Clothing and textile manufacturers and their suppliers working in the European Union (EU) may face increasing controls over their use of potentially toxic chemicals under a new policy paper released by the European Commission.
The move has also sparked concern about regulatory complexity and trade barriers within Europe because of Brexit.
The ‘Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment‘ flags several important changes that the EU executive intends to make to European chemical legislation that will impact the textile sector – including a major overhaul of the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) system.
This includes adding restrictions to ‘substances of concern’ used in the textile sector if they hamper recycling of otherwise safe and high quality secondary raw materials.
Also, the Commission plans to extend its “generic approach to risk management,” triggering packaging requirements, restrictions, bans and more, to consumer products containing chemicals, as well as the chemicals themselves, as at present.
The goal, the strategy says, is to “ensure that consumer products [the paper explicitly mentions textiles here] do not contain chemicals that cause cancers, gene mutations, affect the reproductive or the endocrine system, or are persistent and bioaccumulative.”
The Commission has also announced plans to toughen rules on specific kinds of chemicals, notably endocrine disruptors that affect hormones, saying it would propose a legally binding hazard identification for these chemicals.
The EU executive said it would immediately launch a comprehensive impact assessment to say how and when it would impose such rules.
The process is already creating worry among industry associations. Adam Mansell, CEO of the UK Fashion & Textiles Association (UKFT), for instance, says they could create regulatory problems post-Brexit.
The EU’s new chemicals strategy “highlights the complexities of our newly emerging relationship with the EU,” he told just-style.
More than 75% of British fashion and textiles exports are currently sold to the EU, the UKFT says, so UK exporters “will have to meet all the requirements of any new chemical regulation in Europe.”
However, because the UK is now outside the EU, “UK companies won’t have had the chance to feed in to the formation of the policy, to suggest the removal or addition of particular chemicals or compounds.” Moreover, “we face the potential for a situation whereby a chemical is deemed safe in the UK but not in the EU and vice versa. That would obviously be very problematic.”
As a result, the UKFT has maintained a close relationship with European clothing and textile organisation Euratex, says Mansell, “and we will be working with them to ensure UK companies are as informed as they can be of future requirements as the EU continues to develop its chemicals strategy.”
Regarding the strategy itself, he says: “Despite the burden that it might place on industry, it is hard to take exception to a chemicals strategy that seeks to remove substances from the environment that are harmful to our health and the environment.”
REACH regulations, “have gone a long way to ensure chemicals used in the manufacture of fashion and textiles are safe but there will always be room for improvement as new risks are discovered or safer chemicals are developed.”
However, EU chemical industry council CEFIC, which represents manufacturers of textile finishing chemicals, is less happy with the overall proposals.
It says this is “a long list of regulatory measures lacking sufficient clarity on how they will be joined up,” noting it will make REACH more onerous at a time when “the rest of the world has not yet followed REACH and is unlikely to.”
As with the UKFT, Brexit is also a concern to CEFIC. Given the potential for regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU, it will make trading difficult between these newly divorced jurisdictions, because “it is unlikely the UK will want to follow an upgraded REACH” having quit the EU.
Flagship initiatives include:
• Phasing out from consumer products, such as textiles, the most harmful substances, which include among others endocrine disruptors, chemicals that affect the immune and respiratory systems, and persistent substances such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), unless their use is proven essential for society;
• Minimising and substituting as far possible the presence of substances of concern in all products. Priority will be given to those product categories that affect vulnerable populations and those with the highest potential for circular economy;
• Addressing the combination effect of chemicals (cocktail effect) by taking better account of the risk that is posed to human health and the environment by daily exposure to a wide mix of chemicals from different sources;
• Ensuring that producers and consumers have access to information on chemical content and safe use, by introducing information requirements in the context of the Sustainable Product Policy Initiative.
It also says that “as far as possible, new chemicals and materials must be safe and sustainable by design i.e. from production to end of life. This will help avoid the most harmful effects of chemicals and ensure the lowest possible impact on climate, resource use, ecosystems and biodiversity.