Workers in Youngor textiles factoy, Ningbo, China
Follow-up investigations uncovered chemicals in clothing items bearing the labels of 14 international brands, which break down in water to form these same toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals.
These chemicals are a serious threat to human health and the environment, poisoning precious waterways around the world.
Clean water is not only a basic human right - it is the world’s most threatened essential resource. Aside from being critical habitats for wildlife, waterways such as rivers and lakes also provide vital resources for almost all life on Earth. Many people rely on this water for drinking, for farming, and for foods like fish and shellfish. Yet these vital water sources are often abused by industry and treated as if they are private sewers.
The textile industry is chemically intensive - using a number of different chemicals for everything from dyeing fabrics to printing and finishing. The wastewater from these processes is often toxic and can contaminate important waterways. This hazardous discharge can negatively affect human health, wildlife, and the environment.
Dirty Laundry Part 1
A year long investigation into water pollution found two textile factories in China that were discharging a range of hazardous chemicals into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. These factories are suppliers to a number of major global brands, including Nike, H&M and Lacoste.
Toxic and persistent chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties were found being discharged from these facilities. Alkylphenols (including nonylphenol) were found in wastewater samples from both factories, and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were present in the wastewater from the Youngor Textile Complex. These findings come despite the presence of a modern wastewater treatment plant at the Youngor facility.
The alkylphenols and PFCs found in the samples are a cause for serious concern, as these chemicals are known hormone disruptors and can be hazardous even at very low levels. Both groups of chemicals are man-made substances that persist in the environment and can have potentially devastating effects as they accumulate up the food chain.
Many hazardous chemicals can also be transported in our oceans, atmosphere and food chains and accumulate in places far away from their original source. They have been found to build up in the bodies of animals including birds, fish, whales, polar bears and even human breast milk.
What is more, our investigation covered only two of the thousands of industrial facilities located in China. The results from these samples are indicative of a much wider problem - one that extends beyond China and beyond the textile industry. What we need now is innovative leadership from brands willing to champion a new, clean way of operating that puts an end to the dumping of toxic poison into our waterways by industry.
Dirty Laundry Part II
Further investigations by Greenpeace revealed that shoppers around the world are buying contaminated clothing and unwittingly spreading water pollution when they wash their new garments. Of the 78 articles analysed for Greenpeace’s Dirty Laundry 2 report, 52 tested positive for the presence of Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) above the detection limit of 1 milligram NPE per kilogram of material (mg/kg). Clothing from all but one of the fifteen brands tested (GAP, two samples) contained NPEs above the detection limit. The clothes sampled were purchased from shops in eighteen countries.
These results demonstrate both the use of these chemicals in production and the consequent toxic discharges into waterways and rivers well beyond the country of manufacture. The problem and the solution are therefore not just local concerns. This is a truly global issue.
Signs of Progress
The global textile supply chain can be difficult to untangle. There are many companies, businesses, and countries involved, and they all share responsibility for the release of these hazardous chemicals. However, normally, it is the brand owner who triggers the product development process, including research and design. Brand owners are therefore the best placed to bring about change in the production of textiles and clothing – through their choice of suppliers, the design of their products and the control they can exert over the use of chemicals in the production process and the final product.
In July 2011 Greenpeace began challenging the world’s largest sports brands to champion a toxic-free future. Not only are these brands self-proclaimed leaders and innovators, they also have the size and influence to work with their suppliers to begin bringing about real change on the ground and eliminate the use and release of these hazardous chemicals.
By the end of August 2011, Nike, Adidas and Puma had committed to eliminate all hazardous chemicals across their entire supply-chains, and their entire product life-cycle by 2020.
H&M more than matched their commitments on September 20, when the global fast fashion giant also agreed to publicise information about chemicals being released from its suppliers' factories. The first round of information is due to be published by the end of 2012, and will include H&M's key suppliers in China and other countries.
These four companies, after their individual commitments and with the goal to collaborate and to engage the wider textile sector, have started a collaborative process to establish a “Joint Roadmap towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals”. During the process they have been joined by two other companies who have also committed to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and products by 2020: the Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning and the fast-fashion retailer C&A.
By mid-November these six companies published a draft Roadmap that sets out the steps they intend to take to deliver against their commitments and to invite others to partner in this race towards zero hazardous chemicals in the fashion sector.
The draft Roadmap is currently under consultation. Feedback is being solicited from a key group of stakeholders and is also open for comments from the public up to December 31st 2011. All comments on the draft joint roadmap can be directed to [ ]. SustainAbility has been asked by the brands to solicit feedback from a key group of stakeholders.
While Greenpeace welcomes the initiative taken by the companies to work collaboratively on tackling this issue, these potential toxic-free champions of the textile and apparel sector are underestimating their potential to collectively transform the sector in their current Roadmap and have yet to include those concrete and credible elements that will demonstrate to the public their progress and their leadership.
An in-depth analysis of the draft Roadmap and the elements the brands still need to include in order to become champions of a toxic-free future is available for download here.
Greenpeace is calling on all clothing companies to champion a toxic-free future and to work with all of their suppliers to eliminate the release of hazardous chemicals from across their supply chain and products. To do this they must:
- DESIGN A BETTER FUTURE: Adopt clear company and supplier policies that drive the shift from toxic to non-hazardous chemicals with clear and realistic time-lines.
- WALK THE TALK: Respond to the urgency of the situation by demonstrating real and substantial action on the ground by prioritising the worst chemicals and eliminating these immediately.
- MAKE TRANSPARENCY EN VOGUE: Make data publicly available on who its suppliers are, share its restricted substance list, and reveal what hazardous chemicals these suppliers are discharging on the journey towards zero. Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant!
- SET THE TREND: Once their individual commitment is in place, influential companies also have the power to catalyse change across the sportswear and fashion industry by working collaboratively with others.
People living near factories and rivers have a right to know what's in the water.
At Greenpeace, we are focusing our resources on tackling the urgent issue of hazardous chemicals being released into our waterways. However, we are also aware of many other serious and pressing issues related to the textile industry that needs tackling. You can find out more about these issues and what you can do through organisations like UNICEF, Oxfam and Save the Children.
For the latest news on which companies are being linked to sweatshop use or child labour you can also visit: http://www.cleanclothes.org/ and http://www.laborrights.org/ For more information on the dangers of sandblasting in the denim industry you can check out: http://www.killerjeans.org/