Your Clothes Could Be Toxic. Fashion Urgently Needs To Address This

There were some spectacular failures. A pair of gloves from a major fashion brand contained significantly more chromium (III) – a chemical that with direct exposure can cause serious skin and respiratory irritation – than is allowed under the Oeko-​Tex label, as well as nickel and the hormone disruptor NPEO. Meanwhile, a pair of pungent plastic orange heels from a big footwear brand contained formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic, and two solvents: DMAc and DMF. Both of the latter may be harmful to our reproductive systems. Though each chemical individually was under the fashion industry’s voluntary limit for safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “DMF is known to increase the absorption of some substances.” That is, it could interact with other toxic chemicals to make your exposure worse. Meanwhile, a university T-shirt had excessive levels of alkyl phenols, which is known to be toxic, in its gold print.

I’m not the only one that has been testing and finding alarming chemicals in our clothing. Just a week after I got my results, a report came out from the Silent Spring Institute showing that 18 per cent of the children’s products it tested, including those labelled as stain resistant, water resistant, and even “nontoxic” and “eco-​friendly”, contained carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. The period pants brand Thinx recently settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit stemming from tests showing high levels of PFAS as well. While the EU had been considering banning thousands of hazardous substances, including forever chemicals, in consumer products, in early July news leaked that it was backing off under pressure from the chemical industry.

There’s more. The Center for Environmental Health in California has found high levels of the hormone-disruptor BPA in socks and sports bras sold by dozens of global fashion brands. Meanwhile, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tested 38 pieces of children’s clothing tested from ultra-​fast-​fashion brands including Shein, and found that one in five had elevated levels of toxic chemicals like lead (often used in dyes and paints to brighten them), PFAS (used for stain and water repellancy), and phthalates (potent hormone-disrupting chemicals used to make plastics pliable).

There are some brands in the fashion industry that have put in work to get toxic chemicals out of their products. ZDHC (short for Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) was founded in 2011 as an industry group of large brands dedicated to cleaning up fashion by specifying what chemicals are not allowed to be used in the supply chain. It now includes 60 participating fashion brands, including ASOS, Primark, and Burberry.

But just a cursory glance will show you that proper chemical management – which requires more expensive safe chemistry and certifications, plus strong relationships with suppliers – is not the norm. According to Fashion Revolution’s 2023 Transparency Index, only half of the 250 largest fashion brands publish a restricted substance list, the very first (and easiest) step toward managing the use of toxic substances in a brand’s supply chain. It’s not just a fast fashion problem, either. A number of luxury brands are also doing close to nothing to tackle chemical safety.

Considering the intimate relationship we have with our clothes, this is shocking. But given the total lack of transparency from the industry (clothing does not come with an ingredient list after all) consumers have no way to protect themselves from toxic fashion.

The demand is simple: let’s get rid of all the harmful chemicals in our clothes, and urgently. It really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick by Alden Wicker is published by Putnam, hardback £25.


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