Researchers have found dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in clothing sold by some of the most popular fast fashion brands on the planet. Here’s what you need to know—and what you can do about it.
Investigating fast fashion’s harmful chemicals
Fast fashion is notorious for its problems. The supply chains of the world’s biggest retailers are riddled with inequality and exploitation. By now, most of us know that factory workers often aren’t paid fairly, and overproduction strains landfills. But what is perhaps less understood is that the impact of our clothing choices is also much closer to home.
Research suggests we could be risking harmful chemical exposure in our own homes when we buy from fast fashion brands.
According to a CBC investigation, led by environmental chemist Miriam Diamond, some of the most popular fast fashion brands on the planet (looking at you, SHEIN) have been selling toxic chemicals to the public, hidden in clothing and accessories.
Finding chemicals in fast fashion
For Diamond’s study, commissioned by Marketplace, researchers tested 38 samples of children’s and adult clothes and accessories. One in five had concerning levels of chemicals, like lead, PFAS, and phthalates.
Unsurprisingly, one of the worst offenders was SHEIN.
The China-based retail behemoth (the most popular fast fashion retailer in the US) was selling a toddler’s jacket with 20 times the amount of lead that Canada’s health department deems safe for children. Zaful and AliExpress were also found selling garments with high levels of toxic chemicals, like phthalates.
This could all have some alarming consequences, says Diamond. As a neurotoxicant, research suggests that exposure to lead can damage the brain and nervous system, impacting growth, development, and behaviour patterns. Children are particularly at risk, given their tendency to forget to wash their hands and chew on sleeves. “[This habit] is not uncommon, and that would give a higher dose,” says Diamond.
Research also suggests that phthalates, a group of chemicals often used in plastic to make it more durable, can interfere with some people’s reproductive hormones. Diamond explains that one phthalate is even associated with an increased risk of childhood asthma.
Why use toxic chemicals in clothing?
If the health consequences are so grave, why are some of the world’s biggest fast fashion brands using dangerous chemicals in their clothing?
The child’s jacket has since been removed from SHEIN’s online shelves. But Diamond and her team don’t have any definitive answers as to why such a high quantity of lead was being sold in a clothing item made for children, although they speculate it was being used as a pigment.
But zooming out, one seemingly obvious answer is that SHEIN simply doesn’t care what goes into its clothes, as long as it’s turning a big profit. The retailer’s estimated worth is a cool $100 billion, and it’s no secret that the company (and indeed the rest of the fast fashion industry, as this is by no means a one-brand problem) has reached its size by turning a blind eye to ethics.
Last year, a report by Swiss watchdog group Public Eye accused SHEIN of producing its clothes in factories with barred windows and no emergency exits. Workers were reportedly sewing for 75 hours every week, and only received one day off a month.
The impact of chemical use in fashion is far-reaching
Unfortunately, fast fashion’s chemical use is far more insidious than a few isolated incidents of alarming levels of lead or phthalates. In fact, we’ve actually become quite used to chemical use in our clothing. The items in our wardrobes all have to be dyed, bleached, and processed—all of which calls for chemicals. Some are more harmful than others.
“[Safer alternatives] exist,” says Diamond. “Such as alternative plasticisers, not phthalates. [SHEIN] could be using other dyes if it’s the dye that is the source of the lead.”
But in some instances, chemical use is intrinsic to the creation of a material. Viscose, for example, is used to make dresses, blouses, skirts, and more. In fact, the global market for the material is predicted to hit more than $11 billion by 2026. But in order to transform wood pulp into fibre, chemical input (as well as a lot of deforestation) is required.
“Cellulose is treated with a number of toxic chemicals, such as carbon disulphide, a powerful solvent,” explains Urska Trunk, campaign manager for the Changing Markets Foundation. The nonprofit, which strives to expose irresponsible corporate practices, has carried out a thorough investigation into the viscose industry.
The most vulnerable to succumbing to the ailments associated with carbon disulphide exposure are, of course, factory workers and their communities.
Research links carbon disulphide exposure with a number of serious health conditions, including psychosis, coronary heart disease, and leukaemia, explains Trunk. The most vulnerable to succumbing to these ailments are, of course, factory workers and their communities.
In Indonesia, which is home to more than five million garment workers, some people living near a viscose plant have been forced to stop drinking from their local well. “They fear the effect it will have on their families’, particularly their children’s, health,” says Trunk.
