How clean are your clothes?

3rd May 2019

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Sharon Ball

A 2020 target for the elimination of toxic chemicals from the fashion supply chain is fast approaching – how are businesses performing? Catherine Early investigates

Less than a decade ago, when Greenpeace launched its Detox campaign to phase chemicals out of the textiles supply chain, many in the sector complained that this was impossible. However, faced with public anger over revelations that the multicoloured dye and processing effluent spilling into rivers contain chemicals that can damage the health of animals and humans in developing countries, the industry was forced to act.

Eighty brands and suppliers from fashion, sportswear, luxury and outdoor brands are signed up to the campaign's pledge committing them to achieve zero discharges of hazardous chemicals by 2020. Several of these companies, including Adidas, Puma and H&M, have collaborated to establish the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) programme.

This has led to the Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL), a blacklist of substances that are banned by member companies from intentional use in their products, with limits on their concentration as impurities or by-products. Wastewater guidelines have been set to ensure wastewater does not damage the environment and communities, and standards covering chemicals, wastewater, auditing and research have been developed.

Paradigm shift

In a progress update released last year, Greenpeace reported that its campaign had triggered a “paradigm shift“ within the clothing industry. Rated as a “meaningful programme“ by Greenpeace, the ZDHC has 125 member companies, including brands and retailers, manufacturers, chemical companies, mills and testing labs.

“Chemical management is some way from becoming mainstream across the global fashion supply chain“

Eighteen companies are both signed up to the Detox pledge and members of the ZDHC. Eight members have added substances to the MRSL, while H&M, Benetton, Inditex and Fast Retailing, which owns Uniqlo, operate their own blacklists. A further 13 companies that have committed to the 2020 Detox target are not ZDHC members, but have established their own list of restricted substances – which are mostly more ambitious than that of the ZDHC, according to Greenpeace.

However, challenges remain. Although there are some very large companies involved in the ZDHC, they comprise only a segment of the industry. Chemical management is some way from becoming mainstream across the global fashion supply chain.

The parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee recently scrutinised the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry. Its interim report, published in January, lists some very large retailers that have not yet engaged with various sustainability initiatives, such as the ZDHC. They include Amazon UK, online retailer Boohoo Group, JD Sports and Sports Direct.

Eliminating hazardous chemicals is proving difficult for some ZDHC members where other customers are not asking the same from supply chain companies, and there is a risk of cross-contamination if this does not happen, the Greenpeace report states. Sara Berm√∫dez Couto, head of product safety management and environmental sustainability at Esprit, echos concerns about the extent of the initiative's reach. “Not the whole industry is working towards the 2020 target, so it is difficult to ensure all our suppliers fully comply. Implementation is challenging,“ she says.

Pushing on

Kirsten Brodde, Detox campaign project lead at Greenpeace, says that it expects the ZDHC to push its approach towards the whole sector and policymakers. “Its blacklist approach should be spread through Best Environmental Practices (BEPs) and could be embedded in a future producer responsibility regime, as called for recently by the European Parliament,“ she says. “Producing countries like China should adopt bans on hazardous chemicals such as PFCs or alkylphenols.“

Scaling the initiative is one of the ZDHC's goals, says its implementation director Christina Raab. According to her, the number of members grew by 60% in 2018. “We have an engagement model – friends of the ZDHC,“ she says. “These companies have access to the network and the tools.“ The model is being rolled out this year, and some companies are planning to become members over time; companies that are not formally affiliated can use the ZDHC's guidance documents and services.

Another challenge is finding safe alternatives with which to substitute hazardous chemicals. Raab explains that, although there are many safe alternatives whose use can be scaled, there are others where technical properties and quality needs improvement. The MRSL is updated annually to reflect new alternative chemicals as they come to market – but they have to be economically viable and technologically feasible before they are added to the list.

“The 2020 target is now becoming a shifting target because the MRSL has been expanded every year with additional substances,“ she says. “We are tracking progress and of course there are different speeds of implementation, but all the substance groups are making good progress.“ However, she declines to give any specific examples of chemicals that have been removed from use.

Targets in sight

The Detox campaign targets 11 specific chemical groups. Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) have been flagged due to their potential damage to livers and endocrine systems, meaning they can disrupt growth and hormones. They are most widely used by outdoor brands for their water-repellency in waterproof coatings and membranes, as well as for some sportswear products. Greenpeace reports that 72% of companies signed up to the Detox commitment have achieved complete elimination of PFCs, with the remaining companies all making good progress.

However, it found that most brands still detect low levels of PFC contamination in wastewater discharges, since they are continuing to use suppliers that supply brands which are not managing their chemicals. Some brands are trying to solve this problem by sharing suppliers with others that are signed up to the Detox target, Greenpeace says.

