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4 Nations Unite to Fight Textile Chemical Pollution

The governments of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam are throwing their support behind a $43 million program, phased in over five years, that will tackle chemical pollution in textile production.

Spearheaded by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) with funding and support from the Global Environment Facility, the Basel & Stockholm Convention Regional Centre South-East Asia and the Natural Resources Defence Council, the Reducing Uses and Releases of Chemicals of Concern in the Textile Sector initiative will provide technical support and tools for small and medium-sized enterprises and manufacturers to improve their knowledge and management of hazardous substances, guide them to manage risks to workers and—eventually—eradicate the worst chemical offenders from their operations.

Together, the four countries’ textile sectors employ more than 10 million people and account for nearly 15 percent of the world’s clothing exports. But these economic benefits come with several costs, among them the widespread use of “forever chemicals” such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which do not break down in the environment and endanger human and ecosystem health.

Wet processing factories, where bleaching, printing, dyeing, finishing and laundering occur, are major sources, typically using 0.58 kilograms of chemical inputs for every 1 kilogram of fabric produced. These compounds, UNEP said, can leak into the environment at all stages of the textile life cycle, from production to use to disposal to recycling.

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“The textile sector is a major user of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ which pollute local and global ecosystems,” said Eloise Touni, chemicals and waste program officer at UNEP. “While governments have agreed [on] global bans of the worst chemicals through the Stockholm Convention on POPs, value chains still use thousands of hazardous chemicals like PFAS. UNEP is proud to work with governments and front-runner companies to scale up best practices and phase out chemicals of concern across the whole sector.”

The program will rally Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam to align their textile-related public policies with international best practices, including supply chain transparency and investments in chemical management, eco-innovation and occupational health and safety. Doing so will create the “enabling environment needed to phase out PFAS and other chemicals of concern,” UNEP said.

Processing mills often lack the awareness and technical know-how necessary to manage chemicals according to best practices, said Fauz Ul Azeem, general manager of corporate sustainability and chemical management at Interloop Limited, a textile manufacturer in Pakistan.

“For any production facility, phasing out any chemical from the running inventory is a painful task,” Ul Azeem said. “They need to realign all the running processes after a careful analysis of quality, regulatory and cost impacts.”

“This project will help stakeholders to understand upcoming global mandatory requirements and how a pro-active approach can help them avoid a business impact,” he added. “It will help them learn that considering environmental impacts in their decision-making can lead to long-term benefits”.

Syed Mujtaba Hussain, senior joint secretary of the ministry of climate change in Pakistan, agreed, noting that the country was “keenly aware” of the need to reform its textile industry, both to reduce its environmental impacts and fulfill Pakistan’s international obligations.

“The textile wet processing stage is an environmental ‘hotspot’ in terms of water pollution, ecosystem, human health and climate impacts due to the high use of chemicals and of fossil fuel-derived energy,” Hussain said. “We welcome this project, which will help this important sector to reduce its pollution while accessing new markets for continued growth.”