Clothes Fashion

Can Clothing Harm Your Health? Greenpeace Says Yes

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By Arwa Lodhi

We normally think of a fashion victim as being someone who tries too hard to make fashion statement, or perhaps an individual who has no sense of personal style, and just blindly follows trends. But the term ‘fashion victim’ takes on a whole new meaning if we look at Greenpeace’s report entitled  Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up.

The report highlights the fact that many fashion brands today – even the most expensive. ‘luxury’ brands – use chemicals to make their clothing that are so toxic, they can cause skin rashes by merely wearing them.

For example, when 20 brands including Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Zara were tested, every one of them was found to contain traces of hazardous chemicals in at least one of their clothing items. According to the report, Calvin Klein was the worst offender, with 88 percent of the items tested found to contain hazardous chemicals, while Levi’s came second with 82 percent, and Zara claimed third place with 70 percent. As for the luxury brands, Dior and D&G were the worst offenders, followed by Louis Vuitton, Armani, and Marc Jacobs.

Some of the chemicals were the residue of the production process, whilst others were incorporated right into the fabric. When broken down (due to body heat or washing, for example), these toxins can disrupt hormones and even cause cancer. Of all the chemicals found, the worst are phthalates and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain dyes; nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were found in just under two-thirds of the 141 garments tested. Children are especially sensitive to toxins, but unfortunately all of these chemicals were found in children’s clothing too – even in luxury labels like Hermes and Dior.

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No Escape

Even if you avoid those brands, the whole process of clothing manufacture is so toxic that all of us, no matter where we live, are suffering from what economists refer to as the ‘externalities’ of the fashion industry. This is the cost we all must pay, but don’t often think about when buying new goods – think water contamination, pesticide residue and air pollution.

We, the taxpayers, usually carry the cost of cleaning up manufacturer’s messes. You may think there are laws in developed countries to stop such contamination of the water, air and earth, but these are surprisingly lax in some places like the USA, and where the laws are even looser (or non-existent), that’s exactly where clothing makers go, in order to exploit this. What’s more, Greenpeace reveals that brands break environmental protection rules with impunity, gravely harming the workers who are exposed to them every day.

 Of course toxic chemicals are banned in North America and Europe eventually find their way across the globe, be it through precipitation, wind, or by washing garments that carry the toxins into our waterways.

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Fast Fashion, Slow Fashion: It’s All the Same

Greenpeace’s report also reveals another fact: although many ‘greenwashing’ sites would have us believe that buying luxury brands is ‘better’ because they use a fancier manufacturing process as cheaper ones, the truth is – they don’t.

Whether it’s Levi’s or Louis Vuitton, Levi’s or Dior, when it comes to using toxic chemicals, luxury brands are just as bad as high street ones – possibly even worse, in the sense that their marketing campaigns fool us into believing they’re safer, or of a higher calibre of material. Though some products such as bags are stamped as ‘Made in Italy’ or “Made in France’, other products like tops and jackets may be made in other countries like Vietnam, Taiwan or Bangladesh, where environmental standards are low.

Silver Lining

But the news isn’t all bad – remember that Burberry campaign with Romeo Beckham wearing a shiny metallic jacket? Well, after it was revealed that the fabric used to make that line contained highly toxic chemicals, Burberry listened to the growing consumer demand for cleaner clothing, and made a commitment to detox its brands. The same is true for Valentino, who have won Greenpeace’s stamp of approval. Surely the more toxic brands, including Versace, Dior, Louis Vuitton and (surprisingly to some due to her ‘green’ marketing), Vivienne Westwood, can follow suit?

Meanwhile, on the high street, even though the world’s biggest clothing company, Zara, remains ‘toxic’, H&M and Marks & Spencer and C&A have agreed to pilot programmes that would disclose their suppliers’ pollution data as part of their Detox Action Plans, providing a much-needed sliver of transparency into a notoriously murky world.

Now more than ever, we care about what we put into our bodies; #cleaneating is a huge phenomenon. Organic skincare and cosmetics are also on the rise, as consumers learn of the harmful chemicals most grooming products contain. Isn’t it time we demand cleaner clothing, too? Our health and that of the planet depend on it.

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For more information, or to put some pressure on fashion companies to detox your clothing, click here.

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