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Toxic textiles

Ralph-Heinrich Ahrens / romJune 10, 2013

Many fashion brands continue to use toxic chemicals which, among other things, are damaging to the world's fish population. Industry experts hope they can convince companies to start using non-toxic substitutes soon.

Employees work at a garment factory in Wuhu, Anhui province in this February 1, 2012 file photo.
Image: Reuters

"Clothing companies are using the rivers of the world like sewers," says Manfred Santen from environmental organization, Greenpeace. Still, despite these strong words, Santen has not yet given up hope in his quest to convince the worldwide fashion industry to be more environmentally-friendly with the fabrics they use. For the German-based chemicals expert, it is the toxins used during the production of textiles that is the biggest area for concern.

Some chemicals currently used in clothes production are carcinogenic or influence the hormonal system, he says.

"In the countries where the production takes place, these chemicals end up in the nearby rivers through factory sewage systems," according to Santen. Later, after the clothes are sold to consumers in other countries and washed for the first time there, the chemicals are also released again. This threatens drinking water standards and is also a problem for marine life, which is eventually exposed to the polluted water.

Toxins in every brand

In a recent study, Greenpeace found out that a host of major fashion brands worldwide used environmentally-damaging chemicals somewhere in their products. The organization tested over 140 items of clothing from 29 countries, using independent laboratories. The survey involved some of the biggest clothing brands worldwide, from H&M to Zara, to lingerie manufacturers, like Victoria's Secret.

A woman works in a textile factory in Huaibei in central China's Anhui province China
Big brands are posed with the huge challenge of ensuring quality control throughout the supply chainImage: picture alliance/Newscom

"We didn't find toxins in every piece of clothing," Santen explains, in discussion with DW. "But, every company produced some item that was problematic."

In the case of the Spanish brand Zara, a pair of jeans from Pakistan contained carcinogenic substances derived from azodyes. A children's jacket also contained alkylphenol ethoxylates (known as APEs), a group of chemicals which affects hormones.

Textile manufacturers often use such chemicals to clean textiles and clothing. But, APEs are poisonous for fish in seas and rivers. Alex Föller, Director of TEGEWA, an association that represents chemical companies that are active in the textile industry, says this is a fact that has been known about for 30 years.

APEs, however, can be replaced by other chemicals which are non-toxic. For this reason German chemical companies voluntarily stopped using them in textile cleaning back in 1986. Now, APEs usage across the EU is strictly regulated. Since 2005, these chemicals can only be used when they no longer end up in sewage systems. But, such strict regulations do not exist yet worldwide.

Complex supply chains

Greenpeace accuses fashion chains of unnecessarily treating textiles with harmful chemicals. The fashion companies, in turn, have reacted sensitively in the past to the allegations.

In 2011, Greenpeace began its Detox campaign. Since then, 17 major fashion brands – including Adidas, H&M and Nike – have pledged to stop using toxic chemicals in the manufacturing of their clothing by 2020. Zara even announced that it would no longer use APEs from May of this year.

Forty Greenpeace activists form a human banner with a message of “Detox” in Bangkok on Thursday, July 14, 2011. (Photo: Sakchai Lalit)
Greenpeace fights against APEs with its 'Detox Campaign'Image: AP

Manfred Santen knows that there are major challenges for the companies that have pledged to be part of the Detox campaign. "They often do not know which of their subsidiaries produce what for them." This applies especially to so-called 'fast fashion' brands such as H&M and Zara, which respond quickly to trends and are required to put new designs on the shelves within weeks.

The problem lies in the fact that the supply chains are often complex. Alex Föller elaborates with an example: "A clothing company probably has around 100 to 200 direct suppliers in China, Pakistan or Bangladesh producing textiles for him that he plans to sell."

These suppliers, in turn, buy a range of chemicals needed for the processing of the textiles from various companies.

"If, in one case one supplier can't deliver, then his brother-in-law or cousin steps in and delivers the required chemicals." In other words, nobody really has a clear picture of what is exactly being delivered by whom.

Clean chemicals

Föller believes that a customer buying jeans or a t-shirt will not really feel a big price difference once APEs are banned from production. The alternate chemicals would increase the production costs by a few cents only, he says. Regular inspections however would be expensive. "The fashion brands could at least conduct sample tests to find out if their suppliers are conforming to the non-toxic policy," Föller told DW.

Bangladeshi workers work in a textile factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005. (Photo: AP/Manish Swarup)
APEs are a threat to seamstresses in countries where most of the production takes placeImage: AP

In comparison, a change to more eco-friendly production methods has already occurred in parts of the automobile industry. In Europe, suppliers are required to sign that their products do not contain certain toxic substances or that they are below the prescribed limit set for them. The same applies for manufacturers of car seats, says Hans Pfeil, from Ford's toxicology department in Cologne. "If we see that our guidelines are not being met, we try to get to the bottom of it quickly."

Pfeil also adds that if the supplier fails to make up for the flaws in the product, then he is no longer allowed to deliver the seats. The threat really works he says. The seat covers in Ford cars contain only traces of the toxic APEs now, according to Pfeil.

But Greenpeace wants more, according to Manfred Santen. They would like a total ban on the toxins that are damaging to fish. That way the rivers of Bangladesh, China or Vietnam – countries where textiles are produced in large amounts – do not get polluted.