No parent would want toxic materials in their children’s clothing. Yet according to a new Greenpeace study, a range of hazardous chemicals is being used in the production of kids’ wear from top fashion brands.
A frequent question about producing toxin-free clothing is whether it is economically feasible for textile companies to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. The answer is resoundingly yes; doing so is essential if companies want to keep their business sustainable.
The global textile industry is notorious for using potentially hazardous chemicals. According to research, more than 550 types of dyes and over 3,000 chemicals of auxiliaries containing carcinogenic chemicals, hormone disruptors, or heavy metals, including per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are restricted for use in textile products under the laws of different countries.
The research published by Greenpeace found that some of the chemicals widely used in the textile industry are toxic to reproductive development in mammals or interfere with the hormone system. And children may be more sensitive to the effects of these hazardous chemicals than adults. A recent UNEP and WHO report supported the proposition that the timing of some impacts caused by hormone disruptors can be critical, particularly for growing children.
There is global concern over this issue (half a million people signed up to the Greenpeace DETOX campaign within days of its launch in 2012) and it has created far-reaching impacts within the global textile industry. Some leading players within the industry such as Benetton have moved to address the problem with a policy of implementing strict controls over its supply chain. Other companies have worked closely with their suppliers, often located in developing countries, to understand what is being used in the production of their products and what safer substitutes might be.
Entire groups of toxic chemicals, previously ubiquitous in the supply chain, have been phased out by such companies within a short period of time – for example, biodegradable biopolymer and fluorocarbon-free water repellent materials are used as safer alternatives. More importantly, these companies have created incentives for “upstream” players in the textile supply chain, those who provide dyes and detergents, to weigh-in and start vying for a share in the market for safer alternatives.
High-end British brand Burberry was listed as the industry leader in the 2016 Dow Jones Sustainability index in the ‘Textiles, Apparel & Luxury Goods’ sector; in addition they are also listed in the FTSE4Good Index and the MSCI Global Sustainability Index series, they are members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). This opens a new chapter in the story of toxic-free fashion and raises the bar for the luxury sector. Brands such as Gucci, Versace and Louis Vuitton now risk getting left behind.
Textile industry meetings in Beijing or Shanghai are now filled with energetic chemical engineers showing greener product lines to their potential customers in the textile business. Companies such as Mango have even produced detailed timelines about when their safer substitutes will be available in the next few years. This kind of market dynamic will almost certainly make safer alternatives more available and accessible for textile industry players who are aiming at providing toxic-free products for their customers.
Early birds have an advantage. Across the globe regulations are kicking in that will force the textile industry to shift to toxin-free mode. More stringent regulation will be the reason that brands will eventually have to change to safer alternatives.
In 2013, the textile industry was listed for the first time under China’s national five-year plan for prevention and control of environmental risk of chemicals as a “key industry for regulatory control”. The signal sent by regulators in the worlds largest textile-producing country is very clear: no more toxic clothing in our backyard.
The central government of China is also to release a blacklist of toxic chemicals that will be subject to strict regulatory control. Some of them are major chemicals used by the textile industry.
What about the USA? Here are the requirements for fabrics – mostly applying to children:
- Section 101(a) of the CPSIA restricts children’s products, including children’s apparel and sleepwear, to a lead content limit of 100 parts per million (ppm). In addition, the use of paint or similar surface coating on children’s apparel and sleepwear must not exceed a lead content limit of 90 ppm. That compares to the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) requirement that the lead content be 2 ppm.
- Section 108 of CPSIA states that children’s toys and child care articles cannot contain more that 0.1% of six phthalates – DEHP, DBP, BBP limits are applicable to both toys and child care items while DINP, DIDP, and DnOP limits are applicable only to toys that can be placed in the mouth and are intended for children 3 and younger. Although children’s clothing does not need to be certified to this requirement, children’s sleepwear or bibs (child care article) intended for children age 3 years or younger and any children’s textile product that is intended for use in play (toy) must be certified to the phthalates requirements. In comparison to GOTS, all phthalates are prohibited.
- In July 2011, CPSC approved a federal safety rule for drawstrings in children’s upper outerwear. Children’s upper outerwear in sizes 2T-16 must be in conformance with ASTM F1816-97, Standard Safety Specification for Drawstrings on Children’s Upper Outerwear, approved June 10, 1997, published August 1998 (incorporated by reference in 16 CFR 1120.3 (b), or such outerwear will be considered a substantial product hazard.
- Textiles used in apparel must meet class 1 or 2 flammability requirements. Children’s sleepwear must be flame resistant and self-extinguish when exposed to a small ignition source. The rules cover all children’s sleepwear between size 9 months and size 14. The fabric, seams, trim, and garments must pass certain flammability tests or the garment must be tight-fitting as defined by specified dimensions. ( See our blog post on flame retardants, published in May, 2013)
What does this mean? It means that the United States has basically no protection for consumers in terms of textiles.