Take Off That Toxic T-Shirt: Global Fashion Industry Is an Eco-Killer

An investigation by Greenpeace found toxins in the clothing produced by 20 global fashion companies, including Calvin Klein and H&M.

To protest against hazardous chemicals in clothing, a French Greenpeace International NGO activist wears a mask reading 'Detox Time' during a demonstration in front of fashion store Zara, on November 24, 2012, in Nice, southeastern France. (Photo: Valery Hache/Getty)

The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

What do GAP, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, and H&M have in common?

Aside from being top global clothing retailers, these companies have the dubious distinction of selling products that are full of toxins, according to a recent Greenpeace International report. 

Greenpeace investigated hazardous chemicals in low-cost clothing by purchasing 141 garments from stores in 29 different countries and testing them for toxic substances. Over the course of their investigation, the organization found toxins in clothing made by 20 global fashion companies, including Zara, Levi’s, Mango, Calvin Klein and H&M.

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The chemicals Greenpeace identified in their report “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up” included high levels of phthalates in four of the garments, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) in 89 articles of clothing, and “cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes” in two of the garments. Other potentially hazardous industrial chemicals were found across a number of products tested. 

While wearing clothes associated with these brands is unlikely to cause any direct illness or injury, Greenpeace says chemicals like phthalates enter public waterways when clothes are washed by their owners across the globe, or when clothing factories discharge wastewater that contains phthalates and NPEs.

An earlier Greenpeace investigation found that two textile manufacturers in China were dumping NPEs and other hazardous substances into nearby rivers.

NPEs were once commonly used in laundry detergents, and still persist in waterways as a result, where they are highly toxic to aquatic organisms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has written that NPEs affect reproduction and development in rats, and that they pose a potential risk to human health.

A recent study conducted by the U.K. Environmental Agency found that 99 percent of NPE residue in clothes came out after just two washes, and that imported clothes could be a large potential source of pollution in local rivers.

Greenpeace admits that the data from their investigation presents only a “snapshot” of clothing manufacturing around the globe. “But if they are typical for textiles, [chemical] releases of this type will be distributed across the globe via a large proportion of the billions of articles of clothing sold every year,” the report states.

The good news is that clothing companies are responding. 

In December, Levi’s committed to “zero discharges of hazardous chemicals.” Levi’s, the world’s largest denim brand, is the same company that brought us those world-changing bluejeans back in 1873. By mid-2013, Levi’s will require its manufacturers in Mexico and China to disclose their pollution data. At the very least, this will allow people living near Levi factories to assess levels of toxins in their watersheds. 

Zara, the world’s largest fashion retailer, has also promised to go toxic-free by 2020. The chain agreed to roll up its sleeves and start the process of eliminating chemicals from its manufacturing process next year.

In the meantime, Greenpeace is encouraging consumers to get involved in raising awareness about the high cost of pollution associated with global fashion. 

“We know brands like Calvin Klein, GAP and Victoria’s Secret monitor social media as closely as they monitor traditional media, and every time you like, share, comment on, or promote this video, it increases the pressure on these companies to change their ways,” Greenpeace campaigners wrote in a press release.

The fashion industry has a lot of cleaning up to do. But toxic clothing has clearly hit a very public nerve. Over 300,000 people have signed up to support the Detox Campaign and demand that companies get rid of toxics—or at the very least, air their dirty laundry. 

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