful that this matter came up to the surface. I have, many times, and I still do, informed my close friends and relatives to avoid such brands as Zara (and all Inditex group), H&M (being the worst), C&A, and all American brands (Gap, TMW, Target, Wallmart, Levis, CK, Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis….).

    Only few brands are not cheating on the quality and most of them are from Germany due to the oekotex 100 standard which they require for each batch of dyed fabric.

    It all started when they came to Asia to have lower costs. Only the Germans and few other companies decided to only take advantage of the labor cost but they required the same quality of fabric as they had in Europe. The others, the greed pushed them to take advantage of the labor cost and cheap fabric that is not up to standard. In Europe the problem doesn’t exist as dyeing house are playing fair and the control is systematic. In China, they still dye with sulfur dyes when in Europe the basics are reactive / disperse.

    If you want to see the truth from your very own eyes, go in any Zara shop, buy a garment in black color, and test the linings. There are plenty of independent lab (STR, ITS, SGS…) who can test it for you. Body lining, pocketing lining are always the worst when it comes to quality. And so far we are only talking about chemical issues, but you have to know that they are also a lot of physical issues (not harmful but you are being deceived on the quality of what your buying). I think everybody realized that garment were lasting longer, much longer before.

    I also would like to add that the garment business is complex. For instance, let’s take the Tommy Hilfiger brand. Some of their suits are made to be sold in Europe and these garment are top notch. It seems the merchandiser team is doing a great job with ethics. But the same brand, belonging to the same company produces garments to be sold in the US and produced in Asia, are simply just a piece of garbage. Easy to see, if u can compare, it will just blow your mind away. So even within the same company you have issues to control quality….

    Thx for the opportunity

  5. courtcal87 says:

    It’s sad companies have to “make a commitment” later on, after the fact. Shouldn’t that be policy? Why would anyone knowingly allow these things anywhere near clothes we wear, food we consume, etc., if they could help from it?

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