POLLUTION Top fashions leave trail of contamination
Many fashion brands continue to use toxic chemicals which, among other things, are damaging to the world's fish population. Industry experts hope they can convince companies to start using non-toxic substitutes soon.
"Clothing companies are using the rivers of the world like sewers," says Manfred Santen from environmental organization, Greenpeace. Still, despite these strong words, Santen has not yet given up hope in his quest to convince the worldwide fashion industry to be more environmentally-friendly with the fabrics they use. For the German-based chemicals expert, it is the toxins used during the production of textiles that is the biggest area for concern.
Some chemicals currently used in clothes production are carcinogenic or influence the hormonal system, he says.
"In the countries where the production takes place, these chemicals end up in the nearby rivers through factory sewage systems," according to Santen. Later, after the clothes are sold to consumers in other countries and washed for the first time there, the chemicals are also released again. This threatens drinking water standards and is also a problem for marine life, which is eventually exposed to the polluted water.
Toxins in every brand
In a recent study, Greenpeace found out that a host of major fashion brands worldwide used environmentally-damaging chemicals somewhere in their products. The organization tested over 140 items of clothing from 29 countries, using independent laboratories. The survey involved some of the biggest clothing brands worldwide, from H&M to Zara, to lingerie manufacturers, like Victoria's Secret.
"We didn't find toxins in every piece of clothing," Santen explains, in discussion with DW. "But, every company produced some item that was problematic."
In the case of the Spanish brand Zara, a pair of jeans from Pakistan contained carcinogenic substances derived from azodyes. A children's jacket also contained alkylphenol ethoxylates (known as APEs), a group of chemicals which affects hormones.
Textile manufacturers often use such chemicals to clean textiles and clothing. But, APEs are poisonous for fish in seas and rivers. Alex Föller, Director of TEGEWA, an association that represents chemical companies that are active in the textile industry, says this is a fact that has been known about for 30 years.
APEs, however, can be replaced by other chemicals which are non-toxic. For this reason German chemical companies voluntarily stopped using them in textile cleaning back in 1986. Now, APEs usage across the EU is strictly regulated. Since 2005, these chemicals can only be used when they no longer end up in sewage systems. But, such strict regulations do not exist yet worldwide.
Complex supply chains
Greenpeace accuses fashion chains of unnecessarily treating textiles with harmful chemicals. The fashion companies, in turn, have reacted sensitively in the past to the allegations.
In 2011, Greenpeace began its Detox campaign. Since then, 17 major fashion brands – including Adidas, H&M and Nike – have pledged to stop using toxic chemicals in the manufacturing of their clothing by 2020. Zara even announced that it would no longer use APEs from May of this year