Bringing a design from the sketch pad to the production lines is a complex process. One of the most important stages during the production part of that process involves the chemicals required to dye, transfer, or finish clothing. However, the chemicals used to create fashion clothing actively concern consumers because of the dangerous effects some of them have on the skin. The textile industry uses nearly 8,000 different chemicals to turn raw materials into clothing that may cause irritation, sensitized skin, or even the penetration of dangerous chemicals into the human body. Indeed, these chemicals not only endanger the consumers who buy clothing but also the workers who make them.
The global fashion industry employs more than 75 million people worldwide. These workers are immediately more vulnerable to chemical exposure because of the toxic ingredients used to produce apparel, shoes, and other fashion accessories. In the United States alone, workers report skin problems/diseases more than any other noninjury health problem, costing more than $1 billion each year.
The concern towards toxic chemicals used in clothing production extends beyond worker safety and consumer well-being. Activists, scientists, and politicians alike worry about certain chemicals used in clothing production that negatively affect the environment. According to a report from the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research, the textile industry is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth and the largest water polluter after agriculture. The report also states that the textile industry discharges millions of gallons of effluent each year, replete with harmful chemicals like formaldehyde (HCHO), chlorine, heavy metals (such as lead and mercury), among others. These chemicals used to bleach or dye during the production process create toxins that infiltrate our ecosystem, resulting in environmental degradation and human illnesses. Thus, it is absolutely critical that fashion brands ensure proper chemical management during the production process to limit environmental degradation, protect the safety of workers involved in the manufacturing process, and reassure consumers of its commitment towards sustainability.
Harmful Chemicals Used in Fashion Production
The textile industry uses a wide range of agents, auxiliaries, and lubricants to provide certain performance features (i.e., process chemicals) and use of end products (known as effect chemicals) to control the transfer of dye during fabric printing, remove impurities from textile fibers, or improve the aesthetic appearance of fabrics, even after long time use. These chemicals function as retardants, auxiliaries, agents, or enzymes during the production process. The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) considersthe following commonly used chemicals harmful to human health and/or the environment:
C8 fluorocarbon products (PFCs) – These chemicals contain residues of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and have been used for water and oil repellent finishes. These chemicals are considered dangerous because they can stay in the environment and the human body for long periods of time. Additionally, studies suggest an increased risk of cancer when exposed to PFCs.
Formaldehyde, contained in major concentrations – Formaldehyde is used to shape easy-care resins, create binders for printing and coating, and make after-fixing agents for dyeing and printing. These processes are essential to the finishing that allows clothing to perform waterproofing effects, achieve flame retardance, or create easy-care fabrics. Because of its excellent preserving properties, this chemical is widely attributed to the “new clothes smell,” but is recognized as a carcinogen (cancer-causing), linked to skin irritation, and may even cause headaches or a sore throat.
Phthalate-based levelling agents – Still sometimes used to dye polyester, phthalates have been linked to health issues like asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development, and male fertility issues.
Aromatic and chlorinated hydrocarbon-based carriers – In apparel and footwear supply chains, these chemicals are mostly known as carriers during the dyeing process of synthetic fibers, particularly polyester and polyester blends. Aromatics and chlorinated hydrocarbon-based carriers can potentially bioaccumulate and bioconcentrate, thus posing a danger to aquatic organisms at certain concentrations. In addition, long-term exposure to these chemicals may increase one’s risk of getting cancer.
Aminoethylethanolamine (AEEA) – AAEA is known as a reactive intermediate, or building block, in fashion production. It is often used as a fabric softener or textile additive and is linked to corrosive behavior on the skin and eyes. More acute health effects of AAEA include blindness, allergic reactions, severe burns, and gastrointestinal irritation.
(For a more exhaustive list on textile manufacturing chemicals, see ChemSec’s guide on the textile process.)
How Do Hazardous Chemicals Sneak In during Fashion Production?
