It’s no secret that our food, beauty products, and household items from air fresheners to cleaners can contain proven or potentially hazardous ingredients.
But what about our clothing: are there harmful chemicals in the clothes that we wear every single day? Research suggests so.
From flame retardants to stain-resistant coatings, there are thousands of chemicals used throughout the various stages of the apparel supply chain.
According to the Danish EPA, It takes 10 to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce fabric.
And yes, that includes natural fabrics. In fact, a 2004 study found that a cotton textile can contain over 20% synthetic chemicals by weight.
While the exact number of chemicals used in the textile industry isn’t clear (some estimates put it as high as 8,000), this much is clear: the textile industry is a major user of toxic chemicals and a significant contributor to global freshwater pollution.
The Impact of Toxic Chemicals in Textiles
While not all chemicals used are necessarily toxic or harmful, the Swedish Chemical Agency found that 10% of the 2,400 textile-related substances studied were a “potential hazard to human health” and 5% were considered a hazard to the environment.
The agency also warned that the textile industry does not have a complete overview of the hazardous substances that may be in their products. In other words: brands may not even know if their products contain toxic chemicals. Which may be the most concerning takeaway.
Worker & Consumer Safety
Fibre2Fashion reported that workers in the textile industry are exposed to formaldehyde, highly toxic carcinogenic flame retardants like organophosphorus and organobromine compounds, and antimicrobial agents.
Long-term exposure to these chemicals can cause symptoms including loss of memory, loss of appetite, disorientation, depression, nausea and vomiting, personality changes, skin, lung, and eye irritation, and higher risks of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Specifically, studies have actually found correlations between oesophageal cancer, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer and having an occupation in the textile industry.
Dyes are one of the major sources of toxic chemical exposure. Azo dyes make up over two thirds of all synthetic dyes, many of which “show carcinogenic and mutagenic activity” and can cause allergic reactions.
The impact that these chemicals have on the environment are just as severe.
The documentary RiverBlue reported that over in the world’s largest garment producing country, China, about 70% of rivers are polluted.
An investigation by Greenpeace that tested the discharge of two industrial zones in China where a high proportion of textile manufacturers were located found a range of toxic chemicals. These included PFOA (bioaccumulative toxic chemical), chlorinated anilines (used for dyes, suspected carcinogens), nitrobenzene (carcinogenic), and several other hazardous chemicals.
In Bangladesh – the second largest garment exporter — three rivers in the country’s capital (Dhaka) have been declared biologically dead because of the effluent of nearby garment factories.
And these harmful impacts follow wherever fashion production moves next.
A recent report by Water Witness International found that garment factories are dyeing Africa’s rivers and have “turned them as alkaline as bleach.” (One river tested in Tanzania tested a pH of 12, which is the same pH level as bleach).
The impacts of these toxic chemicals are strongest in textile production areas and pose a serious threat to textile workers and their communities.
But the impact doesn’t end there.
Wearers of clothing (i.e. every single one of us) are also impacted. Our skin is our largest organ, as the clean beauty industry often reminds us. But it’s not just skincare products that get absorbed — contaminants from textiles can be transferred to our skin.
And new research is showing that indoor textiles, from carpeting to clothing, are a potentially larger source of PFAS exposure than previously thought. PFAS are toxic forever chemicals linked to health problems like cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, liver disease, and thyroid disease.
In short: the toxicity of our clothing should not be underestimated.[Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by OEKO-TEX®. As always, we only partner with brands and companies we truly believe in and that we think you’ll find value in! All information above was gathered through independent research and was not provided by OEKO-TEX®.]
So What Can We Do?
The textile supply chain is global and complex, and every country has its own set of regulations on chemical use — and levels of enforcement.
Not to mention, it’s challenging to know which brands you can trust in a sea of buzzwords, eco collections, and clever taglines.
So what’s a concerned and conscious consumer to do?
Prioritizing natural fibers is often the next step people take and it’s certainly a great move in the right direction.
But while it would be nice if we could assume that all clothing and other textiles made from natural fibers like cotton or linen were free of hazardous chemicals, it isn’t so simple, unfortunately!
Even garments made with organically grown fibers may not necessarily be free from harmful substances after they’re treated, dyed, and finished.
So, how can we actually tell if our garment has been tested for toxic chemicals? After all, we already established that sometimes brands don’t know that there are hazardous substances on the clothes they’re selling.
