Toxic Fashion: The hazardous chemicals in our clothing

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Most people know the importance of toxins in products we ingest, but we often don’t consider the toxins in products we wear. According to Greenpeace, chemicals used in dyes and processing fabrics can cause cancer and disrupt hormones.

Greenpeace has released a new report—“Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up—that investigated the presence toxic and hazardous chemicals in low-priced clothing brands, and the results are shocking. The report, which is a part of Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign, reveals that “textile manufacturing facilities using hazardous chemicals and the presence of those chemicals in the products of those facilities.”

Greenpeace tested 141 clothing items from 20 major brands, including Zara, Levi’s, Mango, Calvin Klein and H&M, looking for evidence of phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and azo dyes, which can break down into cancer-causing amines. The report explains the process:

A total of 141 items of clothing were purchased in April 2012 in 29 countries and regions worldwide from authorized retailers. These were manufactured in at least 18 different countries, mainly in the Global South, according to the garments’ labels. However, the place of manufacture was not identified for 25, which is symptomatic of an industry that is not as transparent about its manufacturing practices as it should be. The garments, designed for men, women, and children, included jeans, trousers, t-shirts, dresses, and underwear, and were made from both artificial and natural fibres; 31 of the samples bore a plastisol print, and for these items it was this part of the fabric that was tested for phthalates and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs).

What were the results? The investigation found that there were high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments, cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes in two garments, and NPEs were found in 63 percent of garments. What’s more, the brands with the highest concentrations (1,000 ppm or more) of NPEs were C&A, Mango, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Zara, Metersbonwe, Jack & Jones, and Marks & Spencer.

“We found that 20 of the world’s favorite brands are making and selling clothes containing hazardous chemicals which contribute to toxic water pollution where the clothes are made and washed,” said Greenpeace Toxics Campaigner John Deans.

The point of concern with these toxins being in our clothing resides in the disposal of clothes. The report shares:

Around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide, the equivalent of just over 11 garments a year for every person on the planet. The increased volumes of clothing being made, sold, and thrown away magnifies the human and environmental costs of our clothes at every stage of their life cycle. Even the apparently small, quantities of a hazardous chemical such as NPEs, which are legally allowed in clothing, cumulatively amount to the widespread dispersal of damaging chemicals across the planet.

Greenpeace has started a Detox Campaign that has one goal: To challenge international brands to phase toxic chemicals from their manufacturing processes and products by 2020. This campaign began in 2011 and since then, seven companies (Nike, AdidasPumaH&MM&SC&A and Li-Ning) have committed to do so. With the release of the latest report, Greenpeace is pressuring more companies, who have not made a commitment thus far, to do so as well.

Read the entire report here and click here to learn about what you can do to have a toxic-free future.

  • Susmita Baral

    Susmita is a writer and editor in the Greater New York City area. In her spare time, Susmita enjoys cooking, traveling, dappling in photography, art history and interior design, and moonlighting as a therapist for her loved ones.

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