Greenpeace has been calling on apparel firms to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains. Photo credit: Greenpeace

Greenpeace has been calling on apparel firms to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains. Photo credit: Greenpeace

Since Greenpeace published its Dirty Laundry report in 2011, revealing toxic chemicals in waste water discharges from two textile processing facilities in China, the environmental pressure group has been calling on apparel firms to remove these from their supply chains. While a number of companies have signed up to the group's Detox campaign, it appears there is still much more work to be done. just-style takes a look at the challenges of committing and the need for industry collaboration. 

The Detox initiative has gained momentum since its inception three years ago and, to date, 20 companies have signed up, agreeing to work together in what has been described as a "game-changing collaboration".

Through the campaign, signatories agree to adopt a "credible, individual and public commitment" to phase out the use and release of all toxic chemicals from their global supply chain and products, by 1 January 2020. In order for it to be credible, however, the commitment is based on three fundamental principles: Zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals; taking preventative action towards elimination; and transparency in the supply chain.

Two chemicals in particular were highlighted in Greenpeace's latest report published in January. It found the presence of hazardous chemicals in children's clothing and footwear made by 12 international global fashion brands, including Adidas, Primark and Disney. The chemicals found included Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and poly- and per- flourinated chemicals (PFCs).

PFCs are widely used in the industry to make clothes water and dirt repellent. But as well as being damaging to the environment, results are now suggesting they are also having health effects on humans. 

As well as pressure from Greenpeace, however, sweeping changes approved this year to China's national Environmental Protection Law means potentially greater powers for environmental authorities and harsh punishments for polluters. A compulsory public disclosure element also means multinational clothing suppliers must choose their textile supply chain partners with greater care and transparency.

New provisions are expected to come into force on 1 January 2015 and only serves to emphasise the need for companies to clean up their supply chains and products.

Complex process
But the journey to elimination and replacement of these chemicals appears to be a less than smooth one.

German sporting goods giant Adidas was the second signatory to the campaign, behind rival Nike. Yet it was recently accused by Greenpeace of lagging behind on its commitments. A new roadmap, launched by the firm in June, however, will ensure 99% of all its products are PFC-free by 2017, leading to full elimination by 2020. It has also set ambitious goals to achieve full supply-chain transparency. This, it no doubt hopes, will steer its sustainability efforts back on course.

Silvia Raccagni, sustainability communication manager for Adidas tells just-style the management of chemicals in multi-tiered supply chains is "a complex challenge".

"For years, the Adidas Group has been running leadership programmes in the area of chemical management. Back in 1998, we pioneered a Restricted Substances Policy, prohibiting the use of chemicals considered as harmful or toxic. Since then, we have continuously made progress."

To further improve its chemical management system, Adidas recently partnered with Bluesign Technologies, a company that provides assessment tools for positive chemistry in the textile industry.

Raccagni adds: "At the same time, we want to continuously drive chemical innovation, and we have identified PFC as an area of action. In the framework of the Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), we have committed to phase out PFOA and PFOS (the so-called C8) by 2015."

Raccagni says more innovation is needed to commit to a complete phase-out of fluorinated repellent technologies, especially for high performance products. But she says Adidas will invest in follow-up research to assess the feasibility of alternative technologies.

H&M was also an early signatory to the Greenpeace campaign and, like Adidas, points to the challenges of eliminating hazardous chemicals from the supply chain.

"The main difficulties in the phase out of PFCs were process contaminations in production and problems with certain types of textiles," Anna Eriksson, a spokesperson for H&M tells just-style.

"PFCs spread easily and it is difficult to completely clean the machines. Therefore many PFC-free finishes must be produced in production lines which are separated from the ones where PFC finishes are applied."

She adds: "Not all types of textiles can be used with PFC-free finishes as the surface coating cannot bind to certain types of fibres. Development is ongoing and more fibre types can be used all the time."

Eriksson believes the key to a successful phase-out of PFCs for the company has been "good collaboration" with the chemical industry.

This is a view shared by Raccagni. She says the management of chemicals in multi-tiered supply chains requires "many actors", including governments, to play a role in achieving effective and sustainable solutions.

"This is why we collaborate with peers to improve our industry," she adds, pointing to the group's membership with the Apparel & Footwear International Restricted Substances (RS) Management Working Group (AFIRM), which it co-founded in 2004 with six other international brands.

In 2011, it also joined a group of brands that developed a joint roadmap towards the ZDHC in the supply chain by 2020.

"As we work towards the zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020, we strive to push boundaries throughout our entire supply chain and with all partners we work with," Raccagni says. "At the same time, it is a fact that some countries such as Norway are pushing for tighter legislation which prohibits the use of other chemicals as well.

"We will of course keep on monitoring the evolution of legislation and provide our input through the relevant business associations."

Political intervention
Greenpeace has been calling on political decision makers in the EU and China to take action on implementing legislation for some time, restricting the entire groups of PFCs.

Ilze Smit, Detox campaigner at Greenpeace International, tells just-style that, at present, it is receiving the most support from the EU for this request.

"The process of the EU adopting such legislation will take some time but I'm hopeful that before 2020 it will be done. That's why we have called on France to take action now. Pollution is ongoing and we shouldn't wait on policy makers to bring in legislation because it's taking too long."

H&M's Eriksson says the clothing giant welcomes legalisation to be enforced "in a reasonable timeline to create the common standard and synergies on the market".

Legislation, however, may not be the complete answer, unless it is applied globally, according to Sandra Meijer, director of business development at the REACH Centre, a consultancy that helps companies meet their obligations under EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) and other global substance regulations.

"You can implement lots of legislation in Europe around what you can and cannot have in textiles, but ultimately the textiles aren't made here. That's only a small part of the problem. Often the bigger problem is the discharges to the environment and exposure of the workers to chemicals in places where these textiles are made. It's further up the supply chain."

There is also the question of cost, and finding an affordable alternative. Are consumers going to face a stark choice between inferior products or major price hikes if they want their clothing to be 100% free of potentially hazardous chemicals?

Maybe not. While Adidas would not disclose information on the financial implications of such a phase-out, H&M said the cost of PFC-free finishes was "roughly the same" as for PFCs.

Nonetheless, Meijer points out that it can be difficult for brands to ensure chemicals aren't used, and difficult for single brands to have the clout to get their point across. But, she emphasises: "When the industry works together you can have an impact."

Individual responsibility
Greenpeace's Smit, however, believes that while collaboration is a positive move, the onus is on global fashion brands to take individual responsibility for their products and supply chains.

"Industry collaboration is not something we are against, but it's important that it's not replacing individual responsibility. That is what the corporate world should be doing - taking responsibility and being held accountable for their supply chain."

But Smit says that responsibility also falls onto the consumer. 

"Consumers should realise that textile is not a throwaway product. They should make the choice for a more sustainable product. This movement is now growing due to campaigns like ours but also brands are communicating more about sustainable products. What I hope for by 2020 is that consumers don't need to make a choice, if they are in a store, between green or non-green jeans."

UK value fashion retailer Primark has become the latest company to sign up the commitment, and Greenpeace is now looking at early signatories Nike and Puma to up their game. 

"Maybe it is the disadvantage of being the first," Smit says of Nike. "But we will be around to make sure those brands are on track."

Nike declined to offer any comment when contacted by just-style. 

"Adidas has made very concrete steps and that shows it is possible in the sports industry. We will encourage the whole industry to follow the Detox programme and ensure they take responsibility. We are working towards 2020 and I am convinced this will eventually lead to cleaner rivers in China and Bangladesh."