Have you ever wondered how your wrinkle-resistant dress shirt remains wrinkle-free, how your waterproof jacket keeps you dry during a light drizzle, and how your stain-resistant shirt keeps you clean after an accidental coffee spill? Well, there is a reason these features work, and learning about them, which ones are commonly used, what their effects are on the body, and which ones to avoid if possible, will give you an insight into the fashion industry and today’s topic: toxic chemicals used in clothing.
“Modern clothing is often formulated and treated with compounds that help soften them or prevent them from getting stained, wrinkled, or soggy. Those same compounds have been linked to adverse health effects such as skin irritation, developmental issues, and even cancer.” – Aria Bendix, Insider
Shockingly, “an estimate of over 8000 synthetic chemicals are used in the fashion manufacturing process,” with traces of toxic chemicals found in t-shirts, jeans, raincoats, artificial leather, and so on. You might be wondering, If there is a risk of health issues developing from these chemicals, why are so many of these chemicals still used in the clothes we put on our bodies everyday? That is because each and every one of these chemicals serve a purpose and add special features that become the selling point of an item. And, it works, because consumers like you and me are attracted to specific functions that fit our needs and make our lives easier, helps us look better, and thus feel better.
The side that brands don’t show us, is what goes on behind the scenes – the befores and afters of a clothing’s life – and the chemicals that are being infused into the fabrics for their maximum performance. As consumers, we’re rarely informed by the brand on how their clothes are made, what goes into the yarns and fabrics, and the conditions in which they are made in. All we know and see is the finished product in stores, ready to be purchased and put on our bodies.
Once we zoom out and look at the big picture, we will begin to realize the multitude of negative impacts these toxic chemicals have on us and our planet. At every stage of a clothing’s lifespan, these chemicals are causing harm to something or someone, beginning with workers across the supply chain that are in charge of handling garments. As Compare Ethics explains, “to understand the impact of the toxicity in the fashion industry, we need to consider the workers across the supply chain who are responsible for treating, dying and producing our garments. These workers are often exposed to hazardous substances without adequate health and safety protection.”
One of the most commonly known and used chemicals in the textile industry is AZO dyes, accounting for more than 50% of textile production every year. Apart from being used to dye textiles, AZO dyes are also used to soften leather, rubber, and PVC, and in waterproof or flame-resistant coatings. Studies on workers handling AZO dyes show that these chemicals can cause skin allergies and rashes, organ damage, and even bladder cancer.
Other harmful chemicals that are often used in the fashion industry for purposes such as water-resistance, crease-resistance, anti-odour, and stain-resistance include: Perfluorinated and Polyfluorinated chemicals (PFC), Formaldehyde, Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), Phthalates, lead, and mental. Many of these chemicals have been found to be associated with respiratory issues, infertility, skin irritation, cancer, disruption in hormone levels, kidney disease, nausea, and many more. Although the effects of these chemicals on our bodies vary from person to person, and in most cases, low levels of such chemicals don’t pose any significant health risk to the average person, prolonged exposure can still be harmful and cause lasting damages to our health and wellbeing.
Health impacts aren’t the only problem when it comes to these toxic chemicals in clothing. All the chemicals used in the processing of textiles cause large amounts of damage to our natural environment. Studies show that close to 25% of global chemical output, and an estimated 20% of water pollution comes from the textile industry. In Asia, 70% of its rivers and lakes are shown to have been contaminated by more than 2.5 billion gallons of waste water from that country’s textile and dye industry. These toxic chemicals end up in the air and in the water, which then negatively impacts humans and animal ecosystems. While some chemicals may not cause much harm to humans, they can very much be damaging to the environment, the habitat of wildlife.
So, what can we do? How do we avoid toxic chemicals in our clothing? What can consumers do to make a difference? What changes can brands and manufacturers implement to protect our planet?
On a consumer level, it is crucial to stay informed and do our own research into the brands we buy from, where they source their materials, what types of materials and chemicals are being used, do they meet any certified standards, and in what conditions they are produced in. Transparency is important, and there are many questions we can ask ourselves and brands, to better understand the clothes that we put on our bodies.
There are new technology and materials that are being researched and developed everyday. And if we do our research before making a purchase, we can actively choose to go for clothing that use more natural and safe materials instead of toxic chemicals. While we can try to find out as much as we can on a brand and their manufacturing process, there is a limited amount of information we can find depending on how much the brand wants consumers to know. Therefore, it’s important to create a habit of doing our research, and always making sure we wash our clothes properly, especially when they are newly bought.
As for brands and manufacturers, there are also several ways and safer alternatives out there that are less harmful to people, animals, and the environment. As we collectively become more health and environmentally conscious, realizing the devastating effects of climate change on our planet and the immediate action we must take, new technology and research are constantly being developed. An example of this is test institutes like Oeko-Tex, Bluesign, and REACH that test and provide certification standards, making sure that materials, dyes, and fabrics are safe to use and wear. Other ways brands can make a difference is by working with suppliers that use safer materials over toxic ones, and making the effort to check for sustainable resources and alternatives as well as proper handling of chemicals in the supply chain. As a big part of circular economy is reusing and upcycling used materials into new ones, companies can help our planet greatly by considering the end-life of a product and how it can be given a new life instead of becoming waste that sits in landfills.
Here at Koup, as a brand, we’ve seen and taken part in every step of the manufacturing process, noting how the fast fashion industry works in a linear economy model that produces tonnes of textile waste and pollution without taking into consideration how to deal with the consequences. That’s why as a brand, with sustainability and eco-friendliness as our core values, we’ve adopted a circular economy model that allows for materials to be renewed and regenerated. This way we can close the loop, reduce waste reproduction, save resources, and extend the lifespan of each product.
When it comes to the performance of our clothing, our products stand strong without the use of toxic chemicals. We’ve opted for cinnamon as a natural antimicrobial agent and a customized yarn with a special cross-section that promotes capillary action. Furthermore, our yarns and fabrics are also made from 100% recycled polyester to help reduce plastic waste. As previously mentioned, much of the toxic chemicals are contained within dyes. To ensure that our fabrics are safe to wear and minimize the harm to the environment, our materials and yarn supplier is Oeko-Tex standard compliant and Bluesign approved, making sure we minimize our environmental footprint and create products that won’t harm us and our earth.
To sum up, toxic chemicals have been used and found in the fashion and textile industry for a long, long time. Although these chemicals are originally added with a purpose and function, they have also been linked to health risks, ranging from minor rashes to cancer, and are an undeniable part of climate change. Brands and consumers can both take part in creating change and improving our lifestyle as well as restoring our environment. By being conscious and staying informed, you are helping yourself, those around you, and our planet altogether. Your health and wellbeing matters, and only in good health can we take action to save our earth that needs us now more than ever.