5 steps toward a chemical makeover of the apparel industry

Few people think of the fashion industry as a heavy industry like steel or cement. However, dyeing and finishing fabric has an enormous environmental footprint, using large quantities of chemicals, as well as extensive steam and rinse water. The industry is one of the highest-ranking industrial water polluters in the world. Greenpeace recently has targeted it to radically reduce its chemical use.

Here is NRDC’s 5-step program for companies that are serious about phasing out their reliance on toxic chemicals. It’s a blueprint framed around the Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign, which calls for the phase-out of 11 categories of toxic chemicals in textile manufacture by 2020 and has provided a much-needed sense of urgency to the apparel industry to change the way it does business around the world. Despite an explosion of collaborative consultations and meetings among brands and retailers (see Roadmap to Zero), the companies that have committed to comply with the Greenpeace campaign to date -- and the many others living in fear of imminent Greenpeace targeting -- have not come forward with work plans that inspire confidence they will get the job done.

Photo above taken Dec. 13, 2011: China’s Luoyang¡¯s Jian River becomes contaminated with dye from discharge of untreated wastewater into storm water pipes. The workshops were shut down that day. Photo by Zhang Xiaoli/ChinaFotoPress

So, for those companies committed to phasing out their reliance on toxic chemicals, here’s how to do it:

1) Create reduction goals that are results-oriented (not process-oriented), with explicit dates and milestones for achieving reductions.

Goals should look like this: Phase out all use of chlorinated solvents by 2014. Or, if that is too ambitious: Phase out use of chlorinated solvents in all synthetics mills by the end of 2014. Or, if even that is too ambitious, perhaps: Phase out all use of chlorinated solvents in 80 percent of all synthetics mills in China by the end of 2013; phase out next 25 largest mills by the end of 2014. Go for low-hanging fruit: Banish the chemicals within closest reach first.

Current pledges to “convene a group,” “explore platforms,” “provide updates,” “create roadmaps,” “demand collective action,” etc., fall far short of what is needed to deliver change on the ground. These commitments are the HOW, not the WHAT.

2) Start at your vertically integrated facilities -- factories that dye fabric and cut and sew your garments.

These are your easiest targets because you have ongoing direct contract relationships with these factories. Fortunately, these facilities often represent large and important strategic suppliers as well, which will enable you to make a big impact through activities in a small number of places.

Some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals -- notorious around the world and already targeted by many government and international programs; what I consider the "dead chemical" list -- are the easiest to target and should be eliminated right away. Specifically, chlorobenzenes and chlorophenols, as well as azo dyes which form prohibited amines, have been on the Restricted Substance Lists for responsible brands for some time and are thought to be largely out of use in the textile industry. Brands should commit to a 2014 firm phase-out for these chemicals already out of use.

Similarly, the brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, chlorinated solvents and short-chained chlorinated parafins (SCCP) should prove relatively easy to phase down. A 2015 phase-out goal for these three categories might be feasible.

Those chemicals/formulations without currently viable alternatives should be scheduled as the last to go to allow time for research to take place.

Photo of jeans on shelf provided by Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock

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