‘Toxic Threads’ Study Finds High Levels of Dangerous Chemicals in Popular Brands

Findings from the Greenpeace's newly-released report may have many shoppers second-guessing their sartorial picks

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Could products from some of the most well-known fashion brands, such as Calvin Klein and Levi’s, be harmful to our health? That’s what Greenpeace sought to research earlier this year, and findings from the organization’s newly-released report may have many shoppers second-guessing their sartorial picks.

In April, Greenpeace purchased 141 items from 20 global fashion brands across 29 countries; these garments had been manufactured in at least 18 different countries. They tested a collection of jeans, slacks, t-shirts, dresses and underwear, which were all made with both artificial and natural materials. In doing so, they found high levels of cancer-causing phthalates in four garments, while nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were found in 89 garments (63 percent of those tested). Greenpeace is known for its direct action for the environment and anti-nuclear movement, but its arms have recently extended beyond the rain forests and oceans and into the fashion industry. The organization launched the Detox Campaign in July 2011 to combat waterway pollution by various industries. Its findings exposed links between textile manufacturing facilities run by the world’s top clothing brands and toxic water pollution in China.

In its new report, “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up,” Greenpeace identified phthalates and NPEs as problematic contaminants for humans and aquatic animals. Phthalates are often found in the materials used to print images onto clothing and accumulate in waste water surrounding factories, domestic water supply used in washing machines, and landfills that contain discarded clothing. The U.S. has banned it from many garments and children’s toys due to its link to certain cancers and endocrine disruption. NPEs are lethal for aquatic animals and have been shown to affect hormone levels after prolonged exposure.

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The findings strengthened Greenpeace’s indictment of much of the fashion industry for perpetuating unhealthy practices. It published toxin results for Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein and Zara (samples of the latter two contained NPEs at some of the highest concentrations), among others, and linked them to a phenomena called “fast fashion.” This refers to the quick turnaround, short deadlines and, consequently, cut corners that lead to unsafe practices and little oversight that could otherwise decrease use of phtalates and NPEs. Brands such as these maximize profits by manufacturing for 6-8 fashion seasons as opposed to the traditional 2-4. Need-it-now customers purchase items from these frequent collections, which inflates the amount of clothing that is both sold and thrown away.

“Toxic Threads” strongly condemns this practice while praising “engaged detox brands” like H&M for committing to decreasing their toxin use and discharge. It identified G-Star Raw and Levi’s as “partially committed” detox brands, and named detox laggards and villains that have made no outward policy change or commitment to lowering discharge.

The study was unique compared to others conducted by Greenpeace because it looked for a variety of hazardous chemicals within a broad range of fashion clothes, as either components of materials incorporated within the product, or as residues remaining from use within manufacturing processes. Previous studies had only looked at NPEs. Greenpeace described its method as such:

All of the samples were tested for the concentration of NPEs. Garments that were dyed were tested for the presence of carcinogenic amines that are released from certain azo dyes used to dye fabric. The 31 garments bearing a plastisol print were also tested for phthalate esters (commonly referred to as phthalates). In addition, 63 of the products were investigated through a broader non-quantitative chemical screening to identify the presence, as far as possible, of any other hazardous chemicals present within the products.

The Detox Campaign encourages both consumers and manufacturers to reduce hazardous substances in clothing. The report championed solutions like supply chain reforms and the influence of people power—shoppers, they say, should buy fewer new products and when they do buy, should consider selecting second-hand items.