At a time when everything seems to be accelerating, new clothing collections are released sooner than ever and rapidly distributed in stores. Yet our clothes are made more and more far away. Nowadays, consumers don’t even have the time to ask where their clothes come from, who made them and what products they actually contain. In this article, we wanted to highlight what lies behind our wrinkle-free clothes that are so bright and that don’t need to be ironed. The fact that prices are always lower and that our “easy-care” clothes are always more colorful has a true cost.
Overconsumption of clothing, an ecological disaster
The use of toxic substances in the clothing industry is still widespread and it presents a serious risk to our health and our planet. These chemicals can already be identified at the very first stage of cloth production, from the cultivation of fibers to farming. Mass culture and overproduction have standardized the use of pesticides, fertilizers and other genetically modified substances in order to maximize land space. These products are not only toxic for humans, fauna and flora, but they also make the soil dependent to them. The more we use them, the more we need them. Since beneficial organisms take longer to recover from poisoning than pest species, using chemical pesticides and other chemicals creates a vicious cycle, where the more the pesticide is used the more likely it is that pests will return in the future, requiring further use of chemical pesticides. The land becomes more exhausted every year, soil quality decreases and we will gradually end up with what we could call the “death of the soil”.
Clothes that make us sick
Other toxic substances are used in the production process of clothing: dyes, prints, softening treatments, non-iron, flame-retardant, water-repellent, anti-mould, etc. Today, most of our clothes are manufactured in Asia, where the regulations governing the industry are still in their infancy. These toxic products, which are often banned in Europe, are discharged into the water that the local population drinks and end up in the soil.
These toxic products do not disappear after the production stage. They impregnate our clothes, which are in direct contact with our skin at all times. Rubbing, sweating and temperature variations also make it easy for these chemicals to be transferred to our skin. Some of these products tend to disappear with washes (hence the importance of washing clothes once or twice before wearing them), but the dyes and substances that fix the dyes remain throughout the life cycle of the garment.
Other toxic substances are involved in the textile production process. They are contained in dyes and other products that make fabrics impermeable for instance, non-iron and above all very cheap. Usually, a single cleaning is enough to remove toxic chemicals in “easy-care” clothes. However, dyes and all substances used to fix the colors remain throughout the entire life cycle of the clothes.
These chemical dyes are hazardous because they contain heavy metals, azo dyes, formaldehyde and chlorine. At each wash, 80% of these substances seep out into wastewater. Dyes contribute not only to the pollution of water but also to the intoxication of underwater flora and fauna. The bioaccumulation phenomenon leads to the emanation of micro-particles from these substances and their concentration on seaweed, which will then be eaten by the fish, intoxicated in turn. And so on up until the end of the food chain reaching the final consumer. Thus we are directly affected by the health disaster that the clothing industry is currently causing.
The clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world and two thirds of our clothing would be impregnated with chemicals harmful to our health according to the NGO Greenpeace in its report entitled “The toxic underwear of fashion“. To give you an overview of the seriousness of the situation, below is a list of the main substances identified by the NGO after having analyzed 141 clothing items of different brands:
- Nonylphenol ethoxylate: an endocrine disruptor used for its “ironed” effect that can be found in certain detergents. You can get rid of it by washing your new clothes before wearing them, but it will still end up wastewater and pollute streams before accumulating in our environment. It affects the nervous system and causes irritation of the respiratory tract, eyes and skin.
- Phthalates: hormone disruptors that cause fertility decline and fetal malformations. They are used to soften fabrics and abound on clothes containing logos or plasticized drawings. It is also possible to get rid of it in a few washes but they will always pour in wastewater.
- Azoic dyes: highly toxic to humans, carcinogenic and mutagenic. We find them in very colorful clothes which are fluo or very colorful. These substances have been banned by the European Union but not in non-EU areas where most of our clothes come from (China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, etc.).
- Formaldehyde: classified as a “known human carcinogenic”. It’s often present in synthetic items to make them non-iron and strengthen the fixation of dyes. Formaldehyde causes irritation of the respiratory tract and of the eyes, increases the risk of asthmatic diseases and allergies.
- Heavy metals: essentially found in dyes, they make clothes shinier. Lead, nickel and cadmium are very harmful to human health through direct contact (inhalation) or extended contact with clothing. Their dangerousness is no longer in question, they are accused of causing damage to vital organs (kidneys, liver) and some are powerful neurotoxins (disruption of the brain system).
The issue with these toxic substances is people’s recurrent exposition to them. We often buy new clothes, and we wear them day and night. Consumers, textile workers and communities living next to large factories are at significant risk on a daily basis. In most production countries, environmental and social standards are still too permissive and it becomes vital to establish a strict legislative framework in order to respond to the tragedy that an unbridled production has generated over the past ten years.
Tips to reduce your exposure to toxic substances :
- Use natural fibers rather than synthetic fibers like elastane, chlorofibre, polyamide, acrylic or polyester
- Favor clothing with “low impact fiber reactive dyes”
- Avoid clothes with flocked designs as they contain a high level of phthalates
- Avoid brightly colored or fluorescent clothing as it contains azo dyes
- Always wash your new clothes at least once before wearing them