/ 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.


Hi you guys,

Yes, you’re right, regulations should be tighter, but the EU REACH legislation doesn’t yet address imported products – and let’s face it, there’s no time soon when China is going to stop being the world’s factory! So – in the meantime, getting western companies to use their influence to get change on the ground in places like China matters. 70 % of China’s waterways are heavIly polluted – we need to help where we can,


The EU REACH legislation doesn’t cover imported products? That can’t be right?

If it is, then what is the point of having the EU legislation at all, if companies can get round it by importing instead? Madness!
Does UK legislation not cover it?


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.