S & S Decoded: Chic but Toxic – An Exploration of Chemicals used in the Fashion & Textile Industry

At A Glance

How can the fashion industry combat the chic but toxic mentality that has become rigidly entrenched into its manufacturing processes? Death by an LBD – is it possible?! Solvents, surfactants, dyes, led, plasticisers and phthalates are ubiquitous chemicals found in clothing.

Chemical management must find itself at the top of the sustainability agenda for fashion retailers, luxury and mass market, if we are truly dedicated to the trajectory of sustainable development within the fashion industry. I recently had the opportunity to sign into a truly enlightening live webinar hosted by Offset Warehouse on the challenges facing the textile industry today in regards to the use of hazardous chemicals in production and thought I would share my learnings!  What’s a CMR? A PBT? A vPvP? Or an EDC? All will be revealed!

An hour dedicated to exploring the impact that designs are having on the environment and the people who are involved in their life cycle of production and presenting solutions on how we can, as citizens and designers, mitigate and decrease the impact as much as possible. 

As a brief introduction, Offset Warehouse, founded by Charlie Bradley Ross (host of the webinar), is a social business that focuses on sustainable and ethical luxury textiles. In addition to being an online boutique and community, Offset Warehouse offers consulting services for those pursuing a sustainable strategy.

Charlie was joined by Alice Hyllstam from Chem Sec, the International Chemical Secretariat and independent non-profit organisation that advocates for substitution of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives.  Their mission is to drive a change to safer chemicals, what’s not to love! As an organisation, Chem Sec through research, global collaboration and the development of measurable practical tools including their SIN chemical list (containing over 900 hazardous materials) are leading the lobbying for progressive chemical legislation and bench marking best practices for businesses to transition to non-toxic alternatives.

Taking a quick glance at the global chemical landscape – institutionally, we have the Basel Convention, a United Nations International Treaty with 198 signatories. This was signed in 1989 and designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations and prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries as well as minimise the volume of toxicity of waste generated for environmental management purposes.

Companies are also held to account by REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) that regulates chemical substances’ effects on society/environment. 

What’s the problem?

As is tradition on S & S it is always best to contextualise the current chemical balance with some hard hitting facts:

  • Over 8000 synthetic chemicals are used in the fashion manufacturing process (Inc. carcinogens & hormone disruptors).
  • Did you know that 25% of global chemical output is used from the textile industry? 42% of that alone originates from China.
  • In China, 70 % of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater from the textile and dye industry.
  • Over 90% of cotton is now genetically modified, using chemicals in addition to water. Cotton production is responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use.
  • Following the Greenpeace 2011 ‘Detox My Fashion’ campaign 80 fashion brands and suppliers, accounting for 15% of the global clothing market, have agreed to “detox”.
  • 8 years later – 72% of these Detox committed brands are working towards disclosing their suppliers lists down to Tier2/Tier3 wet processing, where the biggest use of chemicals and most water pollution occurs. Most advanced brands intend to expand this approach to fibre production, and address the growing use of viscose.
  • 72%  of these also report having achieved the complete elimination of per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) from products.


With some brief statistics under our belt, it’s important to grasp the challenges of which chemicals are used in production and for what purpose? Why should we avoid having these in our garments and why exactly do these substances create such a negative impact?

Solvents – are used to dissolve substances such as pigments in dyes. Effects of over exposure can have effects on your liver, central nervous system. Within the EU some solvents including chlorobenzenes and pentachlorobenzenes (try pronouncing that one!) are considered priority hazard substances.

Surfactants – substances to reduce surface tension of liquid when it’s dissolved. These are things such as detergents, wetting agents and emulsifiers that create foaming. Whilst less dangerous to us, these can create toxicity for marine wildlife when washed into water sources

Water Repellents – are popular in the textile manufacturing process to impregnate fabrics with fluorinated PFC’s (perfluorinated compounds which make materials stain/stick resistant).

PFC’s – have hazardous properties as a man-made non-natural chemical, these are now being found in drinking water, bodies of employees of textile factories and even in our Northern pals the polar bears! It should be noted that PFC’s are banned in some products but not all as different countries have varying rules and regulations.

