Fashion runway

China's importance in the world of fashion is undoubtedly on the rise. Not only is it still the world’s biggest textile mill, but with a robust economy and growing amounts of new money, Chinese people have become the latest patron of global fashion brands. However, this booming market is also leaving an increasingly big and ugly footprint on the country’s environment, particularly its waterways.

At Greenpeace we have recently exposed links between global high street fashion brands and water pollution in the developing world. Our global investigation included 20 global fashion brands, such as Zara, Calvin Klein and Levi's, and the Chinese brands Metersbonwe and Vancle. Hazardous chemicals were found within almost every one of the 141 garments tested, and not surprisingly, more than one quarter of them were made in China.

We may live in an era of disposable fashion, but a shirt worn less than a dozen times could cost the earth. And there’s no replacing that.

For example, one group of chemicals, called nonylphenol ethoxylates, that break down in water into toxic, persistent and hormone-disrupting nonylphenols (NPs) were detected in nearly two thirds of the clothes tested. In an earlier investigation, we found the very same hormone disruptor in waste water discharged by the textile mills in China and in commonly eaten wild fish in the Yangtze River.

NPs are persistent and bio-accumulative, which means that a river polluted with NPs used to make the shirt you are wearing at this very moment could still affect you long after it passes out of fashion. And this is only one of the many hazardous chemicals that we identified.

The real tragedy revealed by this investigation lies not with the clothes themselves but with the toxic legacy the brands’ supply chains left behind. Large amounts of hazardous chemicals have been dumped into our public waterways, mostly in the developing world where regulation of these chemicals are invariably weak or non-existent. And China, as the world leader in textile output and fast growing consumer power, is sadly expanding its role as both a perpetrator and victim of the pollution.

Making things even worse is our growing appetite for affordable and fast fashion. Shanghai alone discards hundreds of tons of clothes on a daily basis. The push for consumers to constantly pursue the newest and latest brands and fashions, delivered in ever-shorter intervals, only magnifies the existing problem. The clothes might be affordable, but the hidden costs are too much for us to bear.

But things do not have to be this way. Global governments can stand up against this vicious cycle and make it mandatory for industries to phase out harmful chemicals and invest in the promotion of safe substitutes, as has been done in some parts of the world already.

But before that can even take place, it is the big brands themselves that have the power and influence to work with their suppliers to pioneer safe alternatives to hazardous chemicals, and quickly bring them to market. And we know others will follow this fashion of clean production. If these brands manage to drive real change throughout their supply chains, they could become a force that cleans up the entire industry. This is a massive opportunity.

And we, as fashion consumers, are not merely cogs in the brands' machine. We have a real voice, and we can use it to change the industry. "Our fashions should not cost the earth."That is what we, as fashion consumers, must be saying to the brands that make these clothes we love.

Fashionable clothes made without toxic material are infinitely more beautiful. And this is attainable, but only in countries where transparency and regulation ensures the public's right to know, and with brands that make efforts to clean up their supply chains. It can only happen in where the precautionary principle is practised, where the government and industry support cleaner alternatives, and where consumer voices are heard, loud and clear.

Image: Greenpeace organises a ‘fashion victims show’ on a makeshift runway, during the launch of the report, “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.” © Peng Zheng Hua / Greenpeace