The Right Chemistry

How the apparel industry is cleaning up textiles

High-pressure cotton dyeing equipment
ShutterstockAn Wenhong
The industry is increasingly cleaning up chemicals at the beginning of the supply chain, including in textile dyes and on the factory floor. High-pressure cotton dyeing equipment is shown above.

Since 2013, Greenpeace’s “Detox” campaign against apparel companies successfully has catalyzed new approaches to eliminate hazardous chemicals from products and supply chains. It's not just activist pressure, but also the desire within the industry to do good, that is driving the reduction of hazards in everything from children’s clothing to sportswear.

Efforts to reduce hazardous chemicals and environmental pollution in the manufacturing supply chain include the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Chemicals Management Module and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals’ Roadmap to Zero.

Restricted substances

Traditionally, such efforts have centered around Restricted Substance Lists, which have been used in the textile industry since the late 1990s. They contain restricted chemicals that are usually, but not always regulated. These chemicals can be used in manufacturing and be present in consumer products, as long as the amount is not greater than the allowable limit.

The RSL is a tool to help brands meet regulatory compliance requirements and is typically implemented in three steps:

1. Establish the allowable limit in the product.

2. Train and educate manufacturers to implement the RSL.

3. Verify through product testing.

Because restricted chemicals may be used in manufacturing, there is always the possibility that hazardous chemicals may end up in discharge water.

A fundamental shift to ‘input chemistry’

Today, however, a sea change is placing greater emphasis on managing input chemistry rather than treating effluent. Hazardous chemicals are eliminated at the beginning of the supply chain before they enter the manufacturing facility. This prevents the need to clean up waste water and toxic pollution.

Some tools, such as bluesign, have been available for several years, while others are just being introduced, and some chemical companies are seizing the opportunity to lead in the marketplace.

The initiatives below are gaining wider acceptance and use:

Bluesign

The bluesign system is a standard for environmental health and safety in the manufacture of textiles. It was developed in Switzerland 15 years ago and is gaining momentum with chemical suppliers, manufacturers and brands.

Bluesign works with chemical suppliers to ensure their formulations meet strict requirements. Production sites are audited and a set of guidelines must be met prior to a chemical supplier selling “bluesign certified” formulations. Approved bluesign partners regularly report their continuous improvement and progress in energy, water and chemical usage, and are subject to on-site audits. Many large global chemical suppliers including Huntsman, Archroma, CHT and Dyestar are bluesign partners and produce bluesign-compliant formulations.

Bluesign chemicals are available for all stages of textile production, from spinning to garment manufacturing. This enables brands and manufacturing facilities to make smarter and safer choices.

Bluesign assesses and assigns chemicals to one of three categories:

1. Blue: safe to use

2. Gray: special handling required

3. Black: forbidden

The bluesign system helps factories manage "gray" chemicals and replace "black" chemicals with safer alternatives.

Manufacturing Restricted Substance List

An MRSL differs from a Restricted Substance List (RSL) because it restricts hazardous substances potentially used and discharged into the environment during manufacturing, not just those substances that could be present in finished products. The MRSL addresses any chemical used within the four walls of a manufacturing plant, including those used to make products and clean equipment and facilities.

The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals group developed and published an MRSL with input from key stakeholders including brands and chemical companies. ZDHC developed one MRSL for the apparel industry. This benefits brands, manufacturers and chemical companies because they only have to adhere to a single set of criteria with the same chemical restrictions, limits and test methods.

Chemical companies are in the process of developing a list of MRSL-compliant formulations that adhere to the strict limits placed on a given chemical formulation rather than the finished product.

CHEM-IQ

CHEM-IQ is a chemical management tool released by the VF Corporation. Developed in collaboration with third-party experts, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, CHEM-IQ provides a proactive, cost-effective method for identifying and eliminating potentially harmful chemicals before they enter manufacturing.  

Samples from chemical formulations are tested in a lab for the presence of about 400 hazardous chemicals. If any are present above a certain limit, VF works with its supply chain to determine an action plan to move towards safer alternatives.

In addition to the tools and certification systems described above, two small textile chemical formulators, Garmon Chemicals and Beyond Surface Technologies, are also adopting a “front of the pipe” approach.

Garmon’s conscious chemistry

Innovative Italian chemical company Garmon Chemicals has taken an interesting approach in how it assesses, manages and chooses chemical ingredients in its formulations. It recently announced a partnership with Turkish mill Orta denim and Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals.

Garmon incorporates GreenScreens into its raw materials assessment. GreenScreen chemical assessments are based on the hazard profile of a chemical rather than the risk profile. All intentionally added ingredients are screened and assigned a GreenScreen score. Chemicals scored as “Benchmark 1” (to avoid as a chemical of high concern) are not accepted in any formulation. This approach helps Garmon prioritize efforts to find safer alternatives.

The company has developed a range of specialty chemicals called “environmentally conscious chemistry” using GreenScreen as an inspiration for innovation. Garmon has positioned GreenScreen as a platform to develop products for the eco-conscious consumer who demands transparency.

Particularly impressive, Garmon has eliminated potassium permanganate and sodium hypochlorite, two cheap commodity chemicals used to bleach indigo denim. It replaced them with their Avol Oxy White, which provides a similar visual effect.

The advantages of environmentally conscious chemistry include the capability to:

1. Establish long-term partnerships across industries and co-create new capabilities.  

2. Drive science and design, with the goal of developing new aesthetics.

3. Trigger healthy changes throughout the manufacturing supply chain that injects “premium” and “sustainable” and “quality” and “integrity” as operational guiding principles in the garment industry.

Beyond Surface Technologies

BST, a small and innovative chemical company, has a different approach to assessing its raw materials. It selects raw materials with either the highest possible content of bio-based carbon (PDF) or materials approved for use in the personal care or food industry, so that it does not need to worry about contaminants and impurities. If it is safe enough to eat or put on your skin, it is safe enough to be used in apparel.

Patagonia is so impressed, it recently invested in BST through its 20 Million and Change Fund to help BST expand to other functional finishes for textiles, such as water repellency.

As these examples indicate, the textile industry is making progress in reducing environmental pollution in the textile supply chain by focusing on the management of input chemistry. Stronger partnerships among brands, manufacturers and chemicals companies; a more rigorous approach towards the elimination of hazardous chemicals; and innovating to find safer alternatives to chemicals of concern are moving the needle towards safer consumer products within cleaner supply chains. 

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