The Hidden Ingredient List of Fashion

How often do you pick up a pair of jeans and wonder if wearing them will put your health at risk? Consumers generally trust that the clothing they purchase is made safely and ethically. While a worn look and perfect fade of blue are favoured among consumers, there are chemicals used in their production that may have hazardous effects on both human and environmental health.


There is a lot of uncertainty about how many chemicals are used in Fashion. In 2018, Nike estimated that 3,000 chemicals are used in their value chain and manufacturers. But, thousands of new chemicals are registered every year which is creating a negative environmental impact. According to a report by the ZDHC, it is estimated that 6-8% of all greenhouse gasses can be attributed to chemicals produced in the textile industry.


Due to a lack of funding for chemical health research and inefficiencies in chemical management systems, our understanding of risks associated with wearing clothing with textile finishes, dyes, and contaminants is limited beyond causing general irritation.


CHEMISTRY 101; WHY DO CHEMICALS GET A BAD RAP?

Chemicals are not all bad. If we break down the word, “chemical” simply denotes any substance with a defined composition. For instance, water or iron. But, oftentimes the term is used to denote synthetic substances with hazardous properties. To put it in simple terms, biting into an apple generates some amounts of formaldehyde and we’re all still here :)


Clothing production requires chemicals in processing stages that when used in the appropriate amount, are safe for consumers. However, brands find it difficult to discuss chemistry with customers, for fear of a negative reaction even if those chemicals are safe.


Not all amounts of chemicals are harmful but those that are should not be used in fashion, even in trace amounts.


CHEMICALS OF CONCERN

Recently, Transformers Foundation released a new report on Fashion’s chemical certification complex – an exploration of chemical management in fashion. It details the chaotic chemical certification landscape that makes it almost impossible for manufacturers to keep up with. The report also highlights some chemicals of concern still found in the industry and presents industry professionals with actions they can take to reform chemical management in fashion.


Some of the highlighted chemicals are:


Azo dyes

A group of synthetic dyes known to release carcinogenic and mutagenic amines upon contact with our skin bacteria. Although the majority of these dyes are banned in the E.U and other European countries, in 2021, researchers at Duke identified nearly 5000 chemicals in use that contain the structure of the azo dye.

Endocrine Disruptors

Our endocrine system is crucial to managing the hormones in our bodies that regulate our most essential systems such as immune, metabolic, neurological, and cardiovascular. Chemicals of concern such as PFAS, BPA, and phthalates can disrupt hormone regulation at a level as small as a few parts per trillion (PPT).

Children are at even more serious risk as these chemicals can be passed from parent to child. The danger with these chemicals is their unpredictability at low levels of exposure. Although experts say there’s no safe level of these disruptors, some brands’ RSL (list of hazardous chemicals that could appear in the product) includes these chemicals, contradicting health research and putting the general public at risk.

BPA

Commonly used in the production of plastic, BPA’s are a potent endocrine disruptor that has either been phased out or banned in most countries. While phased out, in some cases they’ve been replaced with other chemicals in the same class, such as BPS and BPF that cause similar health concerns. Recently, BPA was found in polyester socks bought in the U.S from 95 different large brands at levels up to 19 times the California limit, suggesting the use of BPAs is not adequately regulated.

PFA’s & PFOs (Also known as Per-and Poly-fluoroalkyl substances)

In the mid-twentieth century, a class of manmade chemicals was produced to provide water and oil/stain repellency for consumer products including textiles. Sadly, emerging research shows that these chemicals can persist in the body or environment and bio-accumulate (absorbed at a higher rate than the body can get rid of), leading to health effects like different forms of cancers, fertility issues, and a reduced immune response in children. Often used as a flame retardant, these chemicals have also been found in textiles and other household products.

Phthalates

Endocrine disruptors, Phthalates are known as plasticizers, used in plastics like polyester and PVC to make them soft and pliable. Phthalates are found in items such as rainwear, handbags, belts, footwear, shower curtains, and plastic food packaging materials.