With all the potential dangers linked to the hazardous chemicals used during fashion production, how do such dangerous chemicals sneak into the production process? The issue is likely two-fold:
Transparency – Some have suggested that brands are all talk and no action. According to Green America’s Labor Justice Campaigns Manager, Charlotte Tate, “Brands are great at making big, vague commitments that don’t deliver the implied impact.” Even for brands who apparently make public “steps” towards production transparency, most of these commitments are voluntary, “meaning there are no repercussions if the company does not meet its commitment,” says Tate.
Consumer Unawareness – Consumers increasingly demand more sustainable production practices, but they remain unaware about brands that actually employ proper chemical management. This unawareness stems from brands’ vague, baseless efforts towards sustainability. Consumers do, in fact, dramatically influence a brand’s production decisions, as seen in the case of Forever 21, which declared bankruptcy due to its inability to “invest in its supply chain” (i.e., employ more sustainable supply chain practices). With the strong influencing power consumers possess, fashion brands have the potential to garner the loyalty and trust from consumers if they offer consumers real, substantive production methods that build consumer awareness surrounding the brand’s supply chain.
How to Ensure Proper Chemical Management during Fashion Production
Given the dangers of chemical mismanagement and the potential to garner unswerving consumer loyalty, how should a fashion brand begin ensuring proper chemical management during production?
Understanding Production Control – In order for a fashion brand to effectively strategize chemical management, they should understand the chemicals used to produce textiles. Certain organizations committed to sustainable production can prove an invaluable resource to help with production control. Such organizations include:
bluesign system – bluesign offers support for responsible and transparent production processes, specifically as it relates to chemical management. The organization’s blueXpert tool is designed to help textile mills benchmark the efficiency of wet processing during production.
Ecochain – To better understand a brand’s footprint, Ecochain conducts Life Cycle Assessments to offer important footprint data needed to create measurable changes during production.
Cradle to Cradle – This organization conducts assessments to promote a more circular economy. The material health category in their assessment, specifically, helps designers and producers ensure that products are created with the safest chemicals possible by inventorying, assessing, and optimizing material chemistries.
ZDHC – A multi-stakeholder group, this organization includes partnerships between apparel and footwear brands, retailers, chemical suppliers, textile mills, and service providers to help the fashion industry achieve a zero discharge of hazardous chemicals.
Ensuring Compliance – Real improvements towards using safer chemicals during the production process requires an accountability partnership between a fashion brand and its manufacturer. Such compliance can look like the following:
Sourcing compliant materials from your suppliers – The AFIRM Group suggests brands contact their suppliers and explain that you require their manufactured materials to be compliant with a certain standards that they can access and reference. The aforementioned organizations may be a great starting point to assess which standards to employ and enforce in production. Another method of sourcing compliance may require suppliers to regularly submit a confirmation of material compliance or a test from a third-party laboratory. Furthermore, brands can help manufacturers pay special attention to polyester and polyester-blended textiles because more toxic chemicals like chlorotoluenes and chlorobenzenes are used in dyestuffs to produce these materials.
Sourcing compliant formulations from your chemical suppliers – Like your material supplier, you can inform your chemical suppliers that you require they meet current chemical production standards. The AFIRM Group recommends the ZDHC’s Manufacturing Restricted Substance List to apply standards wherever possible. You can also discuss safer alternatives with your chemical supplier wherever applicable, ones that will serve as proper substitutes for your production needs. Additionally, you should discuss the proper review of chemical properties to ensure the highest standards of using proper protective equipment, storing chemicals, facilitating engineering controls, and properly treating/disposing of chemicals.
And, naturally, compliance means that fashion brands know the nooks and crannies of their production process. With consumers’ frequent demands for sustainable manufacturing and production transparency, brands must stay up to date with how factories produce their designs. It’s not enough for brands to claim ignorance or a hands-off approach towards production because it could result in environmental degradation, worker endangerment, and ultimately, the consumer distrust that could ruin a fashion brand. Proper chemical management continues to be an integral stage in the production process and fashion brands must pay attention.
Frida Plata studied the Humanities at the University of Chicago (MA, 2020). She is currently a Content Marketing Intern at MakersValley. An avid museum-goer, Frida enjoys learning about art and fashion from all over the world.