| Burberry has committed to start disclosing chemical discharges of its suppliers in the global south by the end of June 2014. Photograph: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images|
A frequent question about producing toxin-free clothing is whether it is economically feasible for textile companies to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. The answer is resoundingly yes; doing so is essential if companies want to keep their business sustainable.
The global textile industry is notorious for using potentially hazardous chemicals.According to research, more than 550 types of dyes and over 3,000 chemicals of auxiliaries containing carcinogenic chemicals, hormone disruptors, or heavy metals, are restricted for use in textile products under the laws of different countries.
Research published by Greenpeace found that some of the chemicals widely used in the textile industry are toxic to reproductive development in mammals or interfere with the hormone system. And children may be more sensitive to the effects of these hazardous chemicals than adults. A recent UNEP and WHO report supported the proposition that the timing of some impacts caused by hormone disruptors can be critical, particularly for growing children.
There is global concern over this issue (half a million people signed up to the GreenpeaceDETOX campaign within days of its launch in 2012) and it has created far-reaching impacts within the global textile industry. Some leading players within the industry such as Benetton have moved to address the problem with a policy of implementing strict controls over its supply chain. Other companies have worked closely with their suppliers, often located in developing countries, to understand what is being used in the production of their products and what safer substitutes might be.
Entire groups of toxic chemicals, previously ubiquitous in the supply chain, have been phased out by such companies within a short period of time – for example, biodegradable biopolymer and fluorocarbon-free water repellent materials are used as safer alternatives. More importantly, these companies have created incentives for "upstream" players in the textile supply chain, those who provide dyes and detergents, to weigh-in and start vying for a share in the market for safer alternatives.
High-end British brand Burberry this week committed to start disclosing the chemical discharges of its suppliers in the global south by the end of June 2014. And by 1 July 2016, the fashion house says it will eliminate all per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals from its supply-chain. This opens a new chapter in the story of toxic-free fashion and raises the bar for the luxury sector. Brands such as Gucci, Versace and Louis Vuitton now risk getting left behind.
Textile industry meetings in Beijing or Shanghai are now filled with energetic chemical engineers showing greener product lines to their potential customers in the textile business. Companies such as Mango have even produced detailed timelines about when their safer substitutes will be available in the next few years. This kind of market dynamic will almost certainly make safer alternatives more available and accessible for textile industry players who are aiming at providing toxic-free products for their customers.
Early birds have an advantage. Across the globe regulations are kicking in that will force the textile industry to shift to toxin-free mode. More stringent regulation will be the reason that brands will eventually have to change to safer alternatives.
In 2013, the textile industry was listed for the first time under China's national five-year plan for prevention and control of environmental risk of chemicals as a "key industry for regulatory control". The signal sent by regulators in the world's largest textile producing country is very clear: no more toxic clothing in our backyard.
The central government of China is also expected this year to release a blacklist of toxic chemicals that will be subject to strict regulatory control. Some of them are major chemicals used by the textile industry.
These developments indicate that textile brands should move fast to catch up not only with consumer preferences but also regulatory intentions. The earlier the brands catch the trend, the more "first mover advantage" they can enjoy.
Chih Ann Lee is the Detox campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia office.
• This article was amended on 7 February 2014 to clarify that 550 types of dyes and over 3,000 chemicals are restricted by laws of various countries, not solely China as originally stated.