Blog > Opinion , Your Health

Toxic Couture?

Posted on February 11, 2013

Toxic-couture-postBy Lindsay Dahl, Deputy Director

Don’t we all like to feel fashionable from time to time? This week thousands have gathered in New York City for Fashion Week, and what a better time to talk about the price we often pay for our fashionable clothes. <<Big groans>> Debbie Downer is at it again! – Don’t worry, there’s some pretty awesome news at the end of this post.

So just how pervasive are toxic chemicals in the clothing and textile industry? Toxics are showing up in all parts of the supply chain of textiles, in the production and manufacturing, the clothes themselves, and our routine cleaning of garments.

Why is this happening? 

Before we get into other ways our clothing is affected by toxic chemicals, it begs the question: why is this happening? In the U.S. we have weak, lame laws on toxic chemicals. Due to these weak laws, companies can use whatever chemical they like to make our clothes (other products and during the manufacturing process.) That is why we’re asking Congress to get tough on toxic chemicals and pass the Safe Chemicals Act.

Toxics in the production & manufacturing of clothes

The dyes used to color our chic blouses and dark blue jeans can be harmful to the environment and drinking water. According to NRDC, “Textile manufacturing has a huge environmental footprint, polluting as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric with a suite of harmful chemicals, and consuming tremendous amounts of energy for steam and hot water.” You can read their Clean by Design report for more information.

Toxics in clothes

  • Major sportswear companies like the North Face and Patagonia came under pressure to remove the toxic PFCs (the Teflon chemical) from their high performance jackets, pants and other clothing items. The PFCs are used to repel water and other liquids, certainly we can do that without toxic chemicals! Our factsheet on PFCs outlines some of the health and environmental concerns with this chemical.
  • Jeans, t-shirts, and jackets from major brands tested positive for nonyphenol ethoxalates (NPEs), a chemical shown to break down into hormone disrupting chemicals in the environment. Although there is no direct evidence of harm caused by wearing these pieces of clothing, we know that exposure to our skin and the environment is not a good thing. To see a list of some of the products found to have this toxic chemical you can read the Toxic Threads results here.
  • Popular “wrinkle-free” shirts are often treated with formaldehyde (and so are wrinkle-free sheets.)
  • Phthalates were found in popular brands of t-shirts, and even women’s underwear by Victoria’s Secret.
  • Pesticides are often used in transportation of clothing from overseas, so be sure to wash new clothes before wearing them.

Companies moving in the right direction

The good news is that thanks to Greenpeace’s “Detox Campaign” many major fashion brands have agreed to move away from toxic chemicals in their supply chain (Nike, AdidasPumaH&MM&S, C&A, Li-Ning, Zara, Mango, EspritLevi's, Uniqlo, Benetton and Victoria's Secret). According to Greenpeace, here is what these brands have agreed to do:

Zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals – Eliminate toxic discharge (which is very common in the fashion and textile industry) through waste water pipe discharge, solid waste and air pollution.

Prevention and Precaution – These companies have agreed to move away from chemicals shown to cause harm, even in the face of scientific uncertainty and replace them with safer substitutes. What a concept!

Right to know – The brands agree to publicly disclose information about the hazardous chemicals used and discharged when making their products.

We hope to both educate consumers about health and environmental risks of toxic chemicals all throughout the supply chain, while give you some tips to protect yourself. But please remember that the burden should not fall on our shoulders to find clothing free of toxic chemicals.

We need strong laws on toxic chemicals that remove the burden from consumers and instead put the responsibility on chemical manufacturers to produce safer chemicals. Please join us in asking your Senators to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act today.

Join our movement!

For more information on Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign

Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @Lindsay_SCHF


I am working for a hydrogen peroxide plant. Our customers are using that chemical as the replacement for harmful chemical like chlorine or sodium hypo-chlorite in textile manufacturing.

I think the world is now changing due to customer requirements like us. RoHS is a breakthrough concept for customer safety.

We, as customer, need to encourage our governments to take necessary action as soon as possible and set up standards for this issue.

Posted by: lukman hakim | Feb 12, 2013 10:21:37 PM

Wow, never thought about pesticides being used intentionally on new clothing before it gets to us! Thanks for raising awareness on this.

Posted by: Anne | Feb 12, 2013 1:19:43 PM

Jenn- thanks for your comment. It is frustrating, isn't it? The government and these companies should be looking out for us. The more public education we do, the more pressure we can put on Congress. If you haven't already, please take action today:

Posted by: Lindsay - Safer Chemicals | Feb 11, 2013 2:37:01 PM

Wow, I had no idea! It's a shame to see companies like North Face and Patagonia on the list, although I'm sure they'll be leaders in phasing out these chemicals. Why isn't the government looking out for us?

Posted by: Jenn | Feb 11, 2013 2:34:33 PM

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