Another chemical group highlighted by Greenpeace is alkylphenols/alkylphenol ethoxylates, which are endocrine disruptors and toxic to aquatic life. Despite being the original target of the Detox campaign, eliminating this substance is “still a real challenge“, the organisation says. Cross-contamination from other brands not signed up to Detox could be one cause, but there is also the fact that the little transparent and reliable information from chemical suppliers means the burden on compliance falls onto their clients.

Stefan Seidel, head of corporate sustainability at Puma, reports particular problems involving the lack of information from chemical companies. “This needs not only transparency in the inventories of our supply chain, but also proof of conformity with the MRSL standard. The ZDHC is addressing this through its gateway, but is not fully functional yet.“

The gateway is a reporting function on the organisation's website that aims to help companies in sourcing safe chemicals. Chemicals that are being used in the sector are listed, along with their safer alternatives. Chemical companies upload their formulations onto the platform, and these are assessed in terms of their conformity with the MRSL, Raab explains. Supply chain companies can then analyse how their chemical inventory compares, and tell customers. There are around 15,000 chemical products listed so far.

A second database allows production facilities to upload the results of wastewater tests, which all brands and retailers can use to assess suppliers' compliance. A public disclosure portal shows which facilities conform with the ZDHC's wastewater guidelines, and which are undergoing corrective action.

Companies can also undertake their own compliance audits. A spokeswoman for H&M says that the company has had a list of restricted chemicals since 1995. All suppliers and business partners of the group are contractually bound to comply with this list, and the company performs regular tests, mainly in third-party labs. In 2017, more then 58,000 such tests were conducted, according to the spokeswoman.

“New business models should be adopted, favouring longevity, quality and reparability of clothes“

The wider problem

However, even if all these problems are ironed out and elimination of problem chemicals becomes mainstream, the root cause of the fashion industry's problems – that of encouraging overconsumption – will remain. “New business models should be adopted, favouring longevity, quality and reparability of clothes, and service-based business,“ says Brodde.

With consumption of clothing projected to rise by 63% to 102m tonnes by 2030, the transformation needed will need to be nothing less than radical. A 2017 report by the Boston Consulting Group warned that if the industry fails to act on its environmental and social sustainability impact, rising costs, from labour to materials and energy, will intensify “to the point of threatening industry growth itself“ by 2030.

Viscose: could it be the sustainable solution?

Viscose is the world's third most commonly-used fibre and, being derived from wood pulp, has the potential to be a sustainable alternative to oil-derived synthetics and water-hungry cotton, according to campaign group Changing Markets.

However, many viscose manufacturers have yet to adopt responsible production methods. An investigation by the organisation in 2017 found firms dumping toxic wastewater in lakes and waterways, destroying subsistence agriculture and fisheries across India, Indonesia and China, and affecting the health of nearby communities, which lacked access to clean water and suffered sickening smells and higher incidence of diseases such as cancer.

In response, eight major brands and retailers – Inditex, ASOS, H&M, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Esprit, C&A and Next – have signed up to Changing Market's Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing.

“These brands are sending a message to manufacturers that they expect them to move to sustainable production or they will take their business elsewhere,“ says Urska Trunk, Changing Markets campaign advisor. Two of the biggest viscose manufacturers – Austria's Lenzing and India's Aditya Birla – have each committed to invest over ‚Ǩ100m to transform their production to a closed-loop system that meets EU Best Available Techniques standard, and will not emit dangerous chemicals.

“Around 10 manufacturers represent 70% of the global viscose supply, so there is great potential if these manufacturers move to sustainable processes,“ says Trunk. However, she believes that brands and retailers will have to keep the pressure on these companies to ensure they carry out their commitments.

Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers – which operate 63% of the market – have developed the Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose. However, in a report in November, Changing Markets outlined flaws in this initiative. It does not oblige members to achieve the highest level of production standard, despite it being recommended by the Chinese government.

It also allows members to pick and choose from a selection of certification standards and industry self-assessment, all deemed by campaigners to lack ambition. In addition, there is no publicly-available information about how the roadmap will be enforced, monitored and verified, Changing Markets says.

“In its current format, brands and retailers should not consider membership of the CV initiative and commitment to the CV Roadmap as proof of good environmental performance,“ Trunk concludes.

Read Changing Markets' report 'Dirty Fashion: Spotlight on China'

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist

Further reading

  • Read Greenpeace's report 'Destination Zero – Seven Years of Detoxing the Clothing Industry' at
  • Find the Environmental Audit Committee's report 'Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability' at
  • The Boston Consulting Group's report 'Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017' is at

Image credit: iStock/ Alarmy/ Getty


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