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‘Toxic Threads’ No More: Fashion Industry Increasing Transparency, Reducing Impacts

Image credit: Zara

A global campaign to keep toxic chemicals out of apparel may force clothing brands to have greater control over their supply chains, and overall quality may improve along with environmental sustainability, according to an expert in sustainable fashion.

Through its year-long "Toxic Threads/Dirty Laundry" campaign, Greenpeace has pushed large fashion retailers to commit to phase out specific harmful chemicals from their production process. Brands already known for their environmental efforts — such as Marks & Spencer and Patagonia  made early commitments to phase out some chemicals and release data about how products are made. Global fashion giant Zara agreed last week to do the same and Mango announced a commitment on Wednesday.  

With more than half of the major brands silent on the issue, Greenpeace now is turning up the heat on Levi’s.

“Everybody is starting to recognize the necessity to address these issues. What is interesting about the zero toxics campaign is it has engaged a broad spectrum of people. Brands have wanted to or had to respond,” said Alex  McIntosh, the business and research manager for the Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

The latest commitments to improve transparency in the production process came after the release of the latest Greenpeace report, "The Big Fashion Stitch-Up,” last month. The report showed that two-thirds of a sampling of clothing from 20 top fashion retailers contained NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates, which can disrupt animals’ endocrine systems in high concentrations) and a smaller number had high levels of toxic phthalates or cancer-causing amines from certain carcinogenic dyes.

In the wake of the report and following the lead of H&M and Marks & Spencer, Zara, the world’s largest fashion retailer, committed to eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products by 2020.

Greenpeace began to push Zara, which is part of the Inditex group, a year ago to commit to eliminate hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and clothes. Specifically, Greenpeace is urging companies to eliminate perfluorochemicals (PFCs, used in water-proofing fabric) and remaining use of alkylphenol ethoxylate (APEOs, used in detergents) in the short-term and agree to a transparency policy that will allow journalists and consumers to follow what chemicals and processes manufacturers use. That disclosure is particularly important in the Global South, fast developing countries where environmental regulations may not protect streams and rivers from harmful chemical releases.

Zara agreed that by the end of the year 100 of its suppliers in the Global South (including at least 40 in China) will publicly disclose data about their releases of hazardous chemicals into the environment. The data will be chemical-by-chemical, facility-by-facility and year-by-year.

“The commitment is good news for the environment, but also a breakthrough for the public’s right to know what is being released into our waterways,” Greenpeace said in announcing Zara’s decision.

AS companies including Nike, Adidas, Puma, C&A and Li-Ning eliminate toxics and agree to release information about their production practices, brands that previously worked closely only with first-tier suppliers will find it necessary to engage more of the supply chain, which is complex in the fashion world.

“Brands are going to start working with their suppliers better and having more focused relations,” McIntosh said.

Some companies already work with vendors all the way down the supply chain or have made openness part of their brand identity. Honest by, which launched nearly a year ago as a 100 percent transparent company, discloses where clothes are made and by what processes, but also releases pricing strategies to allow consumers to see what those decisions cost. Nike has a green chemistry program and asks suppliers to work with the company to meet those goals.And Marks & Spencer — which agreed in October to phase out all PFC and disclose more data to the public, beginning with five Chinese M&S suppliers — has worked for years to improve sustainability practices further down the supply chain.

Though the company began in 1998 to prohibit APEOs in the manufacture of products sold in the chain’s stores, M&S continued to hold workshops with dyehouses to educate workers about the harm the chemicals can do.

“[The company holds workshops] because we're never complacent when it comes to our standards and feel it is prudent to reiterate the ban across our supply chain and support suppliers in terms of training and education,” said M&S spokesman Daniel Himsworth. “This ensures our supply base is using the best and most up-to-date information and techniques. It strengthens our position.”

The latest commitments to prohibit PFC in fashion, particularly all-weather outerwear, will compel companies to work closely with manufacturers within the supply chain since there’s currently no alternative to PFCs for water- and stain-proofing coats and other rugged wear. Still, Patagonia agreed to rid its products of the harmful chemicals.

Another Greenpeace report focused on outdoor wear, “Chemistry for any weather,” challenges companies such as The North Face, Jack Wolfskin, Kaikkialla and Marmot to agree to find alternative ways to weather- and stain-proof their jackets and other items, eschewing all perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, a type of PFC) compounds and other hazardous chemicals.

In interviews about the October report, Greenpeace’s Toxics Campaigner Kirsten Brodde argued that if brands such as H&M and M&S can make the commitment to find alternatives, so can the brands that specialize in outdoorwear.

“Patagonia has done such a lot of real work about supply chain and engaging their customer in sustainable issues,” McIntosh said. “I know quite a few manufactures that are really struggling because they have been handed an edict from [various brands] and don’t know how they are going to get the same performance.”

In the long run, McIntosh said, companies that engage their suppliers likely will get a more consistent product. A dyehouse that’s responsive to a brand’s policy to ban certain chemicals is likely more engaged in product consistency and reputation than one that won’t work to implement the change, he said.

Allison is an affiliate of New Growth Communications, for whom she recently blogged about “8 Communication Tips for Crowdfunding Campaigns.” She has 15 years of writing and editing experience for newspapers covering cleantech, business and health care. Add her… [Read more about Allison Floyd]

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