Toxic trend? Harmful chemicals found in big fashion brands

Harmful chemicals reach the environment from the dumping of left-over chemicals into water systems, and from water used by consumers to wash the toxics-laden clothes

WEARING TOXIC? Major fashion brands all over the world have committed to eliminating their products of toxic chemicals

MANILA, Philippines – Your new running jersey may just contain highly-toxic chemicals.

On Saturday, January 25, environmental group Greenpeace staged a demonstration in front of the Gateway Mall branch of athletic clothing brand Adidas.

Posing like fashion models in front of the store’s glass display, the demonstrators accused the brand of not doing enough to eliminate toxic chemicals supposedly present in their products.

“Adidas was one of the first companies to make a Detox commitment in 2011, but its actions since haven’t lived up to this promise,” said their press release for the event.

In 2011, Greenpeace was able to get 18 major clothing brands to commit to “detoxifying” their textile production processes. These brands include Uniqlo, Zara, H&M, Mango, Nike, Adidas, Mango, Victoria’s Secret, Marks & Spencer, and Esprit. 

While many have taken steps to rid their manufacturing process of harmful chemicals, Adidas is yet to live up to its promise, said Greenpeace. Despite a January 2020 deadline to fully implement the detoxification, Adidas reportedly has not begun transition to safer chemicals and processes.

Greenpeace bought random samplings of children’s clothing from Adidas and sent it to a laboratory for testing. Lab results reportedly showed the presence of per- and plyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs).

POSING AGAINST TOXICS. Members of Greenpeace, a group known for aggressive campaigns and demonstrations, infiltrate the glass display of an Adidas store to remind them of their "detox" commitment. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

These findings have led Greenpeace to label Adidas a “greenwasher,” or a company that only promises on paper but does not deliver.

But Adidas fiercely denied this.

A statement on their website said that Greenpeace’s label “is not based on facts” and that they “strictly adhere to their commitment” to Greenpeace.

For instance, they disclose to the public all policies, procedures and guidelines of the company related to toxic chemicals. They also impose standards on their suppliers for handling, storing and disposing chemicals.

Adidas is also a founding member of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Initiative, a group of clothing brands that aim to remove all discharges of harmful chemicals from industry practices.

But Greenpeace wants elimination of toxics from the source, not just measures on the handling of toxics.

“It’s not enough to carefully monitor or regulate toxics. They should be completely eliminated from the manufacturing process,” said anti-toxics campaigner Abigail Aguilar.

Toxic, carcinogenic

Scientific studies showing the harmful effects of PFCs and NPEs have fueled a growing trend for stricter regulations of these chemicals. The European Union restricts the use of these chemicals in consumer products. 

The US is also aiming to phase out the two chemical groups from consumer products by 2014.

PFCs and NPEs often reach the clothes through wet processes like bleaching and dyeing, said Aguilar. 

International body Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines PFCs as a large group of chemicals that since the 50s have been used as surface protectors for industrial and commercial purposes. 

During the last decade, many types of PFCs were discovered to be toxic and highly persistent – meaning, they do not break down easily and instead stay in the environment, putting animals, plants, and humans at risk because of their toxic properties.

The chemicals reach the environment in two ways: from the dumping of chemicals left over from the manufacturing process by companies into water systems, and from water used by consumers to wash the toxics-laden clothes.

NPEs were found to be highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Like PFCs, they do not break down easily and stay in the environment.

NPEs have been found in samples of freshwater, saltwater and groundwater, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

But perhaps more alarming to humans is the fact that both PFCs an NPEs are bioaccumulative, meaning they can be absorbed by an organism (say, an innocent Sunday shopper) and they can build up inside the organs of that organism. 

Bioaccumulation can alter the developmental and natural chemical processes within the body. Some chemicals for example can even affect hormones or are suspected to be carcinogenic, said Aguilar.

While the health effects are not immediate, they can build up gradually over time with more exposure to the chemicals, she added. 

Lax PH regulations

Sadly, Philippine toxics regulations are not keeping up with the new studies exposing more and more harmful chemicals, lamented Aguilar. (READ: Toxic toys for sale in Manila)

Despite the new measures on PFCs and NPEs being introduced by foreign governments and international organizations, the two chemical groups are not even on the Priority Chemicals list of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). (READ: ‘Ban Toxics’ calls for safe mercury disposal system)

Green groups in the country have been lobbying to update Philippine laws on toxics, particularly Republic Act 6969 or the Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990

Aside from PFC and NPE regulations, the DENR’s restrictions on asbestos – a chemical that causes lung, larynx and ovarian cancer – fall behind World Health Organization standards. While WHO already bans all kinds of asbestos, the DENR still allows the use of chrysolite (white) asbestos fibers in products. 

Aguilar bewailed the government’s lax standards and public ignorance about the amount of harmful substances present in seemingly innocent products.

“Other countries have an active call to phase these chemicals out. What we are saying is, if that’s being done there and there are also links here, why are we not paying attention?” –

Sportswear image from Shutterstock

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