A sustainable industry starts when we learn from our own faux pas.
Here’s where fashion has failed — let’s avoid making these same mistakes so we can move forward into a healthier and safer future for everyone.
While the term “brand chemical management” may not be the most exciting-sounding thing in the world, it’s critically important for consumer safety. We’re talking about chemicals that will touch and interact with your body! However, the limited transparency and traceability within supply chains is a core weakness within the fashion industry, especially within the processing stage. As it turns out, few brands monitor each tier of their supply chain, let alone the chemicals used very early in the manufacturing process.
So, how can the fashion industry effect real and necessary change? For starters, brands can support suppliers — who often have limited resources — by providing clear policies and training standards, as well as on-site audits.
Brands can also address their use of highly toxic chemicals by accepting the precautionary approach. In other words, you preventively restrict chemicals even where there is scientific uncertainty. For brands striving for circularity, designing out harmful substances is absolutely essential.
If brands develop a Restricted Substance List (RSL), they can improve their chemical management practices. How do they go about doing this? It’s quite simple, really. All they have to do is utilize the hazard profiles of chemicals. This way, they know which substances to restrict, with an emphasis on measuring the overall impact each hazardous chemical has on consumers, communities, the environment, and industry workers.
Fashion FWD advocates for brands to act immediately by committing to align with ZDHC’s Roadmap. This initiative calls for phasing out the use of 11 priority hazardous chemicals and developing a robust chemical management policy. Additionally, chemical restrictions should be based on the highest legal standard in any of the countries where retailers conduct business. Brand requirements should go further than the law demands.
Phthalates, polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs), antimony and NPEs are just some of the many hazardous chemicals in the apparel manufacturing process that might be interfering with our reproductive organs and immune systems. They can also increase our risk of cancer.
Some chemicals found in clothing are called endocrine disruptors, which can cause interference within our hormone systems. This is especially concerning for children. In those cases, the damage is often irreversible and may not become evident until later in life.
Many hazardous chemicals bio-accumulate in our bodies over our lifetime. Known as our “body burden,” this consists of the stockpile of chemicals in our body at any given moment. We usually carry this burden without any knowledge or idea of where these chemicals came from. Once we are affected, there’s no useful method for reducing body burdens. They can even be passed along to our children.
When shopping, especially while pregnant or for small children, people should consider purchasing clothing from countries with stricter chemical management standards. The European Union, for example, has stricter regulations through its EU REACH program. Pay close attention to the sustainability of brands that sell clothing labeled as anti-wrinkle, anti-microbial, flame resistant or waterproof because these will likely be packed with toxic chemicals. Additionally, keep an eye out for safety certifications like GOTS, OEKO-TEX and CRADLE2CRADLE.
In the United States, no federal regulation (apart from very minor requirements around phthalates, flame retardants, and lead for children) oversees chemicals used in clothing made outside of the country, which accounts for 97% of U.S. purchases. The U.S. is far behind other countries when it comes to banning harmful chemicals. Countries like Canada have banned 457 hazardous chemicals, and the European Union has enforced regulation that bans or restricts 1,328 chemicals. Meanwhile, the U.S. has banned only 11 hazardous chemicals.
Chemicals policy in the U.S. can be made at the federal, state, and local levels. Regulation of chemicals in clothing at the federal level is divided among several agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Substance and Control Act (TSCA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
The Toxic Substances Control Act, updated in 2016 with the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, now requires more chemical oversight and testing around clothing that’s only made in the United States, which constitutes less than 3% of the clothing we wear.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA)
The CPSIA, which is not broad enough, regulates only the levels of phthalates and lead in children’s clothing.
CPSIA On Phthalates – This went into effect in April 2018. The CPSIA Commission permanently banned a variety of phthalates on child care articles, as well as on clothing that contains concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of DINP, DNOP, or DIDP. However, shoes and socks are not considered to be children’s toys or child care articles, so their phthalate content is not regulated. See the Office of the General Counsel’s advisory opinion, which says that a doll’s shoes and socks can be regulated for phthalates, but not a shoe worn by a child.
CPSIA On Lead - Manufacturers have tried to demonstrate to the EPA that certain fabrics — such as cotton, polyester, and acrylic — don’t naturally contain high levels of lead. So according to the law, the EPA does not warrant the expense of testing for lead or phthalates in these materials. However, if these products have “surface coatings,” such as screen prints, coated zippers, and labels, they must not exceed 90 ppm. Decorations and fasteners made of metal, plastic, vinyl, crystal, and coated leather that might contain lead must be tested through a third-party, CPSC-approved laboratory. 16 CFR 1303
CPSIA On Flammability - Flammability requirements exist for all apparel (16 CRF Part 1610). Fabrics are classified into three classes based on their speed of burning. Class 3 textiles are not allowed in clothing because of their ability to catch fire. Certain classes of fabric cannot be used at all in clothing due to its potential for intense burning. There are special flammability requirements for children’s sleepwear, including pajamas, robes, nightgowns, and loungewear for sizes above 9 months to size 14. (See 16 CFR Parts 1615 and 1616.)
Tight fitting garments, as defined by the standards, are exempt from testing requirements because they are less likely to catch on fire. Polyester, acrylic, cotton, and other synthetic fiber pajamas do not need to be regulated because they are naturally flame resistant and meet the flammability requirements. The Flammable Fabrics Act Title 15 regulates clothing that’s not just sold in the U.S., but also imported.
California’s Proposition 65 - This law was enacted in 1986 and states that “no person in the course of doing business shall knowingly and intentionally expose any individual to a chemical known to the State to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving a clear and reasonable warning.” Products containing these chemicals must have a warning label. The state’s list of more than 800 chemicals is updated at least once a year. To learn more, visit our regulation page.
Washington State Children’s Safe Products Act - The Washington State Child Safe Product Act (CPSA) requires apparel companies to report concentrations of 66 substances, down to the component level of children’s apparel and footwear products.
Other States - States with more progressive chemical management regulations include: Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota New York, South Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Fashion FWD advocates for stricter federal laws and regulations that work toward eliminating imported chemicals of high concern that are harmful to human and environmental health. Brands should also be legally required to tell the entire American public — not just California — when potentially harmful chemicals are used in their products.
8,000 is the estimated number of synthetic chemicals used worldwide to turn raw materials into textiles.
Making matters worse, brands struggle to understand the current composition of the chemicals they use because chemical companies are not required under U.S. law to make their formulations public.
Chemical companies often contribute to impurities found in their formulations, which frequently disrupts the attempts of brands to implement higher standards and protocols.
It goes without saying that there’s a clear and critical need for chemical companies to work on innovating their own industry. They must aim to create alternative formulations that can replace harmful chemicals currently on the market. Fashion FWD advocates for chemical companies to join the movement and help us get closer to detoxing the global supply chain.
According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, regulators can do a better job supporting healthy labor practices with tax incentives or by providing direct financial support for worker safety training programs and improvements in factory conditions. They can help by investing in company health services for workers in production companies. The best outcome is if international regulators offered a globally consistent approach, but in the meantime, it is incumbent for the industry to regulate itself.
According to the Detox Campaign, each country where manufacturing takes place should adopt and enforce a comprehensive Manufacturers Restricted Substance List (MRSL) to monitor, phase-out and report on, in order to receive a license to operate.