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.”
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.”
CHANGE OF PACE
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.