Behind the Seams: Toxic Fashion

In light of the increasing awareness of toxins used in textile production, consumers may want to think twice before they make their next purchase. Not only is textile production energy intensive and a culprit of massive waste production, but it also poses a direct threat to the health and well-being of people worldwide.

Fashion VictimThat “new clothes smell”? It comes from harmful chemicals used in the production process. The procedures of sizing, dyeing and/or bleaching fabrics, and fabric finishing all use hazardous chemicals that often go untested. Many textile manufacturers use dyes that release amines such as benzidine and toulidine. Dye-bath effluents (out-flowing of water or gas from natural bodies of water) often contain heavy metals, ammonia, alkalai salts and toxic solids. In addition, about 40 percent of globally used color agents contain organically bound chlorine, which is a known carcinogen. Chlorine bleach is known to be toxic for consumers as well as the environment but it is still often used to bleach fabrics. (Textile Industry Poses Environmental Hazards)

Though there may be alternatives to how fabrics in the production process are treated, there is the problem of the fabrics themselves containing pollutants that contaminate the environment and contribute to global warming. For example, nylon and polyester, two of the most widely used fabrics, are made from non-biodegradable petrochemicals that are very polluting to the environment. In order to create nylon, nitrous oxide is released as a part of the process. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide and is quickly polluting the atmosphere. Viscose, another popular material is made from wood pulp treated with toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. Exposure to these compounds can result in the decomposition of proteins and lipids in skin, eyes, or other living tissues, which is the cause of chemical burns. There are even natural fabrics that tend to get looked over as potential hazards. Cotton, the #1 fabric in the world uses more pesticides than almost any other crop, causing illness and even death among cotton farmers that are exposed on a daily basis. (Ethical Fashion Forum)

Toxic ThreadsIn “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up” published by Greenpeace in October 2012, the organization provides a look into the ongoing and seemingly unstoppable process of waste contamination from textile factories. First, inadequate policies by global brands to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in production result in contaminated water discharge that can end up in rivers and lakes. Then these products are transported all a world in which many consumers are unaware that when they wash their clothes residue from hazardous chemicals is released into their domestic wastewater and when they discard their clothes into landfills the toxic residue eventually seeps down to reach groundwater level. Groundwater is located beneath the Earth’s crust and in time will flow back up to the surface. On top of all of this, wastewater treatment plants are generally unequipped in dealing with these types of toxins and only speed up their breakdown process into more toxic substances. 

In it’s study, Greenpeace looked at the chemical contents of 20 global fashion brands, which including luxury brand #Giorgio Armani#. The results show that 63 percent of all items tested had detectable levels of nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE’s). NPE’s have mainly been present in aquatic environments and are extremely toxic to aquatic organisms. They have also been found in human breast milk, blood, and urine. (Nonylphenol and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates Action Plan Summary)

 With all that has been said, it is safe to say that the textile industry is no friend to the environment. However, are the latest fashion trends worth the potential health risks it poses for both consumers and those working on the production side? Probably not. So what can be to if not eliminate, at least slow down the damaging effects of the textile industry? Though environmentally friendly “Eco-Fashion” is on the rise, it hasn’t quite reached mainstream consumption. It is up to the big global fashion brands and national governments to put into place and actually enforce more strict regulations on the types of substances that can be used in textile production. If it isn’t safe for farmers, factory workers, or the environment, how can these products possibly be okay for consumption?

Sustainable CoalitionThe Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a group that seeks to decrease the harmful effects that the textile industry. #Burberry#, H&M, Nordstrom, and Inditex SA (ZARA) are just a few of the companies that have signed on for this cause.

 “The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an industry-wide group of leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, non-profits, and NGO’s working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world.”(

 Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (U.S.) issued new, more strict guidelines regarding “eco-friendly” fashion. Even individual designers have taken stand in supporting sustainable fashion. At this season’s New York Fashion Week, transparency and improvements in technological innovations were both main themes in many collections.

 “Many designers pursuing sustainable fashion describe in detail how their creations are produced. Techniques for repurposing vintage clothes, new methods for producing carbon neutral yarn, advanced technology for waterproofing, strategies for zero-waste production—designers have begun using Fashion Week to explain the science behind style.” (Why Fashion Week is Going Green)

With the fashion industry catching up to the environmental and social impacts of production, it is safe to say more sustainable fashion is on its way into the mainstream.