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Greenpeace Targets Toxic Kids Clothing


Everybody knows children and toxins don’t mix well. What you might not understand is the amount of harmful chemicals widely found on or in kids clothing.

That’s according to a recent Greenpeace investigation which found the presence of hazardous chemicals in clothing made by a dozen big-name brands including Disney, Adidas and Burberry.

Greenpeace started targeting textiles several years ago for the huge part the industry plays in the rapid degradation of the planet’s water stores but more recently enacted a “Little Monsters” campaign to shed light on the fact that of all the textiles being sold to consumers children’s clothing certainly shouldn’t contain hazardous substances.

“[T]his study showed no significant difference between the level of hazardous chemicals found in children's clothes and those found in garments made for adults,” writes Nadia Haiama, Greenpeace environmental policy consultant in a recent blog post wherein she asserts that children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals. “Unfortunately, many of the chemicals tested for are known to disrupt our hormone systems, and mess with the normal development of our bodies. We may only see these adverse effects much later in lives of our children.”

Little monsters

In spite of the fact that hundreds of dyes and thousands of carcinogenic or otherwise harmful materials are banned from use in textile products under the laws of various countries, a slew of toxins continue to be widely used in the production of clothing.

“We don’t have evidence to show that wearing the clothing is directly going to get [a chemical] in your body but it’s going to potentially be washed into your local waterway,” says John Deans, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace.

It’s problematic not only because of chemicals discharged into the environment at the site of a manufacturing facility, but also when chemical-laden clothing is washed in a consumer’s washing machine, resulting in polluted waste water that enters local water sources, which people—and vulnerably developing children—drink.

Perfluorinated chemicals, for example, are often used to make material water and stain resistant but when ingested by humans accumulate in the liver, block growth and reproductive hormones and promote the growth of tumors. Phthalates, which are used to soften plastic inks you might see on a T-shirt graphic, disrupt hormones and can cause deformities in male reproductive organs. And heavy metals such as cadmium—used in colorful dyes and pigments—can weaken bones and damage kidneys.

While companies may have their reasons for using harmful chemicals, in most cases safe alternatives to such substances are readily available, Deans says.

Turning the tide on textiles

It’s not all doom and gloom. Because of the pressure Greenpeace has put on the textile industry so far 19 companies have committed to zero toxic discharge by 2020: Nike, Adidas, Puma, H&M, M&S, C&A, Li-Ning, Zara, Mango, Esprit, Levi's, Uniqlo, Benetton, Victoria's Secret, G-Star Raw, Valentino, Coop, Canepa and most recently, British luxury fashion brand Burberry (PDF).

Greenpeace does not force a set of standards on manufacturers but works with them to create unique commitments that outline the short- and long-term steps they will take to completely stop discharging toxins by January 1, 2020.

“In some cases they’re hard to compare because they’re putting out different types of products and using different chemicals so each commitment is tailored based on what the company is using and what they can eliminate but for the most part we’re seeing each one do a little bit better than the last,” Deans says.

Who’s not on board

Remarkably, huge brands that market products for children such as Disney and Gap (think Gap Kids) have yet to commit to eliminate harmful chemicals from their manufacturing processes.

“It’s all well and good to say ‘Hey, we’re really safe’ or ‘Hey, we’re very sustainable’ or ‘Look at this new material that we’re making. It doesn’t even require chemicals.’ Those are all wonderful claims but until that’s truly transparent and scientifically verifiable I think it’s hard for consumers to have a lot of confidence in that,” Deans says.

Deans says an integral part of a credible commitment to zero toxic discharge involves transparency into which suppliers are using what chemicals. And while policing the entire world of textiles is impossible for an organization such as Greenpeace, its global structure allows it to more easily influence huge multinationals that might find the prospect of cleaning up a global supply chain daunting.

Consumer demand—and thousands of activists and volunteers around the world willing to show up at stores to protest issues such as toxins in clothing—helps convince companies doing so is worth the effort. For example, Deans says in addition to convening activists at a Levi’s flagship store last year, Deans himself traveled from his Denver office to San Francisco to negotiate the company’s commitment to zero toxic discharge.