Certainly, government regulations on toxic chemicals are essential and important to advocate for. (REACH, a regulation from the European Union, goes further than virtually any other chemical regulation that exists currently.)
In the meantime though, how can we have more assurances for the clothes we are buying now?
Well, this is something that credible certifications can help us out with! Trusted and independent (i.e. a non brand-funded organization) can be an added verification or first step to identifying if a product is safer and more sustainable.They can also help us tell if an item is as sustainable as it is marketed to be.
There are a number of different certifications related to fashion and textiles, which makes it confusing to know which ones are credible. But OEKO-TEX®, founded nearly 30 years ago, is a leading reputable and independent international textile certification body that tests for harmful substances.
OEKO-TEX®’s STANDARD 100 label has been around since the company’s beginning decades ago. Textiles with this label were thoroughly tested — including not just the fabrics but the components like buttons — for harmful substances to ensure the item is not toxic to human health.
Another important label to know is MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX®, which is more comprehensive and signals that a product is tested for safety, sustainability, and fair working conditions for the people who produced it.
About the MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® Label
This label from OEKO-TEX® ensures that an article not only is tested for harmful substances, but also that the garment or other textile product was made in environmentally friendly facilities, produced in safe, socially responsible workplaces, and that the product was made in a traceable supply chain.
A label verifying for product safety, transparency, social responsibility and environmental friendliness is a big task so let’s break down how exactly the MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® label process works.
Consumer and Product Health
The MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® label tests for harmful substances in accordance with STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® (textiles) or LEATHER STANDARD by OEKO-TEX® labels.
In the by OEKO-TEX® certifying process, the item is tested for both regulated and non-regulated harmful substances to ensure that they meet the criteria set by OEKO-TEX®.
The STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® criteria are the same globally no matter where an item is produced. STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® meets or exceeds the legal requirements in the production country. This criteria catalog is updated at least once per year to take the latest scientific knowledge or legal requirements into account.
Unlike a fabric certification, STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® considers every element of a garment or other textile item. Each component and ingredient is tested — including the threads, buttons, linings, zippers, prints, and coatings — before an item can carry the STANDARD 100 label.
The tests are conducted by independent OEKO-TEX® testing and research institutes located . These institutes are also the ones that determine if a certificate can be issued to an article.
If you see a product that says it’s been certified by OEKO-TEX® but you want to verify it, you can always enter the label number to confirm. We’ll talk more about that tool later!
Environmentally and Socially Responsible Production
As outlined above, the use of hazardous substances not only impacts consumer health, but has a large impact on textile workers and a direct impact on the surrounding environment too.
So, using safe substances in textile production is already a major benefit for people and the planet, but there are other considerations for the MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® label as well to vet for environmental friendliness and social responsibility.
Environmental specifics include:
- Sustainable management of wastewater, such as setting limit values for wastewater and reduction in water usage
- Responsibly handling emissions, such as making efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of production
- Protection of resources, such as using renewable energy and best available technology
- Proper waste management, such as recycling textile waste
Social responsibility specifics include:
- Reasonable working hours and fair wages
- Worker safety, such as building safety, protective equipment, and fire prevention
- Health protection, which tests working conditions for issues like dust, heat, and noise
- Prohibition of forced labor or child labor
These criteria are vetted to ensure that brand claims are actually verified through independent testing and auditing.
Transparency and Traceability
Potentially the most exciting aspect of the MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® label is the level of transparency.
It’s far from easy for an individual outside of the industry to understand complex information about apparel supply chains. Even those in the industry may not fully understand it!
There are many approaches and no singular “silver bullet solution” to more transparent supply chains or to identifying responsible supply chains as a consumer. But simple-to-use tools like OEKO-TEX®’s label check tool can be an important resource to get started.
Essentially, this label check tool allows you to trace the supply chains of products with the MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® certification.
Here’s exactly how it works:
1) Go to oeko-tex.com and enter in the number found on the product’s tag. OR Scan the QR code on the product’s tag.
2) You can then check out the supply chain of the product using the map feature. For more details, you can click on the icons to learn about each step of the supply chain of the product.
What’s different about this supply chain tracking feature than information you might find on a brand’s website is that it’s easy to understand and it’s been independently verified by a trusted certifying body, making it more credible information.
It’s certainly exciting to see a transparent label for fashion that considers health & safety, sustainability, and social responsibility that can help us cut through the noise — and sort through the greenwashing!
Which brands would you like to see carry products with MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX® labels?