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.
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”?