Creating clothes from field to factory can result in a whole lot of toxins being unleashed on workers, on the planet, and even on you and your family. Here’s how you can avoid fashion disasters.
Certified members of Green America’s Green Business Network® use eco-friendly fabrics and low-impact dyes and finishes. Pictured left to right: Models wearing clothing from HAE Now (m), Nui Organics (m), Mehera Shaw (m), and People & Planet Award winner Ash & Rose (m), formerly known as Nancy’s Gone Green.
The toxic chemicals used to make clothes are hidden in farming and manufacturing processes. All shoppers see when they get to the store are the bright colors, trendy styles, and manufacturer labels—what’s going to flatter and make you feel good, and what just isn’t your style. What the labels don’t tell you is that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world.
It’s no secret that conventional cotton and polyester result in a host of pollutants being unleashed on the environment. But once the fabrics are woven, even more chemicals get piled on: heavy metal and azo dyes that are linked to cancer and neurotoxicity; trichloroethylene, used by manufacturers to launder textiles before sale, is a highly dangerous chemical that’s toxic to nearly every system in the body; and flame-resistant and wrinkle-, stain-, and water-repellent coatings containing a chemical soup of toxins.
In fact, 25 percent of chemicals produced worldwide are used for textiles, making the fashion industry the number two polluter of clean water after agriculture, according to Fashion Revolution, a global coalition of over 75 countries calling for global supply chain reform in the clothing industry.
Greenpeace International has flagged a list of the top 11 toxic chemicals used to manufacture clothing (see INFOGRAPHIC). These chemicals are hazardous, persistent, and hormone-disrupting, and they present a significant health risk to workers and the environment, in particular, says Yixiu Wu, Detox My Fashion project leader at Greenpeace East Asia.
“Due to the intrinsic toxicity of these chemicals and the potential risk to both human health and the environment, the best way to prevent risk is to remove them from the manufacturing process,” says Wu.
Workers and the Environment
“With clothing, there’s a difference in chemical exposures experienced by consumers and by workers. The worker exposure is much higher,” says Garrett Brown, a former California OSHA employee who helps build local capacity for on-the-ground factory worker-rights organizations around the world—including the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
It’s true from field to textile manufacturer to cut-and-sew factory.
As detailed in the documentary film The True Cost, which looks at the price workers and communities across the supply chain pay for the Western addiction to fashion, the Punjab region is where most of India’s cotton is grown. It’s also the country’s largest user of pesticides. The area has seen a dramatic rise in birth defects, cancers, and mental illness in recent decades, which many experts, including Dr. Pritpal Singh, director of the Baba Farid Center for Special Children, feel is tied to the use of pesticides on cotton. Singh told filmmakers he has seen “hundreds of patients suffering with cancers,” in farming communities, and “70 to 80 kids in every village facing severe mental retardation and physical handicaps.”
And then there’s chemical exposure in the factories. Miriam Lara-Meloy of the Hesperian Foundation, which aims to improve the health conditions of workers and others overseas, says: “Workers are coming in contact with dyes, mordants (chemicals that help the color stay on the fabric longer), and other fabric additives [such as] flame-retardant chemicals.”
Workers in factories that manufacture textiles spray, dip, or wash fabrics in chemicals to change color or texture, add prints, or spot-clean garments, she says. They may experience rashes, chemical burns, or worse—some dip fabric in toxins like formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, to prevent wrinkles.
“While some chemicals are better studied than others, there is very little on long-term effects of most of these chemicals and almost zero information about how chemicals interact with each other,” says Lara-Meloy.
In cut-and-sew operations, says Brown, the chemical exposures occur mainly in rooms where workers spot-clean clothes that have gotten stains during the manufacturing process. They may use solvents like carcinogenic benzene or neurotoxic n-hexane with little or no protective equipment.
“It seems the most dangerous solvents are the cheapest,” he says. “The rooms are often poorly ventilated or ventilated straight into factory itself, so even people on the sewing machines get a good dose [of toxins] because they’re right next to where they’re being used.”
Plus, says Lara-Meloy, workers are often in the dark about the chemicals they’re working with, or what their effects are. “Day-to-day chemical use—and chemical dumping—is simply unregulated,” she says. “Many workers don’t even know what chemicals they are exposed to and have a hard time getting Safety Data Sheets from their employer.”
Also, toxins may run off from clothing factories and freely pollute local water and soil due to weak local laws and enforcement.
Take India’s Kanpur region. The Ganga (Ganges) River is a sacred and vital waterway running through Kanpur, the country’s leather export capital. According to Rakesh Jaiswal of the Indian nonprofit Ecofriends, 50 million liters of water contaminated by toxins like carcinogenic chromium 6 flow into the Ganga from leather clothing and shoe factories every day.
“The farmers using [that] wastewater are in the tight grip of tannery pollution,” says Jaiswal. “The soil, the groundwater, and the local environment is badly affected. As a result, the health of the people and the cattle is impacted. The responsibility to treat the wastewater is shared between the tanneries and the government. Neither of them is behaving responsibly.”
