Understanding Textile Chemicals: Using Knowledge to Protect People and the Environment
Clothing and footwear should be practical, durable, stylish, and comfortable.
While textile fibers can irritate the wearer, the most common cause of skin irritation relating to clothing is the chemicals that are used in the production of the garment. As the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) publishes a study looking at skin allergies and irritations caused by clothing and footwear, we consider how manufacturers can best protect their customers and their businesses from the damaging effects of chemicals.
Hazardous chemicals used in the manufacture of textiles not only cause irritation to consumers, they also pollute the environment. When we think of industries that pollute, we think of power stations, oil refineries and strip-mines, but we do not normally think about the clothes we wear. In fact, we should. High-end clothing retailer Eileen Fisher has stated the “clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world.”1 Two examples of places were pollution from the textile industry has affected the environment and local communities are the Citarum River, in Indonesia2, and the city of Xintang, in China.3 In the latter example, pollution from denim manufacturing is now so bad it is said people won’t even accept a free house to move to the area.
The recent study by ANSES – “Footwear and textile clothing: consumers need better protection from the risks of skin allergies and irritation” – highlights some of the ways in which the textile industry can move forward.4 In addition to looking at causes of irritation and the report also contains recommendations for how authorities can improve the industry. These include:
- Maintaining pressure on footwear and textile clothing manufacturers by ensuring articles that do not comply with regulation regarding chemicals are not allowed onto the market
- Revising the regulatory threshold for chromium VI in leather articles
- Setting a regulatory threshold for nickel in textiles
- For non-regulated substances identified as responsible for skin allergies, include a classification for "skin sensitizer and/or irritant" in the framework of Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 on classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures (the CLP Regulation)
More pertinently, the report also recommends that retailers should ascertain from their suppliers, before an article of clothing or footwear is placed on the market, that it is free from carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic (CMR) substances, and/or skin sensitizing and irritating substances. The report suggests better knowledge of chemical usage will reduce the occurrences of skin allergies and, it can be surmised, the same approach will also help to reduce the environmental impact of textile production.
The textile industry is one of the most chemical-intensive industries in the world. Global textile production is estimated to use around 9.3 million metric tons of chemicals a year, and many of these chemicals will end up in the garments or footwear, either for design or functionality. In addition, when these chemicals are used inappropriately they represent a serious environmental concern.
Rapid growth in the sector over the last few decades has led to long supply chains, with retailers and suppliers often unsure of the full extent of the number of economic operators in them. Too often, the result has been more important than the method, with retailers and suppliers relying upon the advice of their chemical suppliers, rather than gaining the necessary technical understanding to control the flow of chemicals themselves. With supply chains expanding, the necessary oversight became unfeasible for many brands, making it impossible for them to trace the origin of the chemicals being inputted into their supply chain. It has therefore become impractical for them to affect real change in their supply chains and reduce the use of harmful chemicals.
That does not mean demand for change is not there. Consumers are increasingly demanding products that respect the environment and the living conditions of those that make them. In addition, several brands are now demanding more sustainable and environmentally-friendly manufacturing practices.
Obviously, a balance has to be struck between running a profitable business, protecting the environment, and ensuring consumers are not irritated by the chemicals left in the products. To achieve this, suppliers need to be proactive and look at what chemicals are entering their supply chains, rather than reacting once the chemicals are already in the supply chain.
Brands, retailers and suppliers need to reverse the trend for comfortable ignorance that has developed over the last few decades and improve their understanding of the chemicals being utilized in their supply chains. Knowledge is the key to the effective control of hazardous substances and the benefits for the business are multiple: reduced risk of non-compliance with market regulations, improved reputations from reduced pollution and better living conditions for workers, better protection of consumers from skin allergies and irritations.
To better understand production and improve the system, technical expertise should be gained in the following areas:
- Chemical Knowledge
- Water Management
By better understanding the production processes and chemicals used in the production of garments and footwear, suppliers will be able to create more efficient systems and reduce the level of wastage, including hazardous chemicals.
In addition, suppliers can help reduce the use of hazardous chemicals and restricted substances by directly managing chemical sourcing. This will ensure:
- Supply chain operatives only buy chemicals that do not contain restricted substances
- They use chemicals properly to avoid waste due to improper formulations
- Correct storage of chemicals
- Chemicals are discarded properly
Knowledge is the key. With better understanding of how to correctly handle chemicals, there will be a reduction in their accumulation in the environment, helping to protect local citizens and wildlife.
Finally, improving water management will significantly improve the environmental footprint of an organization. It should be acknowledged that the textile industry is heavily dependent on water – a simple tee shirt will use around well over thousand liters of water in its manufacture, once the cotton has been prepared, spun, weaved, and dyed. Effective management will not only help reduce the amount of chemicals being discarded into the environment, but it will also reduce the overall levels of water usage. Monitoring water and waste will help businesses reduce costs and ensure they are compliant with local regulations. If retailers begin to insist on partner factories adhering to more stringent values, they also find this brings added value to both the local populations and the brand.
Brands, retailers and manufacturers need to be committed to putting quality and safe products onto the market. The key to ensuring a product is safe for the consumer, compliant with relevant regulations, and not harmful to the environment and communities in which it is manufactured, is knowledge. Better understanding of the processes and chemicals involved in the production of footwear and textiles will result in lower levels of waste, improved efficiencies, more cost-effective methods of production, and better profit margins.
SGS provides a range of services, including hazardous substances control workshops, to help suppliers understand the chemicals being utilized in their supply chains. As regulatory authorities begin to focus more and more on the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals on consumers and on their effect on the environment, we can provide companies with the right knowledge to remain compliant, maintain competitive advantage, and build better reputations.
For more information, please contact:Boris Pigeon
International Business Development Manager
Global Softlines – France and Spain
t: +34 93 295 75 08
Sources1 The Fashion Industry Tries to Take Responsibility for Its Pollution
2 Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil
3 The Denim Capital of the World: So Polluted You Can’t Give the Houses Away
4 Footwear and Textile Clothing: Consumers Need Better Protection from the Risks of Skin Allergies and Irritation