Buyer beware: Customers who purchase clothing from ultra-fast-fashion e-tailers such as AliExpress, Shein and Zaful could be exposing themselves to potentially toxic chemicals, a new investigation has found.
In a recent analysis of 38 children’s, adult’s and maternity items, commissioned by CBC’s “Marketplace,” scientists found that one in five contained elevated levels of lead, phthalates and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS.
A jacket for toddlers purchased from Chinese startup Shein contained nearly 20 times the amount of lead that Health Canada says is safe for children, the Canadian watchdog program said. A red purse, also from TikTok’s buzziest brand, registered five times more than the agency’s threshold. Lead contamination is a long-recognized hazard, resulting in potential cardiovascular, kidney, nervous system and reproductive problems. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible.
One women’s raincoat, purchased for less than $13 from AliExpress, an eBay-like platform owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, harbored levels of PFAS far higher than the “trace amounts” that Health Canada allows. PFAS are a controversial class of “forever chemicals” that provide many types of outerwear with stain and water resistance. Linked to a raft of health concerns, including liver and kidney damage, reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of certain cancers, they can also accumulate in humans and wildlife, travel through soil and groundwater, and concentrate in indoor air if they’re airborne.
A clear plastic tote from Zaful, another Chinese e-tailer, contained enough phthalates that the scientists asked Health Canada to review the product. The agency restricts certain phthalates in children’s toys to no more than 1,000 parts per million each. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that have been connected to reproductive issues, including infertility, and some types of cancers.
“People should be shocked—this is hazardous waste,” said Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and University of Toronto professor who oversaw the testing. “I’m alarmed because we’re buying what looks cute and fashionable on this incredibly short fashion cycle. What we’re doing today is to look [for] very short-lived enjoyment out of some articles of clothing that cost so much in terms of our…future health and environmental health. That cost is not worth it.”
Nathaniel Sponsler, group director of Apparel and Footwear International RSL Management, better known as AFIRM Group, a multistakeholder organization that works to reduce toxic chemicals in the industry, said he wasn’t surprised by CBC‘s findings.
“It takes a concerted effort by brands to control their supply chains and keep these and other substances under regulated and/or voluntary limits,” he told Sourcing Journal. “Newer, faster upstarts typically do not have very advanced or mature chemical control policies—they typically implement them over time as they gain more market share or increase sales.”
The problem with the textile supply chain is that current standards and technology are insufficient for avoiding chemicals of concern, said Martin Mulvihill, co-founder and managing partner at Safer Made, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund that invests in companies that reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals. As a result, many brands and retailers unknowingly churn out products that contain hazards such as lead, phthalates and PFAS.
Stronger legislation, particularly outside the European Union, is still needed, Sponsler and Mulvihill added. With a few exceptions, the large class of PFAS substances is not currently regulated. Unless companies adhere to standards such as Bluesign or Oeko-Tex, which set stringent limits for restricted substances based on international regulations like the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, or REACH, chemical monitoring can fall by the wayside.
“Chemical tracking in the textile industry is a largely manual process and takes significant time and effort for brands who want to ensure they are using the best materials,” he told Sourcing Journal. “Unfortunately, many fast-fashion brands have not or cannot devote the time and resources to invest in chemical management within their supply chains.”
Shein said it has yanked the jacket and purse from its app and is looking into the offending suppliers. “When we learned that items sold on our site tested positive for harmful materials, we immediately removed them and started an investigation of the suppliers,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We are continuously working to improve our supply chain and will ensure our training and code of conduct reinforce that the use of these types of materials is unacceptable. Above all else, Shein is committed to providing quality, safe and affordable products.”
Similarly, AliExpress told Sourcing Journal that it will be removing the raincoat while it conducts its own investigation.
Zaful said will be recalling the clear tote and refunding anyone who purchased it. “We will ensure that this does not happen again since we value our customers’ safety and we will continue to improve our items lines and overall quality to match standards,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We want to thank third-party media for helping us find issues and urging us to do better in the future.”