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Toxic Fashion is a website aimed at educating people about the potentially harmful chemicals used within the textile and clothing industry.

Whilst undertaking an MA in Ethical Fashion I became very concerned with the vast array of chemicals used to process fibres into textiles and textiles into clothing. Textile fibres go through many stages; they are cleaned, carded, spun and coated with starches and chemicals, woven or knitted, cleaned up from their coating, bleached, immersed into caustic soda, dyed or printed and then chemically treated for easy care and other properties such as: shrink resistance, crease resistance, odour resistance, water-repellent, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-static, permanent-press or flame and soil retardants. A myriad of chemicals of various toxicity and hazards – from silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, brighteners, heavy metals, solvents, nanoparticles, ammonia and formaldehyde, amongst others, are used during these processes. (ZeeSpot, 2010)

Many of these chemicals can be toxic to the environment and contribute to global environmental damage; they can also have negative health impacts on the human body, creating what is referred to as the “toxic, or chemical body burden”. The term “body burden” I discovered, refers to the total amount of chemicals present in the human body at a given point in time. Once released into the world some chemicals cause toxic reactions, and some have been found to persist in the environment for years; some are even referred to as “eternal” compounds, because they do not degrade. My research indicated that continuous exposure to some of these chemicals can result in a “persistent body burden”, whereby the accumulative nature of these chemicals can cause a range of human health problems.

In their report, “My Sustainable T-Shirt”, PAN UK state that some of these chemicals can also be transferred to the skin of the people wearing them through residues in the finished garment, and are suspected of causing allergies, eczema and even cancers. As clothing comes into prolonged contact with our skin, it is possible that toxic chemicals can be absorbed through the skin when pores open to permit perspiration. There is also growing “evidence pointing to a possible link between the rise of certain non-infectious human health problems and the increase in our exposure to the many synthetic chemicals” used to produce textile fibres and clothing today. (Ashton and Salter Green, 2006:7)

A new European chemicals legislation, called REACH, which is the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, was passed through the European Parliament in 2004, and became law in 2005 and is intended to give the public greater protection from intentionally produced chemicals. When it came into force, chemical companies, for the first time had to provide basic health and environmental safety data on the chemicals they produce. Previously only chemicals that started production after 1981 required this data, representing less than 10% of chemicals on the market at that time.

One of the aims of REACH is to identify extremely hazardous chemicals’, such as substances that are known to interfere with the body´s hormone system for example, and give them a special classification as "substances of very high concern". These chemicals will be few in number, possibly around 2000 in total, but will require a special license, called an authorization for production, even for ones that have already been on the market for many years, (REACH, 2010). Another aim of REACH is to ensure chemicals of very high concern are phased out and replaced with suitable, safer alternatives. A chemical is classified as of very high concern if it can cause cancer, damage genetic material or is a reproductive toxin. Any chemical that cannot be broken down by nature and builds up in the bodies of human beings or wildlife is also classified as of high concern, even if there is no evidence that it is toxic.

Unfortunately, despite the good intensions of REACH, the legislation contains an enormous loophole that means that even if a safer alternative is available at a comparable price, production of a chemical of very high concern can continue. The producer simply has to demonstrate "adequate control". Wider research has shown that some chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants are persistent, lasting for years or even decades before degrading into less dangerous forms; they are also known to be bioaccumulative, which means they accumulate in fatty tissue and on entering the body are stored largely in human fat or organs rich in fatty substances.

The issue of "adequate control" goes right to the heart of chemicals policy, as substances that are persistent and bioaccumulative cannot be controlled and therefore "adequate control" is henceforth based on an acceptable level of risk. Thresholds for what is considered “safe” are currently set according to scientific knowledge, and are all too often influenced by powerful industry lobbies. Many chemicals used in cotton processing and in other textile production, which were once considered acceptably “safe”, are now unacceptable and many of the chemicals to which we are regularly exposed have undergone insufficient testing to fully understand whether or not they might be harmful to humans; therefore establishing the relationship between chemical exposure, and a disease which may not manifest until many years later, is extremely problematic. 

In addition, my research demonstrated that people are being continuously exposed to the same hazardous groups of substances in a variety of products, which result in multiple exposures that makes nonsense of the concept of a ‘safe dose’. Setting safe limits is therefore not an option; only the elimination of the use of these hazardous substances will protect future generations.
Since much of our exposure to these substances comes from everyday products, it makes sense to explore the possibilities for substituting these substances with safer alternatives and this is the basis of my manifesto.

Another concern is the lack of knowledge we have about the chemicals used to make our clothing and whilst researching about consumer behaviour, I found Goleman’s concept of “radical transparency” very interesting. His concept is based on industrial ecology, the discipline that integrates chemistry, physics and engineering with ecology to quantify the impacts on nature of manmade things. According to Goleman, radical transparency would be capable of accelerating incremental changes for the better, creating new incentives for businesses to align their practices with the public’s priorities and reshape the marketing place to ensure a better reception for greener, cleaner technologies and at the same time creating a far greater incentive for us all to switch to them.
Radical transparency comes from providing key information such as carbon footprints, treatment of workers and chemicals of concern, into systematic forces that changes consumers’ choices that count in sales. He believes that transparency should be more radical, meaning “more detailed and inclusive and would reveal what has been hidden from us in ways far more comprehensive and better organised than the sometimes haphazard product ratings we have now. With the right, targeted data, a continuous cascade of consumer-driven shifts would ripple through the world of commerce, from the most distant factory to the neighbourhood power grid, opening a new front in the battle for market share”. (Goleman, 2009:6)

Goleman proposes that ecological or radical transparency, “may add a crucial missing piece in our collective efforts to protect our planet and its people”. (Goleman, 2009:5) Radical transparency could offer a way to drive changes by mobilizing consumers and executives to use data to make more virtuous decisions by providing full disclosure of the chemicals used to manufacture a product, alerting consumers of potential dangers. Bringing such information to the surface at the point of purchase puts into competitive play otherwise hidden dimensions and would enable companies to “track how specific improvements in the environmental or health impact of their products affect sales and market share, and so respond by making changes in manufacturing design and the like that a radical transparent marketplace demands”, because at present we are largely blind to those consequences. (Goleman, 2009:80-81)

 

 






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