Has the industry progressed in using safer chemicals?

GoBlu founder Lars Dormer sat down with Dr. Stephen Frost from CUHK Business School to talk about chemicals in the fashion industry.

SF: The fashion industry attracts its fair share of criticism. How should we interpret that?

LD: It certainly attracts criticism over chemicals. It’s become common to accuse fashion of being the second dirtiest industry in the world. Some people have cast doubts on that, but even if it’s not as dirty as people say, calls for the industry to clean up are still justified. There are problems, and we need to find solutions. On that, it’s hard to find disagreement. But in an avalanche of bad news, it’s easy to lose sight of progress.

SF: You’ve worked in the industry for over 25 years, starting out as a textile dyeing technician in Germany. What have been the most important changes?

LD: I think at the macro level nobody could claim clothes 50, 30 or even 20 years ago were safer for us. Or better for the environment. Or workers’ health was less likely to suffer from exposure to chemicals or other occupational hazards.

At the micro level, chemical products nowadays are less likely to be harmful. We know more about the impact of more chemicals. Legislation is more comprehensive and enforced more rigorously. The number of substances listed as SVHC (substances of very high concern) has more than doubled from around 60 when REACH came into force in 2007 to 174 today. Take Bluesign; in 2016 – a year ago – it had 87 system partners (chemical suppliers). Today, it has 107. A significant number of new suppliers are Asian, and especially Chinese, chemical suppliers. Which means the chemical industry is responding to new sustainability requirements, and responding fast.

We also test clothes more than ever before. Companies test more. But there’s more scrutiny from government as well. And a growing number of independent bodies (such as NGOs) run their own tests. Consumers are more educated, and expect clothes to meet safety standards.

SF: This sounds to me like more transparency.

LD: There’s no doubt; transparency has been the greatest and most fundamental change over the last decade. Go back thirty years – to the mid-80s; not only were chemical tests for textiles rare, but after the rapid shift of production was moved to Asia, most brands had no or little idea where their fabric originated. And only a few companies would have bothered to check. Today, it’s a different story. Even discounters are engaging on chemicals in supply chains.

SF: What’s the most common way they engage?

LD: The most common, and this has been a game changer, is an industry-wide move from RSL (restricting substances in the product) to MRSL (restricting substances in the production process). More and more brands are not only concerned about product safety but also about the chemicals that are used in the production process, which is where workers are exposed and chemicals released into the environment. 

And that’s why you get industry groups like ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Program), which focuses only on chemical management and whose members aim to phase out of hazardous chemicals by 2020. This is no doubt a challenging goal, but it has changed the way the industry as a whole is working with chemical management in supply chains.

SF: Where does the consumer fit in to all this?

LD: One really interesting thing in the EU that I almost never hear anyone mention is the 45-day rule in REACH (EU regulations, adopted to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals).

SF: I’m not aware of this.

LD: Exactly. Hardly anyone is. But REACH SVHC compliance and disclosure requirements state that if products contain any SVHCs in excess of 0.1 per cent by weight, the company must disclose the presence of SVHCs in products within 45 days upon request from consumers or customers. In the EU, consumers have the right to ask and can expect an answer from the company within 45 days.

SF: That’s certainly interesting, but how does a consumer utilize this kind of regulation? Isn’t it too difficult for the average shopper to track down the contact details of a fashion brand to ask about chemical compositions?

LD: This is where it gets interesting. There is actually a REACH app in Germany (Scan4Chem) that enables customers to simply scan the barcode of the article and the app automatically sends an inquiry to the responsible producer or importer. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has made a video to encourage consumers to make use of their right to get this information.

SF: This has the potential to really change the way consumers think about chemicals. And not only that, but change the conversation about sustainable fashion, which is still very focused on where clothes are made.

LD: Precisely. The future for fashion labelling is going to look more like the food industry, where consumers not only who made my clothes, but what is in my clothes.

SF: It’s hard to balance it, isn’t it; the positive changes occurring and the negative consequences of the industry.

LD: There are problems, which we can’t deny. Things are not perfect. But the trend is clear. We hear more about chemicals in fashion than ever before. That’s a good thing. It motivates companies to respond. But we should not lose sight of how far the industry has come.

Want to find out more on what GoBlu can do for you on chemicals? Talk to Lars - Lars@GoBlu.net

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About Lars Doemer: Lars has sustainability experience in the apparel industry spanning several decades. This ranges from working as a dyer to managing sustainability within brands to consulting. Highlights include heading up H&M’s in Environmental Global Supply Chain Program for more than five years, where he took the lead for ZDHC work, and was involved in developing the Bangladesh Water Program PaCT.

Email: Lars@GoBlu.net