Dyes/pigments – these often contain mercury, which is not only corrosive for human skin but can damage internal organs through its high levels of toxicity. There is also a specific type of dye called azo dye which breaks down during use and release chemicals known to cause cancer.

Flame Retardants – does what it says on the tin but are often not even necessary in certain fabrics and clothing!

Plasticisers and phthalates – used to soften PVCs, used in artificial leather, rubber, shiny PVC and some dyes. It has been reported that these are reprotoxic in mammals and can interfere with reproductivity in men.


Are you starting to itch a little thinking about what may actually be interwoven into your clothing and has been used to treat your favourite dresses? Don’t strip off in panic just yet – the work of Alice and her colleagues at ChemSec will fill you with hope through their solution based 3 step process to chemical management. Find, evaluate, act; this is the developed strategic method for companies/organisations seeking to identify which chemicals exist in which products, to evaluate their hazardous level of toxicity and how to act accordingly.

Step 1 – FIND chemicals throughout one’s supply chain and identify them throughout the production process (think chemical life cycle analysis).

As a company, then contact suppliers asking for details, contact trade associations, request detailed descriptions, a CAS number and encourage suppliers to share information and eco labels.

If suppliers are hesitant to share their information, let this be a warning sign to not partner with organisations who lack disclosure or aren’t transparent about their ingredients.

Step 2 – EVALUATE the chemicals found. As a clothing organisation, create an inventory list, you can search for chemicals identified in a textile guide and use the Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) or Chem Sec SIN list as a reference and check point.  

Step 3 – ACT and substitute the hazardous chemicals.

Throughout your supply chain processes, actively avoid those listed on the MSRL. Companies looking to enforce this need to communicate the new material requirements and standards to all stakeholders from the outset. This includes ensuring/enforcing that suppliers willing to reform their chemical procedures commit to this and embark on the search for safer alternatives.

To locate the most appropriate replacement substances, first define the function you wish for a chemical to have and this can guide you.

In addition to their simple 3 step approach to chemical management, Chem Sec has created a market place for all organisations in the textile industry to collaborate and connect in the search for safer alternatives. Think ASOS/Amazon Market place but for human friendly hazardous free methods of producing our clothes. This forum encourages a network of buyers and sellers to elevate transparency within the industry for global outreach and facilitates a platform for suggestions. Actions such as this emanate a key component of corporate social responsibility which is fostering an open dialogue of all stakeholders within an industry even if they are competing for customers to collaborate for a common good and benchmark best practice.

To be active on the Chem Sec market place, members must have:

  • No substances on the REACH candidate list
  • No substances on the ChemSec SIN list
  • No substances with CMR properties (carcinogenic, mutagenic of toxic for reproduction)
  • No substances PBT substances (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic) or vPVb (very persistant and very bio accumulative).
  • No EDC’s (endorcine disrupting chemicals) – man made substances found in pesticides, metals, additives or contaminants in food (the WHO has called for a ban on these)

Final Thoughts

The chemical industry is notoriously conservative and cautious in how it manages its reputation, most of which is enabled by large corporations with the financial backing to slip a few million to conceal what it does not want us to find. (Please watch STINK on Netflix if you haven’t already).

This brief exploration of my learnings on chemicals used in the fashion and textile manufacturing process could be shared with retailers/manufacturers and supply chain producers who are looking for a starting point when embarking on sustainable and safer processes in the creative and manufacturing stages of their garments. Chemical management is going to become increasingly salient as clean water sources decrease in abundance and the true cost of health to communities in textile production come to light. For me, the fundamental next step is to develop an international accord that takes the Basel Convention one level higher, for universal regulations and laws that enforce limits and control of hazardous materials and toxicity in all countries. Due to the highly outsourced nature of clothing global value chains spreading production over many different countries and continents, this will prevent retail giants and their first to fifth tier suppliers from malpractice and deceiving the current chemical regulations in a bid to save on cost at the expense of human and environmental health.

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