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Oeko-Tex Outlines Steps to Take Harmful Chemicals out of Textile Supply Chains

It’s the dirty side of the fashion industry–all the chemicals that go into making textiles and apparel–and Oeko-Tex is one of the key companies leading the way to find solutions to the problem.

Elana Taylor, account executive for Hohenstein-Oeko-Tex, in a talk on “Taking Harmful Chemicals Out of the Sustainability Equation,” as part of the Lenzing Seminar Series at Texworld USA Monday, said, “systemic change is needed” to improve the way the industry uses chemicals and work toward goals of limiting or eliminating hazardous materials.

Oeko-Tex uses a host of methods, tools and certifications to help textile companies meet 2020 goals for zero discharge of hazardous chemicals, and to improve the sustainability of textiles and garments throughout their supply chains.

To get there, Oeko-Tex approaches the effort in three parts–input, process and output.

Hohenstein, which represents Oeko-Tex in the U.S. and 40 countries around the world, is a textile research organization that tests textiles for a variety of characteristics and performance criteria, as well as hazardous chemicals. There are more than 14,000 companies that have some sort of Oeko-Tex certification, which are renewed annually.

And in an age where the consumer is every more savvy about the products they’re buying and how each impact both their health and the environment at large, chemical management is taking greater importance in supply chains.

“Everyone of us in this room is a consumer and we’re all wearing clothes,” Taylor pointed out. “Chances are when we go to sleep tonight, we’ll be sandwich between more textiles like blankets and sheets. So, textiles are touching our skin day and night.”

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The issue, she noted, is chemicals used to process textiles can leave residual substances that can be harmful. Particularly when they’re discarded into the environment.

“Unfortunately, the textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world and the main reason for that is chemicals,” Taylor said.

Chemical management is also critical because of a need to meet regulations and requirements for compliance.

There are between 4.000 and 8,000 chemicals used in textiles today, which can be found in the actual product or in the wastewater or air. That fact was the basis of Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign in 2011, which gave voice to the toxic water pollution created by apparel manufacturing. The goal for the industry is zero discharge of hazardous substances by 2020.

Oeko-Tex has also developed a restricted substance list of more than 300 hazardous chemicals to help companies be able to identify and eliminate them. And, as Taylor noted, “Having strong supplier relationships is important in achieving these goals.”

Oeko-Tex’s tools, certifications and labels address chemical management along the supply chain. The Eco-Passport certification ensures safe chemical management and Detox to Zero is a chemical management tool. The STEP certification is for factory processes certification, while the Made in Green label ensures product sustainability. The core Standard 100, which has been around for 27 years, and the Leather certification, both guarantee overall product safety.

All these systems are meant to help companies continually improve, but are not the answer unto themselves, according to Taylor.

“We know that sustainability isn’t something that happens overnight,” she said. “It’s something that must be learned and continually evolve.”