You might already be aware that at Amberoot we are fascinated by the ingredients and processes involved in making our clothing. Because of that we write articles, have created our Material Environmental Sustainability Rankings Tool and decided to focus on being plastic (synthetic) fabric free fashion shop. However, we would like to raise more awareness about one aspect which we think did not yet get the attention it deserves – toxic chemicals used throughout the whole supply chain. Since everyone’s health is negatively impacted by the toxic-chemical use, being informed is a first step towards a better tomorrow. Toxic chemicals can travel long distances, build up in the environment and not break down in the ecosystems and human bodies for a very long time. That is why we interviewed Peter Pierrou, Head of Communications from Chemsec, a Swedish organisation advocating stricter regulatory controls on potentially hazardous chemicals and working with businesses on reducing the production and use of hazardous substances in the products and supply chains.
What are the most toxic chemicals used in making our clothes and what are their effects on ecosystems and health?
Hazardous chemicals are used in all steps of textile manufacturing and can cause a wide range of diseases and health problems including various forms of cancer, infertility, obesity, allergies and diabetes. Some of the most widely used are solvents, surfactants, dyes, water repellents, phthalates and biocides. It’s important to remember, however, that not all dyes, or all solvents – for example – are toxic. But many of the commonly used are. At ChemSec we have rounded up some of the most problematic chemicals and where they are being used – learn more here.
Have you seen any changes in the recent years with the use of hazardous chemicals and what are your future expectations?
Yes, from being a topic that was hardly discussed at all, nowadays many brands seem to take the issue of chemicals seriously. A problem is that it is very hard for a company to stop using toxic chemicals, because the supply chain involves so many companies, one that grows the cotton, one that produces the fabric, one that dyes, and so forth. And in the end of the supply chain there are the brands. In order to make a substantial change, all the companies in the supply chain need to commit to it. What has happened in recent years is that many of the world’s largest brands are now working together to create a kind of chemical standard that all producers in the supply chain should follow. This is great, although it would be even better if the change would come faster.
What do you think are the most exciting innovations in substitutes for hazardous chemicals?
Personally, I really like when designers try to think out of the box and design away toxic chemicals already at the drawing board. Let’s say you are designing a shirt that should have a logo on the chest. The traditional way would be to have the logo printed in PVC. PVC is a form of plastic that often contains toxic phthalates. Knowing this, a smart designer would say that instead of printing the logo, it should be put in place using embroidery. There are hundreds of smart little things like this that a clever designer can think of, and by that limit the use of toxic chemicals.
More traditional substitutes, where you switch a toxic chemical for a safer alternative, are also on the rise. For example, we at ChemSec have created an advertising platform called Marketplace, where chemical producers can inform about their non-toxic chemicals. Today Marketplace holds over 240 different alternatives from 100 different companies to commonly used chemicals. The majority of the safer alternatives are actually for the textile industry, which means there is a lot of innovation going on.
Is there anything a regular person can do to have less hazardous chemicals used?
Look for official ecolabels on the clothes you are buying. Depending on where in the world you are, they might look different, but labels are at least some indicator that the brand has put some effort towards sustainability.
Another thing you could do is to ask more questions when you shop. In the EU, you actually have the right to know if there are any so-called Substances of Very High Concern present in any kind of product you buy. By law, any store or retailer in the EU must answer this question within 45 days. If more people started exercising their right to ask, even more companies would take this issue seriously.
Perhaps you could share if you changed anything in your personal life connected to the use of hazardous chemicals due to working in Chemsec?
I think that many people have started to think about their consumption and if it’s sustainable in the last couple of years, and so have I. I try be smart when I do my shopping. In general I buy less compared to a couple of years ago and when I buy I try to look for ecolabels or buy from brands that includes sustainability in their whole clothing line (as opposed to brands just using sustainability as a slogan). Overall though, I actually think too much emphasis is put on the individual when it comes to sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important we all do our part and think about what we buy and do, but the debate during the last years seem to have totally forgotten about the industries of the world, whose environmental impact absolutely dwarfs the regular Joe’s of the world. That’s why it’s so important with tough environmental legislation. This can really drive the change towards sustainability in a substantial way.