A new report by Transformers Foundation, a denim-industry group that seeks to better the supply chain, provides a glimpse into the murky world of chemical auditing in the fashion industry.
Written and researched by independent journalist Alden Wicker, whose book “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick” will be released next year, the study is called “Fashion’s Chemical Certification Complex: Needlessly Complicated, Woefully Ineffective.”
A seven-member review board composed of industry professionals and members of Transformers Foundation offered feedback throughout the process, which Wicker could incorporate as she saw fit. In addition, 18 industry experts lent their time to be interviewed for the project.
In the paper, Wicker explains how private-sector auditors, consultancies, labs and certifications offer third-party safety protocols and testing but since a single system has not been agreed upon by the supply chain, the current model is expensive, ineffectual and dangerous as the use of harmful chemicals continues and therefore puts garment workers and consumers at risk.
To show how under-researched the science of textile toxicology is, Wicker said during an online press conference that no one is even sure how many chemicals are employed in textile and apparel production. “There’s a lot of uncertainty around how many chemicals are used specifically in fashion,” she said. “A few years ago, Nike estimated that 3,000 chemicals are used in fashion, but there’s evidence that it might be more than that. For example, Duke researchers have identified nearly 5,000 registered chemicals that look like [they] have the chemical structure of a dye.”
She also noted that many brands lack their own in-house knowledge about what is happening in production. “We talked to Rehan Ahmed [deputy manager of sustainability at Crescent Bahuman] in Pakistan, and he says brands have taken more of an interest recently, but most of them are still going through intermediaries, so they don’t really have full understanding of what’s going on in their supply chain.”
Hundreds of different individual restricted substances lists (RSLs) and competing certification companies as well as bogus, rubber-stamped seals of approval have also aggravated the problem Wicker found. “A lot of the money in this system that’s trying to make fashion safe is flowing towards testing and labels and certificates instead of research and development—both research and development from chemical manufacturers who are trying to come up with alternatives as well as research into toxicology so we can have more information about what chemicals are doing,” she said.
Another problem is varying regulations by region or country. She pointed out that the U.S. does not demand an ingredients list for clothing unlike food and that the Environmental Protection Agency has not attempted to ban a chemical since the 1980s. The European Union, meanwhile, has banned more than 30 hazardous substances in consumer textile products.
The report concludes with several calls to action and stresses that collaboration is necessary to achieve successful results. Brands and retailers are urged to ascribe to the ZDHC MRSL and the AFIRM RSL to standardize chemical management. It also wants them to develop in-house technical expertise, to treat suppliers ethically, to lobby governments to incorporate standards into law and to provide ingredients lists for consumers.
It recommends that legislators fund and empower governing bodies to focus on consumer chemical safety, align with other nations to unify chemical guidance and pass due diligence laws that hold fashion companies responsible for worker safety.
Finally, it wants chemical companies to come together to decide which chemicals need to be rescinded and to help educate journalists, legislators and advocates about chemistry.
Asked at the press conference if the final utopian recommendations are actually achievable, Wicker said she thinks they are. “It’s possible. It is an incredibly complex conversation. And the thing is, is that right now, everybody’s doing it in isolation. You have the E.U., you have California, you have Maine, you have Japan. And everybody’s just sort of coming up with their own systems. And there at least needs to be some sort of working group where everybody can come together and start talking about these things.”
“Of course, as soon as the politicians get involved, you know, it gets really, really complicated, but it’s not impossible,” added Alberto de Conti, head of marketing and the fashion division at Rudolf Group, and a member of the report’s review committee. “It happened in other industries so I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t happen [in fashion too].”