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Recent virtual presentations by the Transformers Foundation brought together representatives of the denim supply chain along with industry experts to share ideas, experiences and possible solutions to reform and rebuild chemical management systems. The topic is significant as many aspects of industry have chemical impact. Currently that includes decarbonization, circularity, worker health, consumer safety, biodiversity and due diligence, the legal perspective on legislation. 

There is a lot of work to be done, especially when execs describe the current situation as: “Needlessly complicated, woefully ineffective;” “Expensive, inefficient, redundant;” and “A frustrating endeavor with lots of mistakes.” 

An investigative report on chemical certification authored by Alden Wicker, founder of EcoCult, served as the jumping off point for in depth discussion. A lack of alignment, a lag in textile toxicology research and uneven legislation on consumer product chemical safety, were a few of the top takeaways from Wicker’s extensive reporting. 

Her account, titled “Fashion’s Certification Complex: Needlessly Complicated, Woefully Ineffective,” points out that many organizations offer almost identical services, and yet the supply chain must adopt all of them, and front the cost. Many brands and retailers have even created their own suite of restricted substance lists (RSLs) and testing protocol on top of the third-party auditing they require. While brands and retailers use chemical management as a differentiator, a marketing tool, and a way to shirk responsibility, it is the supply chain — from the chemical companies to the denim laundries — that pays for testing, certification, and management of these overlapping safety protocols. 

Several other problem areas were also cited. Wicker explained, “Consumer advocacy groups continue to test clothes and accessories and find heavy metals, hormone disrupting chemicals, carcinogens, and banned azo dyes.” Uncertainty about how many types of chemicals are currently used in the fashion industry or global commerce is another worrisome aspect. According to Wicker, 3,000, and up to 5,000 chemicals are registered for use in fashion. 

Wicker informed webinar attendees that far from stamping out the use of contamination and banned chemicals and dyes, certification and auditing schemes are expensive, hard to scale up, and easily circumvented by those who wish to cut corners. 

She added, though private certification and testing schemes may not have delivered, we can build on them to make a more efficient, more innovative, fairer, and more effective global chemical management program. It is possible to make fashion products safe—for everyone. 

Suggested Solutions 

What emerged from part 2 of the Transformers Foundation virtual event was a strong need for industry alignment around chemical management in the denim supply chain. A roundtable discussion on the topic brought together a handful of individuals with different perspectives yet united in the belief that it will take collaboration up and down the denim value chain to drive change. “The situation represents unnecessary complexity. We need to take this to the next level,” commented Alberto de Conti, marketing director, Rudolf Group.

Many large brands have already joined ZDHC, the industry group dedicated to ensuring factory effluent is free of hazardous chemicals, but panelists agreed that there still is not enough alignment around a single set of rules and noted that chemical management remains largely voluntary. 

With a lack of strong legislation, despite efforts in the EU and to a degree in California, a complicated landscape exists. Clothes can be shipped into the U.S. with all sorts of toxic chemicals. “Consumers can go on Instagram and buy a top that gets shipped directly to them in the U.S. that could be laden with toxic chemicals,” said Wicker, author of the forthcoming book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick.  

In addition to lack of alignment on the legal front is the fact that brands and retailers have established their own set of requirements. This is a result of companies being in different stages of their sustainability journey. “Some are at the forefront, influenced by slightly different focuses and built their own systems accordingly. ZDHC and AFFIRM came about to try to form an overarching umbrella,” said Scott Echols, ZDHC director, adding, “Then you have Oeko-Tex and bluesign, both very good. But both are voluntary.” Echols mentions that the tipping point for action in chemical compliance was the Greenpeace DeTox campaign that got brands around the table, and the need to develop trust and work with competitors. 

Even if the industry was able to align around that one standard how would that come about? Data is key, but interest by the scientific community around clothing/fashion is weak. Collecting data and doing research is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor and there are still a lot of unknowns around toxicity. 

“Price gets into the conversation,” stated Zaki Saleemi, owner of a mill in Pakistan. “For example, I have a Tier 1 supplier, but might need to go to a Tier 2 supplier because of the cost if the marketplace demands this. The hidden element is price and price pressure mills are subjected to.” He continued, “There has to be a baseline established, and that has to be a collective, cumulative standard along the lines of ZDHC.  The consumer doesn’t see the work that goes into product with clean chemicals. They understand about worker rights, but not about restricted substance ingredients lists.”

Wicker weighed in: “It shouldn’t be a consumer choice, it’s an opaque system, and factories do not get rewarded for doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s just ‘make it blue, I don’t care how you do it’ – that’s how people think.” 

Isabella Tonaco, executive director, Sustainable Chemistry for the Textile Industry (SCTI), an alliance of chemical companies founded in 2020, said, “Textile industry’s focus on compliance is the minimum. We need to move from compliance to positive impact, make the tools to compliance easy to use by all, so knowledge flows down the value chain.”

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Dec 7, 2022

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