Being fashionable comes at a cost. Toxic materials are endangering the environment and putting human lives at risk. It’s a scary reality that we can no longer ignore.
When we learned about the hazardous chemicals used to make our clothing, our initial reaction was: “How can this happen?”
After all, aren’t there standards and regulations in place to ensure that consumers are protected? What’s the government’s role in this? What about the clothing brands? Who is holding chemical manufacturers responsible for not reporting chemicals that are hazardous to human health?
As we dug into the issue, we realized the extent of the problem. The clothing we purchase isn’t just potentially harmful to people – it also destroys the environment. And tragically, the workers who make our clothes aren’t living as long because of exposure to these same toxic chemicals.
Think about your morning routine. You wake up, shower, brush your teeth, and stand in front of your closet to figure out what to wear. But how often do you take a step back to consider what those clothes are really made of? The sad truth is that most of us know next to nothing about the dozens of toxic chemicals lurking within our everyday clothing.
Once upon a time, people believed that “the dose made the poison.” Now, we understand that for certain chemicals, that is just plain wrong. Even small amounts of exposure, which can bio-accumulate over time, can be potentially harmful. Lead poisoning among young children is a common example – seemingly tiny amounts of lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system.
Phthalates, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), bleaches, acids, dyes, antimony, nonylphenols (NPEs), resins, biocides and flame retardants are just some of the many toxic chemicals used in the apparel manufacturing process. These can remain in our clothing when the items reach store shelves.
For instance, NPEs are typically used in dyes and detergents, and PFCs/PFAs are used for waterproofing. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors, aka known hormone disruptors, which can lead to hormone imbalances that cause tumors. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that is definitely not a good thing for consumers.
When a recent Greenpeace report tested apparel from 20 major retailers, what they discovered wasn’t pretty. The organization found that 63% of the clothing tested had hazardous levels of chemicals.
That makes us wonder: What, exactly, happens when you throw on a pair of leggings and a sports bra before heading out for a run or going to a yoga class? You probably don’t consider how your body’s heat and sweat opens up tour pores, which then accelerates the absorption of chemical residue into your skin. And since some chemicals bio-accumulate, they can build up in your system and potentially be passed on to your children. Other chemicals can interfere with your reproductive organs and immune systems, and have been shown to increase the risk of cancer.
Just how bad is fashion for the planet? Bad...really bad. After the oil and gas industry, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter of freshwater resources on Earth.
It’s doesn’t help that fashion has a long and complicated supply chain. Let’s start with the agricultural component. Cotton, for instance, is the world’s single largest pesticide-consuming crop. It uses 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally, which negatively affects farmers, soil and waterways.
A quarter of the chemicals produced in the world are used to manufacture textiles. Many factories do not have adequate wastewater treatment facilities. When water is discharged, wastewater flows unfiltered into local waterways. This wastewater often contains toxic dyes, bleach detergents and harmful chemicals, such as mercury, lead, arsenic, among many others. These wind up flowing downstream and into our oceans.
Unquestionably, manufacturing materials wreak havoc on the environment. Polyester, for instance, requires absurdly large amounts of oil to produce – 70 million barrels each year. It’s become the most commonly used fiber in our clothing, but it takes more than 200 years to decompose. Cheap synthetic fibers also emit greenhouse gasses like nitrous oxide (N2O), which is 300 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2). Rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell cause deforestation – more than 70 million trees are destroyed each year during production of these fabrics.
And don’t forget: When you wash your clothes, microfibers shed from your synthetic clothing and make their way into the water supply. These tiny particles account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores, threatening marine wildlife and ending up inside the sea foods we consume.
The people who make our clothes already face challenging work conditions and are often subjected to unfair labor practices like low wages, long hours, and being prevented from forming unions. Many textile employees encounter the dangerous chemicals listed above on a daily basis. Whether it’s farming, fiber and yarn production, pre-treatment, dyeing, printing, finishing or transport preparation, each of these stages requires some type of chemical treatment.
According to this Boston Consulting Group report, the use of chemicals is one of the areas with the lowest transparency throughout the value chain, particularly in processing. At the farming level, it’s equally dangerous. Growing conventional cotton, for example, is an intense chemical process. It accounts for 25% of insecticide use worldwide, and cotton farmers can die prematurely from regular exposure to toxic chemicals.