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Ambiguity Looms Over Chemical Auditing

Transformers Foundation took its conversation about supply chain auditing certifications on the road last week to Bluezone in Munich. 

It’s a topic the nonprofit covered in a report about the complexity of chemical auditing and in recent follow-up webinars that have highlighted the how the realm of voluntary chemical safety can be “needlessly complicated and woefully ineffective,” according to Kim Van der Weed, Transformer Foundation intelligence director.

The report, she added, details how the “chaos of chemicals and how chemical certification schemes” are being leveraged by brands and retailers as a market differentiator at the expense of actors across the supply chain.

“We have a kind of fatigue from all the audits,” said Romain Narcy, partner at the Italian laundry Ereks-Blue Matters, adding that it started with social auditing systems, followed by environmental and now chemical. He described the processes as repetitive (“we input the same data into different databases”) and an ever increasing cost for the company as it pays for about 90 percent of the certifications.

Despite being redundant, Isabel Tonaco, executive director of SCTI (Sustainable Chemistry for the Textile Industry), said the data can be overwhelming. A chemical producer with 3,000 products must match against 350 MRSLs, working with over 1 million combinations of data points and that’s not counting requirements for additional certifications, Tonaco said.

“This rush for data has caused a lot of pain and challenges [for companies] because in a way you want to keep your intellectual property safe [as its part of] what makes a business successful. And other hand you want to make sure that everybody in the chain gets the meaningful data so they can make the proper claims about their products,” she continued. 

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Hoarding certifications is one way for brands to have confidence in their suppliers, but Narcy said it’s also an effect of brands not having the technical expertise anymore in chemicals. Van der Weed added that though mills may have more information than brands, they’re not chemists either. Rather, they’re playing a game of telephone with their clients.  

“They get some information from the chemical companies, then they do their best to pass it on to the brands and retailers who then fail totally to pass it on to the consumer,” she said.  

Despite all good intentions, Tonaco said many organizations interpretate information in their own way. That ambiguity underscores the need for standards.

“Chemical compliance is a must. It is a license to operate,” she said. “Nobody should jeopardize or compromise worker safety, environmental pollution and consumers’ health and well-being.” 

However, the purpose of chemical audits has been muddled over the years, Tonaco said, especially their connection to sustainability. 

“Are we really driving sustainability? Is this going to help us to achieve climate targets that are in front of us today? No,” she said, adding that work has been done to mitigate the supply chain’s fear of toxic substances. “We need to change this mindset, collaborate, talk to everybody in the chain to make sure that we don’t duplicate anymore. We need to build on things that are meaningful for [the] future.” 

A single standard remains the elusive silver bullet that the industry speaks of endlessly. 

“The only way to succeed is to create a standard that is the same for all of us. We should play with the same rules because we are in the same game,” said Maurizio Morosini, Tonello sales director. 

In the aftermath of publishing its report on chemical auditing, Van der Weed said chemical companies, mills, manufacturers, and brands have said they’re ready for the conversation. It has also given rise to questions about what a collaboration would look like. Is it a common standard, or, in the name of sustainability, or is it aligning around what the industry wants in its products as opposed to what it doesn’t?

To get to that latter stage, Narcy said the denim industry must first address the two elephants in the room: potassium permanganate and pumice stone.

“Pumice stone is a massive source of pollution. It’s destroying the environment. It’s destroying our machinery. It’s hard to enter for the workers. We have other solutions and new technologies are appearing but [stone] is cheap so we continue to use it and there is no nobody forcing you to get rid of it,” he said. “Potassium permanganate is the same. It’s bad for the environment, but no regulation is completely forbidding it, so we still use it.”

When the industry stops choosing cheap over responsible, Narcy said, it can begin to tackle “more complicated stuff.”

“I find it completely crazy the idea that monthly Turkey is exporting pumice stone to Bangladesh and Pakistan in 40-foot containers that end up as sludge is the river of these countries,” he said.