/ Health, Shopping

Greenpeace calls the fashion police over chemicals in clothes

A Greenpeace investigation has found toxic chemicals in clothing from 14 global brands, including Adidas and H&M. Greenpeace UK’s Tamara Stark shares her anger and asks – who’s responsible?

Call me fussy, but I really don’t want to hear that the clothes I wear might contain toxic chemicals. I’m a fairly ethical shopper and I try to buy responsibly. So when our recent lab tests at Greenpeace came back and revealed the chemical nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) in 14 brands, purchased in 17 different countries, I was a little shocked – and angry!

These toxic chemicals are banned in manufacturing in the EU, so how can they show up in clothing I’m buying in the UK?

It’s a global problem

Although many top brands claim to care for our environment, they’ve exported much of their production – plus the associated pollution – to the global south, where factories routinely dump toxic wastewater into local rivers.

This has a big impact on the fish, wildlife and people in places such as China, since NPEs breakdown in water into toxic, persistent and hormone-disrupting nonylphenol.

I already knew that, but I didn’t realise how the cycle of contamination spreads around the world. These clothing companies are some of the best-known global brands, sold worldwide. So when clothes manufactured using processes that are illegal in Europe are shipped to the UK shops, I unwittingly buy toxic clothing – and I don’t want to.

But, before I scare anyone into binning their wardrobe, I should point out that simply wearing clothes that contain these chemicals has not been shown to be harmful to the wearer.

The problem occurs in washing – when these chemicals leave our garments and enter water systems. Since nonylphenols don’t break down, even the tiniest amount we add to the environment adds up. Not only that, but they bio-accumulate – remaining in our body fat, so repeated exposure to even the lowest dose builds up into a high dose in our bodies over time – hence the EU’s stringent limits on their use.

Whose responsibility is it, then?

As a consumer, it’s tempting to think “I’ll boycott Adidas” or “I’ll boycott China” – but you’d also have to add Bangladesh, Vietnam, H&M, Calvin Klein, and more to a seemingly endless list.

There are better solutions – with some companies showing how. In response to our investigations and pressure from people like you, sportswear giants Puma and Nike have both committed to eliminate toxic chemicals from their supply chain, talking to their suppliers and developing plans to implement them.

It won’t be easy or quick, but by using our purchasing power to encourage brands to do the right thing, Nike can now do the same to help clean their supply chain in China and elsewhere. We just need Adidas and others to do the same.

Writing to Nike’s CEO and getting them to react felt great, but I don’t think that entirely absolves me of more personal responsibility. We can all do more to “green our wardrobes”, so we’ve written up some ideas to help minimise your style’s eco-impact.

Don’t get me wrong: brands this big and profitable need to show leadership so consumers aren’t buying into pollution. It may be a challenge, but isn’t that what brands like Adidas live for – when they claim that “impossible is nothing”?


A brilliant post, that raises many urgent questions:

– Why is it down to Greenpeace to test and reveal what’s happening?
We pay Millions every year to regulators, who should be doing this work!
If they are incapable, then give their funding to organisations such as Greenpeace, who can do the job.
– The same issues arise with things grown/processed/made in the food chain – how many of the practises/chemicals used in countries not under UK or EU regulation are landing here?
I’m tired of hearing about regulators “working with the industry” they are not in place to do this.
These clothes contain banned substances/chemicals, pull them from shelves with immediate effect. It really is that simple.
Then fine them and retest their products randomly over the next few weeks.
Turn the screw on all companies going against the laws of our land, that’s what we pay regulators to do. Protecting the public should be paramount.

There will be those that complain that this approach would affect jobs, etc.
I disagree, the company would be more likely to make their products in the UK or Euro zone.
Those that say the price of clothing would go through the roof, again I would disagree.
We are told that making products abroad and shipping them here is cheaper, utter nonsense!
The quality of clothing available to the British public is poor and has been for some time.
Late July/early August, we bought our two year old a little summer dress from next, it fell apart after two washes and it had to be returned. The price was £15 – we went for quality, three weeks later we returned it, it was scanning at £7.50 and we found the quality was no better than the primark range. We promptly took the refund money and bought her 3 dresses there instead, which have not fallen apart so far.
Companies can’t have it both ways, either they are a high quality of fabric (justifying their higher prices) or better made, or they are not and they are profiteering at the customer’s expense?
I would wager that the Next summer dress was made in the same area that budget brands have their clothing made?

We, the public, shouldn’t have to use our purchasing power to get action, it should not take a long time to reverse, we shouldn’t have to hope that organisations such as Greenpeace run investigations.
If regulators did their job and prosecuted one company and removed it’s range from the shelves, trust me, others would sit up and take notice.

I don’t for one minute believe that these chemicals are getting into our food/clothing chains by accident, companies know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it, for profit!
Thank you Greenpeace for carrying out this study, although without half decent regulators, I don’t see what chance the individual in the UK, to clothe/eat safely without having a damaging effect on the environment or their immediate families?