Known fast-fashion brand Fashion Nova sold swimwear with tags that warn customers of exposure to phthalate, lead, and cadmium – chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm. These concerning tags were the result of California state law Proposition 65, a law that regulates labels on products that contain exposure to toxic chemicals. Companies can only be held liable if they have employees within California state, which means brands use this law as a loophole by avoiding business relations or shipments to California.


PP spray

PP spray is an oxidizing agent called Potassium Permanganate, a tool commonly used in the denim production process to create a faded colour or lightened effect to give the thighs and bums of jeans a worn look. While unique aesthetics are achieved, the spray has known health and safety problems for workers. Workers often absorb micro-particles during application which can cause lung problems and when making contact, can burn eyes and skin. Processing PP spray during the production process also consumes large amounts of water and creates excess runoff into waterways.


Thinx Case

OEKO-TEX-certified underwear company Thinx which produces period-proof panties is currently undergoing a lawsuit from American customers after a university lab found high amounts of fluorinated chemicals in their products, indicating intentionally added PFAS even though the company claims to be non-toxic. The latest research and testing methods have not advanced enough to catch all the PFAs in use. Labs that test to OEKO-TEX standards only look for a few dozen per-fluorinated chemicals of the estimated 12,000 that are in use.


IF THESE CHEMICALS ARE SO HAZARDOUS, WHY ARE THEY STILL USED IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY?

The chemical management system was invented by the private sector which has resulted in a patchy legislative landscape for fashion. The globalization of supply chains means most brands don’t have direct engagement with the people dyeing and finishing fabric, creating an information gap that makes it difficult for brands to certify which chemicals are in their products.


Since certifications are private and their clients are brands, manufacturers, and chemical companies, there is no incentive to find every hazardous substance in a product. Even an OEKO-TEX brand like Thinx, meant to certify safety for customers, might be working with a manufacturer that is falsely certified to cut costs or uses two different manufacturers for the same product, one that’s certified, one that’s not.


RISK VS HAZARD APPROACH

Though all hazardous substances are labeled, not all are completely banned. An ongoing debate exists in chemical management between a risk vs hazard-based approach. A risk-based approach takes into account both the health hazards of a chemical and the estimated amount of exposure, whereas the E.U and California practiced hazard-based approach bans or heavily restricts certain chemicals. No matter which approach is taken, brands can take steps to create change for the industry.


HOW CAN BRANDS CREATE CHANGE?

1. Ascribe to ZDHC

Brands should take part in the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero program, an organization that aims to make manufacturing processes more sustainable, as well as share their up-to-date MRSL and RSLs to help standardize chemical management and align on certification equivalence.


2. Hire an in-house technical expert

Brands should ensure they have at least one in-house chemical engineer/or toxicologist to oversee chemical management and interface with suppliers to ensure standards are met. Experts can work with the design team to avoid toxicity by making decisions such as avoiding requests for certain jean washes that require hazardous processing chemicals.


3. Provide customers with the list of ingredients

Just like we see the food, beauty, and cleaning product industries providing ingredient lists, so should fashion. Consumers deserve to know what’s in their clothes so they can avoid substances that may be harmful to their health. A brand practicing transparency could look like every product coming with a QR code or label with the chemicals used.


4. Treat suppliers ethically

Treat your suppliers with respect. Instead of racing to the bottom on prices, shifting your view towards a model of shared profitability and responsibility will help create the conditions for suppliers to adhere to an MRSL list. Signal your commitment to ethical purchasing practices with your suppliers by creating a relationship based on trust.


5. Lobby government to incorporate standards into law

Advocate for a better, more universal chemical management system. Brands should be lobbying governments in the countries where their products are sold to put the ZDHC MRSL and AFIRM RSL into law as a minimum standard.


Fashion should not compromise human or environmental health, even for that perfect shade of blue. Let’s do our best as brands and industry professionals to shift the ingredient lists of clothing and help #RebuildChemicalManagement.


Until next time friends, always be curious and stay diligent!