“In India, people in communities surrounding factories are suffering from serious health conditions,” she adds, “including cancer, tuberculosis, reproductive problems, birth defects, and stomach disorders.”
Not only do they harm people, but viscose chemicals are an environmental nightmare, running off into the water, and polluting the surrounding air and soil around factories.
What can be done to limit chemical use?
Brands need to take more responsibility. It’s as simple as that.
“Viscose production can be cleaner,” says Trunk. “Better production methods exist.” Changing Markets even produced its own roadmap for the viscose industry in 2018, to help it move towards responsible manufacturing.
If it is produced correctly, viscose could present a more sustainable fabric alternative to its synthetic peers, like polyester and nylon, which take hundreds of years to biodegrade and, shocker, contain harmful chemicals. Polyester is made with antimony trioxide, for example, which is a suspected carcinogen.
But change is happening, albeit slowly.
“Fourteen fashion companies have signed up to the roadmap so far and are now paving the way for the rest of the industry,” she explains. “With this, they made a public commitment to clean up their viscose supply chains, sending a strong signal to viscose manufacturers that they expect the industry to move to more responsible viscose production by 2023 to 2025.”
Another initiative brands can sign up to to reduce harmful chemical use across all of their materials is the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL), explains Kristian Hardiman, head of ratings at Good On You.
Issued by Roadmap to Zero, a program that aims to eliminate harmful chemicals from fashion, the ZDHC MRSL is a list of chemical substances that are banned from intentional use in the industry.
“Brands can join the Roadmap to Zero and implement the use of the ZDHC MRSL,” explains Hardiman. “Thereby requiring their suppliers to conform the list.” Phthalates are on the ZDHC MRSL, as are azo dyes (often used to colour textiles) and heavy metals, like chromium VI. The latter is often used to tan leather; it’s hemotoxic, genotoxic, and carcinogenic, and the most common pollutant found in groundwaters.
Unfortunately when it comes to chemicals, it is possibly one of the most greenwashed issues. For some brands, it is done out of naivety, whilst with others it is more malicious.Kristian Hardiman – head of ratings
But the issue is complicated. Good On You is trying to create more transparency for consumers, by examining brand’s chemical use and their processes for monitoring worker safety. But “unfortunately when it comes to chemicals, it is possibly one of the most greenwashed issues,” Hardiman admits. “For some brands, it is done out of naivety, whilst with others it is more malicious.”
Brands can gloss over the issue by saying they are certified by the OEKO-TEX Standard 100, which confirms a garment has been tested for harmful substances. Or they can state they are compliant with Europe’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals) or California’s similar Proposition 65 List.
To a consumer, this may seem like the boxes have been ticked, but it’s not that simple. “In most of these cases, the emphasis is on testing the final products for chemicals that are harmful for human health rather than environmental health,” says Hardiman. “We do give very small rewards in our methodology, but we would still not consider this to be particularly meaningful.”
“Meaningful action in Good On You’s methodology would be a brand adopting an MRSL that is at least ZDHC standard or using fabrics or products that have been certified by credible bodies such as Bluesign, the Nordic Swan Ecolabel, Global Organic Textile Standard, the Global Recycle Standard or OEKO-TEX MADE IN GREEN,” he says. “It’s also important to note that brands should be adopting standards across their entire collection, not just a handful of products.”
What can shoppers do?
There’s no doubt: the issue of chemicals in fast fashion is vast, complicated, and overwhelming. For us shoppers, learning about how deep the rabbit hole goes can create a feeling of powerlessness.
But there are things we can do. Firstly, if you’re buying new, look out for solid certifications. “These are usually the best way to ensure that no or few hazardous chemicals are used,” says Hardiman. “The GOTS certification, which has been measured throughout the supply chain, is one of the stronger certifications.”
But we can also simply change our habits, so that we bring fewer clothes into our homes and create less waste. “Refrain from compulsive shopping,” says Trunk. “Choose quality over quantity. Buy only what you really need and plan to wear for a long time.” She adds: “shop second hand and buy for maximum durability, and seek to repair, reuse, and swap items.”
There is no silver bullet to fix the fast fashion industry. But we do have power.
As Hardiman poignantly notes, there is no silver bullet to fix the fast fashion industry. But we do have power. We can change our behaviour, and choose to limit our engagement with an industry that is destroying the planet, making people sick, and even putting our own children at risk.