I don’t for one minute believe that these chemicals are getting into our food/clothing chains by accident, companies know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it, for profit!

How do companies profit by selling clothing contaminated with toxic chemicals?

I’m guessing the chemicals being used are cheaper than conventional dyes/materials? Lowering manufactiring costs, whilst the retail price remains the same or increase?

I suspect you are right and safer chemicals are more expensive. They are not dyes but surfactants, more commonly described as detergents.

Graham says:
26 August 2011

If these chemicals are banned in the EU, why are they being imported here in clothes – can’t we fix this by testing imports and excluding any that have these chemicals in them – not only would that keep Europe safe from this stuff, but I bet the manufacturers would clean up their act if they couldn’t sell to Europe.

The general public are not able to test whether new clothing contains NPEs, so the best solution might be to wash new clothes before wearing them until the problem is resolved.

It might be time to go back to making clothing in the UK using raw materials that are known to be free from toxic chemicals. This would cost a lot more than clothes produced in third world sweatshops. It might put paid to the trend of wearing clothes a few times and throwing them out or giving them to charity shops.

If clothing was made in the UK, then it would be easier to inspect. How many times do trading standards go to China to do inspections?

It shouldn’t cost a lot more to produce clothing in the UK, we were told that making clothes in China (for example) is to keep costs down, therefore keeping clothing cheap for us. I wouldn’t say this is the case at all, clothing today is thin, weak and often of a low standard. Clothes shrink, colours fade quickly and this is if you can find the size actually matching the label in the first place.
Factor in the prices… you might be able to get a pair of jeans for say £8 in a supermarket, but they are wafer thin material and you’ll be buying another pair within 3 months if you use them for work.

Transportation costs to ship stock half way around the world and the expensive cost of fuel/import taxes, it has to be cheaper to make clothing in Britain?

We would still have to import materials such as cotton and it is difficult for UK manufacturers to compete if UK-sourced fabrics cost a lot more than imports.

Marks and Spencer continued to sell men’s clothing made in the UK for many years, but that’s long gone. What worries me even more than the import of clothing is the fact that it has become fashionable to throw so much of it away after little use. I have heard of people throwing out clothes after wearing them once and even examples of unused clothing being thrown out. That should happen only if someone dies. At least charity shops benefit.

You mention clothes being thin and the problem of fading. These are regarded by many as desirable. Jeans are meant to fade and this is often done before sale, or they are ‘distressed’ before sale. I’d like to send people who buy distressed clothing to a good psychiatrist. 🙂

Phil says:
28 August 2011

Prior to being banned NPEs were a common surfactant used in detergents and are still not banned in the US. From what I understand the real danger is to wildlife rather than humans so washing them could be the worst thing to do.

Thanks for this information Phil. I should have read Tamara’s introduction to the topic.

There are many examples of chemicals that are discovered to be harmful after many years of use and anything that is damaging to wildlife might yet be shown to be harmful to humans. Even if NPEs are harmless to humans we don’t want them in our watercourses.

Make it British says:
30 August 2011

My blog has been supporting British made clothing for quite a while, and whilst interviewing designers I hear time and time again that the reason that they manufacture in the UK is to keep a closer eye on issues like this. Yes, it costs more to manufacture here, but there is also a swelling tide of consumers that are demanding to know more about where their clothes are made, and what from.
Keep up the good work Greenpeace!

Great news – Adidas has announced that it’s going to ditch using these toxic chemicals. Shows that organisations like Greenpeace have the power to make positive change!

More info here: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/toxics/detox-hat-trick-adidas-joins-nike-and-puma-20110831

I ask again, does UK legislation not stop companies from importing clothing with these toxic chemicals?

Last time I looked at my voting card, I was under the impression that I was able to vote for political parties that set and enforced laws to protect people of the UK?

What does the regulator/trading standards have to say about this? Why do they not respond?
Who, in the UK, is giving out import licenses to companies that are known to be using toxic chemicals in their products? (Not to mention all extra carbon emissions involved in transportation of these goods from outside the EU… and we were only discussing “saving energy” this week!)

I agree with Graham and Frugal Ways – from a moral and logical point of view, it is nonsensical for the EU to have made a decision that it does not approve a certain thing, and to ban use within the EU but to allow a loophole so that this can be imported. I seem to remember hearing the same about DDT – that whilst banned for use here, due to its bad health effects on people who use it, it has continued to be sold abroad, and then ironically, sold back to us absorbed in the fruits and vegetables imported from those same countries and sold in our supermarkets. But this is the kind of double think which the EU and UK Government has to be good at, in order not to make enemies which would rock the financial, business and political boat. For instance, Foie Gras production is banned in this country, due to its cruelty to geese, but it can be imported and eaten in our restaurants. We need leaders (decision makers) with a bit more integrity, consistency and moral courage.