“Everybody has really taken this on and said ‘We don’t want toxic chemicals in our clothing anymore and that’s not what we’re trying to buy when we go to the store,’” Deans says. “So I think the global nature of the campaign is really what has made it possible to draw attention to the issue and have companies pay attention.”


Deans says Greenpeace will continue to test clothing on the market for toxicity.

“We can hone in on certain things, look for certain chemicals, test certain companies and that’s a pretty strong way to create accountability because it means that any company making a commitment could be tested sometime in that next year,” he says. “And we’re doing our best to make sure that as companies make commitments they’re verifiable, they have to supply us with information that we can then check up on so we can go look into the data and see if what they’re claiming to be true is in fact, true.”

And sometimes the truth appears questionable.

The beginning of this story points out that Adidas products were among those Greenpeace found to contain harmful chemicals. Yet the company is listed as one of the 19 that have committed to zero toxic discharge.

I asked Deans about this and he pointed me to Greenpeace International’s statement regarding Adidas, which it says “claims to be ‘all in’ for Detox but the sports giant has proven to be all talk.” In addition to accusing Adidas of greenwashing, Greenpeace, in part, says:

Two years after it crossed the line as one of the original Detox pioneers, adidas has failed to credibly follow through on its Detox commitments. The company has yet to eliminate any of the priority chemicals from its supply chain and does not clearly recognise the crucial principle that there are no environmentally acceptable levels of hazardous chemicals. Furthermore, adidas does not consider the importance of the public’s “Right to Know” about the release of these chemicals by any of their supply chain facilities. While trendsetting companies forge a pathway to a toxic-free future, adidas continues to ignore its individual corporate responsibility.

I reached out to Adidas for comment a spokesperson pointed me to a public statement (PDF) the company has released in its defense. In it, Adidas says Greenpeace’s evaluation of its commitments, progress and achievements in the elimination and reduction of hazardous chemicals in its global supply chain “is not factually based.”

Adidas also says:

The adidas Group has substantially contributed to the Benchmarking Report carried out by the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) to fully map out chemicals management practices in the production phase. The study is the result of site visits conducted at 20 suppliers in Asia. Test results revealed that none of the factories was releasing untreated wastewater into a surface water body or to a municipal treatment system, and, in the majority of cases, factory discharge was well below any available discharge limits for effluent.

Volleying back, Greenpeace wrote in a blog post:

Surely, a responsible company with adidas’ global reach can go further than just testing anonymous suppliers and heralding that in “a majority of the cases” the grossly insufficient and poorly enforced local discharge regulations were met?

To be fair, eight of the 19 companies that have made zero toxic discharge commitments by 2020 were found by Greenpeace to be selling clothing containing hazardous chemicals. In addition to Adidas they include Nike, Puma, H&M, C&A, Li-Ning, Uniqlo and Burberry.

I reached out to Nike to ask why some of its products landed on Greenpeace’s list of those still containing hazardous materials.

“As to the claims in the report, the Nike products tested within the limits set by government agencies and below the levels set in Nike's own Restricted Substances List (RSL),” wrote Nike spokesperson Greg Rossiter in an email. “Nike is committed to the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. Since we announced this commitment in November 2011, we have made meaningful progress toward our goal.”

Does the fact that huge companies such as Adidas and Nike are still selling products tainted with toxins—while simultaneously sitting on Greenpeace’s list of companies committed to its Detox campaign—reflect poorly on the watchdog’s overall efforts?

“I'm not sure what people would wonder about the credibility of the Detox campaign, but it certainly helps demonstrate the importance of our work testing the products to make sure companies are phasing out these chemicals,” Deans says. “It also speaks to the timelines in the commitments companies are making, it will take some time, and we must be vigilant.”

Clearly, the issue is a convoluted one and the task of vetting and cleaning up the supply chain of a global manufacturer cannot be an easy one. However, only when its products can withstand a watchdog’s testing—and no longer contain harmful chemicals—will apparel titans truly be able to make an organization such as Greenpeace stand down.

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