London Fashion Week (LFW) is taking place against the backdrop of growing eco-awareness in clothing design. LFW is a clothing trade show held in London twice each year (February and September). It is one of the “Big Four” fashion weeks, (along with similar events in New York, Milan, and Paris). LFW is big business as the event is attended by over 5,000 press and buyers, and has estimated orders of around £100 million.
Sensitivity to ecological considerations is increasingly important to some of the world’s biggest brands. Greenpeace deserves much of the credit for this burgeoning awareness as they are the world’s foremost advocates of more responsible fashion. They have produced a series of reports on the subject and as part of a campaign called “detox fashion” they have pressured 18 of the world’s leading brands to engage more responsible clothing manufacturing processes. These brands have committed themselves to a long-term “zero discharge” goal.
Greenpeace reports have revealed that traces of toxins are present in a large number of the clothing produced by international fashion chains including children’s clothes. These clothing lines are harmful to the wearer and even more harmful to those who manufacture them. Greenpeace has tested large numbers of clothing from major labels and the results are not good.
“We found residual levels of laundry detergents, so-called nonylphenol ethoxylates or NPEs, that have a hormonal effect on human beings – they’re plasticizer residues suspected to cause infertility,” Explained the author of the study, Greenpeace chemist Christiane Huxdorff, “We also found residues of carcinogenic substances that come from azo pigments.”
Azo pigments are synthetic substances used to achieve extremely intense coloring. Some, however, can release toxic or carcinogenic substances. These pigments are banned in Germany but widely used in many other countries around the world.
Greenpeace revealed that even children’s clothing and shoes were found to contain several hazardous chemicals. This is particularly troubling because children are especially vulnerable to the adverse affects of toxins. Examples of the chemicals found include NPEs, as well as cancer-causing perfluoroctane acid (PFOA). In others, traces of phthalates had been found, which may damage fertility or unborn children.
Washing these garments can increase toxic residues in wastewater and rivers. In Asia (primarily India, China and Pakistan) where environmental laws tend to be more lax, textile manufacturers commonly release their wastewater directly into rivers, and this can contaminate drinking water and food sources like fish.
Responding to these concerns is an imperative for clothing manufacturers. Failing to do so exposes companies to significant reputational risks. As the Greenpeace campaigns have demonstrated, with the help of social media, these issues can quickly go viral and reach millions of consumers.
There are a number of ways that consumers can protect themselves from toxic clothing. Exploring the list of those who have adopted Greenpeace’s fashion stewardship program is a good place to start. Other approaches involve buying certified organic labels or older second-hand clothing that has been repeatedly washed and as a consequence contains fewer toxic residues. Perhaps the best way to be a more responsible clothing consumer, is to buy fewer, better quality garments which last.
© 2014, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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