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Report: Target Leads, Shein and Amazon Lag on Tackling Chemicals in Clothing

Toxic chemicals continue to plague the apparel industry, yet fewer than a handful of America’s biggest retailers are addressing the issue with robust management policies for their own-brand products, a new report claims.

In fact, only Target has emerged as the “clear leader” when it comes to protecting consumers and garment workers from hazardous chemicals both from its supply chain and on the items themselves, according to Green America’s latest “Toxic Textiles” scorecard. The bulls-eye retailer, which hawks clothing under private labels such as All in Motion and Universal Thread, maintains publicly available restricted substances (RSL) and manufacturing restricted substances lists (MRSL), the environmental nonprofit said. Equally important, Target has “clearly stated” goals of eliminating some hazardous classes of chemicals in a time-bound manner.

Amazon, on the other hand, “must do better,” said Green America. Despite being the largest clothing purveyor in the United States, the Everything Store posts no public information about its chemical management strategy for private labels such as Goodthreads and Lark & Ro. Neither has it disclosed an RSL or MSRL for apparel, which the organization said could help it tackle the impacts of its own-brand products while nudging sellers on its platform to bolster their own chemical management policies.

Green America Toxic Textiles scorecard
Target is the “clear leader” among U.S. retailers, Green America said. Green America

Macy’s, Norstrom and Walmart fell between the two in terms of performance. Of the three, only Walmart has provided a roadmap for phasing out or reducing priority chemicals such as formaldehyde and phthalates, though it doesn’t publish an RSL or MSRL, Green America said. Macy’s has made a time-bound commitment to publish an RSL and MSRL, while Nordstrom posts its RSL but not an MSRL. The retailers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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“Looking at the success of some companies on the scorecard, there is simply no reason for a company to not, at a minimum, have a restricted substances list and a manufacturing restricted substances list,” Charlotte Tate, labor justice campaigns director at Green America, said in a statement. “In just a few years, we’ve seen some companies take major steps in the right direction, and now, we must see retailers—some of which, notably Amazon, have had hugely profitable years—step it up on chemical management in apparel.”

Indeed, an analysis of 10 leading brands showed that individual clothing purveyors are making bigger strides compared with their big-box counterparts. Adidas, Gap, H&M, Nike and Zara garnered Green America’s approval for publishing their RSLs and MSRLS as well as committing to eliminate or reduce certain hazardous chemicals in a specific time frame. The Children’s Place and The North Face posted both lists but fell short of stating a time-bound commitment to nix at least one class of chemicals or a percentage of total chemicals used, according to the organization.

“H&M Group’s products are safe for our customers to use and we pay great consideration to customers’ health and the environment,” an H&M spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Our vision is to lead the change towards safe products and a toxic-free fashion future, and our long-term goal and ambition is to have 100 percent toxic-free fashion by 2030.”

Carter’s, which also owns OshKosh B’Gosh and Skip Hop, has a publicly available RSL but not an MRSL or a time-bound promise to weed out priority substances. Green America noted, however, that Carter’s didn’t publish an RSL in 2019, but did so after 30,000 people signed a petition urging the company to be more transparent. This year, Carter’s also dispatched its first sustainability report, which included promises to require “many” raw material suppliers to carry Oeko-Tex certification and obtain the same seal of approval for “much of” its 0-24 months baby clothing by 2022. Though they lack specificity, the pledges are a positive step, Green America said.

Green America Toxic Textiles scorecard
Carter’s showed improvement by publishing an RSL, though there is still room for growth. Green America

The worst-performing brands, according to the report, are Forever 21 and Shein, both of which have so far failed to produce an RSL, MSRL or any time-bound commitment to phase out hazardous chemicals. E-tail phenom Shein, which was previously caught out for selling a toddler’s jacket with nearly 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children, declined to offer a statement, as did Adidas, Carter’s and Gap; the other brands did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With some 8,000 different chemicals used to manufacture clothing, according to Green America, there is “simply no reason” a company should not have at a minimum an RSL and an MRSL.

“Consumers demand that companies improve their toxic chemical and sustainability policies, and we’re starting to see retailers and brands respond,” Todd Larsen, executive co-director of consumer and corporate engagement at Green America, said. “While it is important for consumers to make informed decisions in their shopping habits, it is even more crucial for companies to take responsibility for the huge role they play.”