Exposure from Wearing Clothes
While workers suffer the most from the toxins in the clothing supply chain, even those of us who wear the clothes are exposed. However, Greenpeace’s Yixin Wu notes that of the top 11 most dangerous chemicals used in clothing manufacturing, “none would cause an acute danger to the wearer.”
But many do tend to stick around on new clothing before washing.
In its 2014 study, “A Little Story About the Monsters in Your Closet”, Greenpeace purchased 82 children’s clothing items in 25 regions worldwide from well-known stores like American Apparel, Disney, Gap, and H&M. It sent them to the University of Exeter, which examined them for chemical residues.
The Exeter lab discovered:
- nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)—hormone disruptors used as surfactants—on 50 of the 82 items,
- phthalates—hormone disruptors used as a softener in plastisol inks for fabric printing—in 33 out of 35 pieces with prints on them likely to contain these chemicals,
- perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)—liver- and reproductive toxicants used as water- and stain-repellent finishes on clothing—in 15 items,
- and antimony—a heavy metal neurotoxicant used in polyester manufacture—on all 36 pieces of polyester
In other words, there’s some risk for direct exposure to the wearer, and even a little exposure, especially when it happens repeatedly, can add up.
“Look at phthalates, as they could be used as plasticizer to print images or logos on T-shirts,” says Wu. “Some of the phthalates are classed as toxic to reproduction in the EU, and they easily break down. If wearers, particularly kids, touch the images on T-shirts containing phthalates..., there is potential risk that those chemicals could be absorbed into the body.”
Wu notes that most of the hazardous chemicals used in clothing factories are washed away during the manufacturing process, and buyers will generally launder away the rest at home. However, he notes, that results in the chemical residues getting into their local water supply and the environment.
That said, there are exceptions that may never wash out completely, says green-living expert Annie B. Bond, author of Home Enlightenment (Rodale,2005). Bond has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, so she says her skin actually burns from the presence of chemicals on clothes.
The experts we talked to all said there are still many unknowns about what lingers on clothing after numerous washes, but through her research, Bond says, “My biggest concern is long-lasting chemicals used in anti-wrinkle and anti-stain applications. Plus, many clothes are treated with a pesticide when they are imported. These just don’t wash or soak out.”
Green America joins with Greenpeace in calling for an end to the use of toxic chemicals in clothing manufacture. As the Greenpeace report states: “‘Acceptable’ levels of hazardous chemicals are not acceptable.”
Beyond Business as Usual
By far the best way to get what you need when it comes to clothing is to buy used items. But there may be times when you need or want something new.
First, ask yourself if you really need it. As Livia Firth, executive producer of The True Cost, told filmmakers, a good benchmark is to only buy something new if you feel confident that you will wear it 30 times or more.
If so, buy from green companies that are making clothes the right way, on a smaller, manageable scale, including the certified green businesses in Green America’s National Green Pages®.
Garrett Brown notes that in his considerable experience with clothing factories overseas, “no large brand anywhere in the world doesn’t have sweatshops throughout their supply chain. It’s a failed hope that you can find a non-sweatshop piece of clothing from a company that has multiple factories in multiple locations.”
High-end clothing designer Jeff Garner, a frequent Green Festivals® speaker, grew up on a farm in Tennessee. He says caring for the environment was something he’s just done since childhood and continued to do when he launched his Prophetik and Jeff Garner Intimates clothing lines.
“When I started doing my first production in L.A., the minute I walked into the dye house, you could smell the chemicals,” says Garner. “My body was used to clean air growing up on a farm, to wearing hemp and cotton. So it affected me really badly.”
He also learned early in his career that the fabric remnants that production facilities use to test clothing dyes have to be disposed of as toxic waste, not just thrown into the trash. He knew there had to be a different way of doing business.
So Garner researched the chemicals used in clothing, and he ended up mixing his own fabric dyes out of plants for his luxurious, modern and Civil-War-throwback styles. 13 years later, even while he’s achieved success on the world fashion stage and dresses celebrities, he still makes his own dyes and avoids all toxic finishes. His clothes are US-made from eco-fabrics like organic cotton and hemp.
Likewise, Shari Keller launched Mehera Shaw(m) to create a market for clothes made with the hand-block-printed fabrics created by artisans in Jaipur, India. In addition to being a fair trade company, Mehera Shaw uses only traditional Indian vegetable dyes or low-toxicity, GOTS-compliant dyes. And 95 percent of its clothing is made from GOTS-certified organic cotton. The remainder are made from the hand-loomed cotton, produced by small-scale family farmers in India. The company uses no chemical finishes.
While clothes from Prophetik, Mehera Shaw, and other eco-clothing companies might cost more than clothes at Walmart, Keller and Garner say green businesses make it worth customers’ while to seek them out.
For one thing, you’ll be buying from companies that go the extra mile to care for workers and communities throughout the supply chain. For another, you’re much more likely to avoid absorbing toxins from your clothes.
“I feel that as designers and creators, we have a responsibility to not harm ourselves and others in this process, including Mother Earth,” says Garner. “Part of our due diligence is to create beauty that begets beauty, not toxify the world.”
(m) Designates a certified member of Green America’s Green Business Network®