In our last installment of Fashion Friday, we visited the importance of increased supply chain visibility and the impact fast fashion is having on labor conditions of textile factories in low wage countries. Another area of concern in fashion that is gaining public awareness is the impact of toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process of many of today’s well-known retailers.
Why the prevalent use of toxic chemicals? Well the issue lies in the lack of transparency in where textiles are coming from and how garments are manufactured. Because textile and garment factories are often located less developed countries, there’s often also little government oversight, which allows fabrics to be dyed and treated using toxic chemicals that wreak havoc on the environment. There have been cases of chemicals running into the water, such as the Pearl River in China where dye used in jeans has turned the water black. And the problem doesn’t stop there. The fabrics that have been treated using toxic chemicals are then used to make garments that are sold to customers all over the world. These garments, still retaining some chemical residue, can be harmful to the workers handling the clothing and harmful to the customer who ends up wearing the final product.
It’s an issue that is gaining a lot of publicity. From demonstrations at Fashion Week to media campaigns highlighting the existence of toxic chemicals found in clothing, consumers are starting to take note and questioning where their clothes are coming from and how the fabrics are processed.
There is some regulatory oversight, but it’s difficult to implement legal compliance because of the nature of the fashion industry’s globalized supply chains. California, of course, is at the forefront by endeavoring to protect the end user from toxic chemical exposure. California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, also known as Proposition 65, requires a warning when a person will be exposed to dangerous chemicals. While the goal of Proposition 65 was to protect drinking water from toxic substances, this law has been primarily, and quite successfully, used in eliminating exposures in consumer products. So the next time you’re in sunny L.A. shopping at your favorite mall for a pair of aviators and notice an ominous looking warning that your sunglasses could cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, thank Prop 65.
By and large, it’s going to be up to the individual retailer to ensure oversight on supply sources and manufacturing processes through their own internal policies. There are numerous organizations that provide information on eco-conscious textile suppliers and tools on how to create environmentally sustainable fashion, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, and the Global Organic Textile Standard . And the key is always supply chain visibility.
Fast Fashion giant H&M has a garment recycling program and is part of the Better Cotton Initiative, which promotes the use of organic and recycled cotton. Their “Conscious Collection” commits to using sustainable fabrics through partnerships with responsible suppliers and the company itself is transparent in their quest to become environmentally and socially conscious by publishing periodic Sustainability Reports. Even smaller companies such as The Reformation show that sustainable clothing can be manufactured locally and ethically and still be marketable to the ever changing whim of trend setters. And luxury fashion houses are not to be left out. Stella McCartney has long been known for eco-conscious fashion. There’s also Kering, the luxury goods holding company with a portfolio that includes Alexander McQueen, Gucci, and Balenciaga, which employs consulting experts from NGOs to oversee strategy with an environmental focus and a full-time employee in each brand dedicated to sustainability.
Any fashion company can implement and enforce sustainability and environmental policies in their supply chains. The key is to include provisions requiring sustainability in supply chain agreements, as well as auditing provisions to ensure compliance. Trust, but verify.