Halogenated anilines and perfluorinated chemicals are two things you’ve probably never heard of before. In addition to being mouthfuls to pronounce, both are toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment and life, both in water and on land. Some anilines can become carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, and several perfluorinated chemicals are known to be toxic for the reproductive and nervous systems of mammals.

Scary.

04 December 2012

Mannequins bearing witness at the Linjiang Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP), in Xiaoshan District, Hangzhou, China © Greenpeace

 

Even though these chemicals might be unfamiliar there is a chance you are already in a close relationship with them, as they may have been used in the manufacturing of the clothes you are wearing.

These hazardous chemicals were both found in water samples taken in the textile heartland of China, in the coastal Zhejiang Province. That’s where the connection to your clothes comes in. Many popular global fashion labels, including Levi’s, Calvin Klein and GAP, source textiles from the manufacturing facilities in the area where the samples were taken, as shown in the Greenpeace International report "Toxic Threads: Putting Pollution on Parade". And that means that many of us are wearing toxic fashion.

Even though China has a large and thriving textile industry that supplies both the domestic and the international market with clothes, there is a severe lack of information about the kinds of chemicals being used and released into environment there. There is also very little information about how the hazardous chemicals used to make our clothes are dealt with. At the moment China relies heavily on wastewater treatment plants to deal with discharges from textile manufacturing facilities in Zhejiang Province.

03 December 2012

Life inside a dye factory © Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

While these may be effective for certain kinds of pollution, like sewage or biological waste, toxic chemicals such as many PFCs are especially dangerous because they can survive the treatment system meant to clean the water and pass directly out into the environment. Pollution of water is happening on a massive scale, with almost 70% of Chinese lakes, rivers, waterways and reservoirs affected by some kind of water pollution.

The water samples containing toxic chemicals were taken at the discharge pipe of a wastewater treatment plant being used by factories in a large industrial estate, most of which are textile manufacturing facilities. So we know that these chemicals are entering the environment in discharges from the treatment facility.

The problem is tracking down the culprits.

All industrial facilities in the area put their discharges through the same wastewater treatment plants. When they are all pooled together it is impossible to know which toxic chemical is coming from what facility. Effectively, they hide in the crowd. And it is easy for suppliers and brands that are buying products from these facilities to plead ignorance when there is no way to connect a particular discharge of a hazardous chemical to an individual facility. But it is no excuse for toxic pollution to continue.

Our clothes don’t need to come with these toxic accessories: hazardous chemicals that enter the environment both as discharges from the manufacturing facilities, but also potentially as residue that is washed out when we clean our clothes at home. There are alternatives but first the manufacturing facilities, suppliers and fashion brands have to commit to transparency. The real challenge is the complete lack of public information available at the moment.

A change is coming

Just last week – thanks to your help – Zara, the world’s largest fashion retailer, committed to Detox its supply chain and products and to eliminate all uses and releases of hazardous chemicals by 2020. What’s more, the brand also committed to publicly disclose pollution data from at least 100 of its suppliers in the Global South, including at least 40 in China, by the end of 2013. This transparency is a real breakthrough in the way clothing is manufactured and is an important step in providing local communities, journalists and officials with the information they need to ensure that local water supplies are not turned into public sewers for industry.

It is also the start of something bigger.

For too long global brands have been able to hide behind industrial smokescreens and continue to make their products against a backdrop of toxic water pollution. Even labels that have been around for over a century and who make some of the most worn-in clothing items on the planet have put more effort into revitalizing their brand image in recent years than they have into taking care of the negative impacts their products are having on our environment.

Enough is enough

Around the world, consumers, activists and fashionistas are uniting behind the idea that the clothes we buy should carry a story we can be proud of, not the residues of hazardous chemicals. These people are looking for action from brands, and are taking action themselves.  Brands that want to keep their customers therefore need to do more than make a positive statement or write a policy – they need to wear this problem on their sleeves. This means publicly talking about the problem and solutions, publicly disclosing information about exactly what chemicals are being released throughout their supply chains, and becoming active pioneers for toxic-free fashion.

Take action today

Help get our new video “Detox Fashion”, which reveals the toxic truth behind the clothes we buy, on as many screens as possible.

 

We know these clothing brands monitor social media as closely as they monitor traditional media, and every time you like, share, comment on, or promote this video, it increases the pressure on the companies to change their ways: to stop poisoning rivers in the countries where their products are made, and stop shipping hazardous chemicals all over the world in their clothes.

This past week we've shown the fashion industry what we're capable of together. But unfortunately the toxic discharges from clothing factories continue, and while Zara is the biggest, more companies must recognise and act upon the urgency of the situation to Detox our water.