Consider, for a moment, that a quarter of the world’s chemical output is used to make textiles (some 8,000 different chemicals are used across the industry). And while most of those substances are safe when handled properly, many others escape into the environment, polluting water and endangering lives. As many as 100 million people in India don’t have access to safe water, for example, in large part because of industrial pollution. Luckily, it’s possible to make apparel without environmental harm.
That’s all according to Detoxing the Fashion Industry for Dummies, a digestible new guide that’s free to download and released by the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Foundation, or ZDHC, an industry group launched in 2011 to eliminate dangerous substances in the apparel industry. Here are seven simple tips inspired by the book on how apparel companies, including cash-strapped startups and independent designers, can implement a safe chemical program and do their part to detox fashion.
1. Detoxing starts in the design department.
Brands have the most control over sustainability in the design process. The same goes for safe chemistry, says Dummies co-author and ZDHC Foundation Executive Director Frank Michel. “Design is where it starts. And the designer needs to understand the impact of chemistry.” Design teams can start that education by reading the Dummies book and viewing the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List—a regularly updated catalogue of chemicals banned from the apparel production process—for free online. The organization also has a training academy and certification courses, although these services come with a fee.
For designers, making a choice to detox products can be as simple as changing a certain pigment made with a hazardous dye to a non-toxic option. “That makes a huge difference if there are safer alternatives available and that particular pigment is challenging,” says Michel. Designers might also cut out unnecessary performance features made with harmful substances. Perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, typically used in water-repellent coatings, “take a very long time to break down, and some may be harmful,” the book notes. If they’re not necessary for the product, an easy first step is to eliminate them.
2. There are no “good” or “bad” chemicals.
Myths about chemicals abound, like notions that natural chemicals are safer or that certain substances, like Azo dyes or chromium, are always bad and can’t be safely used. “Chemistry isn’t good or bad in and of itself – it’s the details that matter,” the Dummies book explains. The way chemicals are used and how much of them are used determine their impact as much as inherent toxicity.
Take the example of salt, a seemingly benign household substance used in processing textiles and to help dye adhere to fabrics. If there’s too much salt in manufacturers’ wastewater, it causes serious damage to the ecosystem.
What’s more, switching to new materials to avoid chemicals perceived to be “bad” can create new problems. The most popular alternative to chrome-tanned leather for example is synthetic or “vegan” leather. “It’s fabric that is coated with plastic, and that is not the best thing if you look at the environmental impacts,” says Michel, which include a large carbon footprint and microplastics released into the environment.
Detoxing requires a more nuanced and holistic approach, says Michel. “What detox really means is you go into your supply chain and you look at process chemistry and you replace hazardous chemistry with a better alternative, and that goes across the entire value chain from the seed to the ready-made garment.”
3. Don’t tack it on. Use safe chemistry to drive your sustainability strategy.
Sustainability can be overwhelming, requiring brands to trace their climate and water impacts, single-use plastics, waste, and so on. But there is a simpler way to look at it, says Michel. “At the end of the day, everything starts with chemistry.” Detoxing can help brands frame all areas of environmental impact—from climate change, which is the burning of chemicals in oil, to water and air pollution, which is caused by the release of chemicals into the environment—and place them under one umbrella. “What I’m telling my brands is that when they want to communicate about their water program or about climate change and air emissions, it all starts with chemistry,” says Michel.
4. Think through impacts at every stage of your product.
In the past, many brands addressed chemicals by only testing finished products for hazardous substances, but that approach only protects consumers without any attention paid to the workers and environment in producer countries.
Michel uses the example of a batch of jeans, which can be washed at the factory multiple times until any hazardous chemicals used in the production process are whisked away. But that means the chemicals are in the wastewater of the factory. “And we have global waterways. Chemicals travel, so it’ll come back on us,” he says.
Brands have to think beyond non-toxic raw materials as well. A good example is organic cotton, which although farmed without pesticides, can then be bleached and dyed and doused with chemicals to prepare garments for shipping. “Once the garments are finished, they may be treated with biocides to prevent mould during shipping and storage,” explains the Dummies book. Think through the entire production process, from the farm or refinery to the finishing and shipping.
5. Educate your consumers about chemicals, but don’t greenwash.
For brands, it’s tempting to tell black and white stories about sustainability, including stories about “good” and “bad” chemicals. But be careful not to greenwash. For example, clothing sold in North American and Europe is required by law to meet consumer safety standards. “Those [brands] that are claiming to have safe products are literally just following the regulations,” says Michel. What’s more, describing something as natural is not shorthand for non-toxic. “Chemistry is not less poisonous if it’s natural,” says Michel.
There are authentic ways brands can communicate what they’re doing around safer chemistry. For example, if a company chooses non-toxic pigments or designs a dress shirt without a wrinkle-free finish—often made from formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen—they can communicate about that choice. “Inform your consumers on product performance and what is really needed,” says Michel.
6. Improve traceability and get to know your supply chain.
Traceability is a buzzword in fashion, and it’s the same tool brands need to truly start detoxing their supply chains. Chemicals are introduced during the manufacturing process, so working hand-in-hand with suppliers is the most important step, says Michel. “Understand your suppliers and engage with your supply chain.” The design team should have a close relationship with procurement and the buying team, he adds, so that clear instructions are passed on to factories about what substances can and can’t be used.
Although total traceability down to the raw material or farm level is challenging in the fashion industry today (Michel foresees it getting easier in the near-future, thanks to blockchain technology), a brand working with its main suppliers and sub-suppliers to use the ZDHC MRSL makes a huge impact and is an easy place to start. “It’s very easy to implement,” says Michel. “It’s not rocket science. It’s just a list.”
7. Small brands can leverage what big brands are doing.
A growing number of big brands “heavily invest in understanding their products,” says Michel, so where does that leave small brands and startups who don’t have the cash for expensive supply chain management? The ZDHC Foundation’s work has helped streamline the industry around common chemical standards and that’s helping to bring costs down. Small brands can also leverage what big brands are doing, including using the same suppliers that have committed to detoxing when possible, Michel advises. “Look at what the big boys do. Try to leverage their supply chain.”
“If you would have asked me when we started, how possible is it to really take out hazardous chemicals in fashion,” says Michel, “I would have said we have a 30% or 20% chance.” Thankfully, fashion’s impact on the environment is more closely measured and better understood today than just a few years ago. There is a growing consensus around harmful chemicals and how to remove them. This provides a benchmark for fashion, so the industry can realistically track its improvements, says Michel, who’s become optimistic about the prospects of detoxing fashion for good.
“I would say there’s a hundred percent chance [we can remove hazardous chemicals],” says Michel, “when governments and the industry are pulling in the right direction.”