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Detox reality check

Features | May 8, 2015 | By:

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A new report looks at the status of Greenpeace’s campaign launched in 2011.

Signatories to the Greenpeace Detox Campaign launched in 2011 have committed to eliminating 11 hazardous chemicals from the apparel supply chain by 2020. A step in the right sustainable direction, but how realistic are the Greenpeace demands? A new report titled Detox Deconstructed, published by MCL Global, looks at the progress made and examines the challenges faced by brands and considers what is achievable in the time frame.


“Mega-pollution in Bangladesh and Asia needs to be addressed, more so than the issue of ‘zero,’” states the Executive Summary, Detox Deconstructed.

While there is undoubtedly a need to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals used by the textile industry, the key issue raised in this report is whether the goals set by Greenpeace are the right ones. In compiling the MLC Global report, twenty signatories to the campaign were interviewed to gain insight into how much progress is being made and whether the goals set appear to be achievable. Brands contacted were drawn from a good cross-section that included sportswear (Adidas, Nike and Puma), fast fashion

(H+M and Inditex) as well as luxury brands (Burberry and Valentino).

The 11 hazardous chemicals are:

1. Alkylphenols (AEPOs)

2. Phthalates

3. Brominated + Chlorinated Flame Retardants (BFRs + CFRs)

4. Azo dyes

5. Organotin Compounds

6. Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)

7. Chlorobensenes

8. Chlorinated Solvents

9. Chlorophenols

10. Short-chain Chlorinated Paraffins

11. Heavy Metals (Cadmium, Lead, Mercury + Chromium)

The report considers whether the Greenpeace focus is misplaced and brands ought instead to concentrate on the wider issue of pollution. A second question raised is whether the aim is too high and if smaller, more achievable goals would be more likely to succeed. A further factor to be considered is the ability of clothing brands to monitor the use of hazardous chemicals as production moves to new manufacturing destinations such as Myanmar and Ethiopia.

Challenges faced

As stated in Detox Deconstructed, “There is currently no effective direct replacement for ‘C8’-based PFCs that have the same level of performance.”

It is one thing to ban chemicals, but what happens when there is not a reasonable alternative? This is proving to be of particular importance in identifying water, stain and oil-repellent treatments. Will a brand with a successful range of water-repellent outerwear stop using perfluorinated chemicals if their main competitor is continuing to use them?

One approach is to work more closely with the supply chain to find alternatives. The denim brand G-Star is working with its suppliers in its quest for an alternative to APEO-containing detergent. In the company’s report on the initiative they undertake to both train and audit their supply chain to ensure compliance.

“[We are] sourcing from about 630 facilities in 45 countries globally, so this is a significant commitment and a challenge to ensure compliance and understanding by suppliers,” says Levi Strauss & Co. in Detox Deconstructed.

Such an exercise is a considerable logistical and financial challenge to larger brands such as Levi’s. But does the cost deter other brands or does it exclude entirely smaller brands from engaging in the process?

Precautionary versus Pragmatic

Detox Deconstructed challenges the Greenpeace precautionary principle approach to risk. The report believes that the current strategy will only serve to hold back innovation in the industry and leave a gap. “This vacuum would in all likelihood be filled by less responsible brands, with a greater environmental impact, ” the report says.

Instead, it recommends pragmatism and a more holistic approach (such as the Better Mill Initiative) that looks to address the overall impact of textile pollution. Demanding zero use of hazardous chemicals is one step in finding a solution to a complex problem. Identifying and implementing strategies for achieving this, while proving a challenge, is also highlighting industry innovation and cooperation that deserves to be recognized.

Marie O’Mahony is Professor of Materials Art + Design at the Design Faculty, Ontario College of Art + Design University, also Visiting Professor at University of the Arts, London.

Detox Deconstructed by John Mowbray and Brett Mathews, is published by MCL Global.

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