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Toxic textiles

Rachel Gessat / als
November 25, 2012

Traces of toxins can be found in garments sold by a variety of international fashion chains. A recent study shows their health effects are worse for those who manufacture the clothing than for their wearers.

Greenpeace activists display a big banner that reads 'Zara, detox your fashion' in November 2012. Copyright: EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Strolling through the city and shopping is a favorite pastime for many Germans. Major fashion chains respond by offering quickly emerging, ever-changing collections - this "fast fashion" provides youthful shoppers with cheaply produced, trendy clothing. Fashion chain Zara, which belongs to the Spanish Inditex Group, produces 850 million articles of clothing a year, to name just one example.

On Friday, November 23, 2012, activists of the environmental organization Greenpeace rolled out a huge protest banner on a Zara storefront in Hamburg that read: "Do you know Zara's dirty secret?"

People shopping in a store, young woman holding clothes Copyright: Joe Kohen/Getty Images for TEEN VOGUE
Young people are always on the lookout for inexpensive clothingImage: Getty Images

The environmentalists have carried out a variety of such actions in different German cities to draw attention to the results of their recent research. Greenpace in its study tested more than 140 articles of clothing for hazardous chemicals, inlcuding from major labels such as Zara, Benetton, Tommy Hilfinger, Gap, C&A and H&M.

Hazardous to health

Christiane Huxdorff, a Greenpeace chemist, explained which substances were discovered in the clothing. "We found residual levels of laundry detergents, so-called nonylphenol ethoxylates or NPEs, that have a hormonal effect on human beings - they're plasticizer residues suspected to cause infertility," Huxdorff told Deutsche Welle. "We also found residues of carcinogenic substances that come from azo pigments."

Christiane Huxdorff Copyright: Greenpeace e.V.
Christiane Huxdorff penned the Greenpeace studyImage: Greenpeace e.V.

Azo pigments are synthetic substances used to achieve extremely intense coloring. Some, however, can release toxic or carcinogenic substances. While such azo pigments are banned in Germany, other countries beyond Europe do not monitor their use so closely - which is precisely why many "fast fashion" manufacturers have moved their production to Asia, suggested Greenpeace chemist Huxdorff.

"It's not only the case that manufacturers produce their goods in Asia because it's cheaper, but also because Europe has much stricter environmental laws," she pointed out.

More danger for producers than consumers

Until now, there's no evidence that wearing a "polluted" t-shirt, for instance, directly harms one's health, Huxdorff conceded. But she points out an indirect harm: "Washing the garments can lead to an increase of toxic residues in wastewater and rivers in Germany and Europe."

Yet those who actually produce the garments in Asia and are exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis face much greater health risks. In addition, many textile manufacturers in India and China release their wastewater directly into rivers, without filtering it first, Huxdorff noted. "For the locals whose main source of food may be the fish they get there, the exposure to the pollution and the strain on their health is immense," Huxdorff said.

Manufacturers respond

Major fashion chains can't afford ignoring criticism from environmentalists. "These are things that chip away at their image," said Huxdorff. Activists are also using social networks like Facebook and Twitter to pressure manufacturers. "Consumers are saying: 'I want to buy your garments, but without all the toxic substances,'" the Greenpeace chemist noted.

An Indian boy looks for reusable material in the polluted waters of the Yamuna River in New Delhi, India Copyright: Tsering Topgyal/AP/dapd)
Consumers abroad are rarely aware of the environmental impact of production in AsiaImage: dapd

Inditex, the Spanish parent company of Zara and other fashion labels, assured Deutsche Welle that it conducts its own quality controls and that the laboratories it commissions have attested that their clothing "fulfilled health standards, accommodated consumer protection, and affirmed respect for the environment."

Nonetheless, Inditex asserted that it was prepared to negotiate a product stewardship commitment with Greenpeace: "We reiterate our willingness to pursue the measures necessary to achieve our shared goal as quickly as possible: no toxic residues in textiles."

Female Chinese workers make clothing to be exported .
Cheap clothing for Europeans is produced in China, India and PakistanImage: picture alliance / Xie zhengyi - Imaginechina

In 2011, responding to a Greenpeace campaign called "Detox" begun that same year, several sportswear manufacturers such as Puma, Adidas and Nike implemented a similar product stewardship commitment, to refrain from using toxic substances during production.

Consumer protection

But Greenpeace's Huxdorff said there is no way to completely protect consumers from toxic chemicals in clothing. Therefore, those who want to be on the safe side should opt for certified organic labels. Clothing from second-hand stores or flea markets is also an option, because the items have been washed repeatedly and should have fewer residues. Not to mention, an eye for fewer but better-quality garments is better for the environment than buying many cheaply-produced items, Huxdorff noted.