7 ways brands can detoxify fashion and drive sustainability on any budget
Consider for a moment that a quarter of the world’s chemical production is used to make textiles (about 8,000 different chemicals are used in industry). And while most of these substances are safe when handled correctly, many more escape into the environment, polluting the water and putting lives at risk. Up to 100 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water, for example, largely due to industrial pollution. Fortunately, it is possible to make clothes without harming the environment.
It’s all according to Detoxify the Fashion Industry for Dummies, a new digestible guide that free to download and released by the Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals Foundation, or ZDHC, an industry group launched in 2011 to eliminate hazardous substances in the clothing industry. Here are seven simple tips from the book on how clothing companies, including cash-strapped startups and independent designers, can implement a safe chemical program and do their part to detoxify fashion.
1. Detox begins in the conception department.
Brands have the most control over sustainability in the design process. The same goes for safe chemistry, says Draws co-author and executive director of the ZDHC Frank Michel Foundation. “Design is where it starts. And the designer must understand the impact of chemistry. Design teams can begin this training by reading the Draws book and viewing the ZDHC Banned Manufacture List – a regularly updated catalog of chemicals banned in the garment production process – for free online. The organization also has a training academy and certification courses, although these services are chargeable.
For designers, choosing detox products can be as simple as changing a certain pigment made with a dangerous dye to a non-toxic option. “It makes a huge difference if there are safer alternatives and this particular pigment is difficult,” explains Michel. Designers can also remove unnecessary performance characteristics made with harmful substances. Perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, typically used in water repellent coatings, “take a long time to break down and some can be harmful,” the book notes. If they are not needed for the product, an easy first step is to eliminate them.
2. There are no “good” or “bad” chemicals.
Chemical myths abound, such as the idea that natural chemicals are safer or that certain substances, like azo dyes or chromium, are always bad and cannot be used safely. “Chemistry is not inherently good or bad – it’s the details that matter”, Draws book explains. How chemicals are used and how much of them is used determines their impact as much as their inherent toxicity.
Take the example of salt, a seemingly harmless household substance used in the treatment of textiles and to help dye adhere to fabrics. If there is too much salt in the wastewater from manufacturers, it causes serious damage to the ecosystem.
In addition, switching to new materials to avoid chemicals perceived to be “bad” can create new problems. The most popular alternative to chrome tanned leather for example is synthetic or “vegan” leather. “It’s a plastic coated fabric, and that’s not the best thing when you look at the environmental impacts,” explains Michel, who includes a large carbon footprint and microplastics released into the environment.
Detoxification requires a more nuanced and holistic approach, explains Michel. “What detox really means is that you go into your supply chain and you look at the chemistry of the process and you replace the dangerous chemistry with a better alternative, and that goes down the entire value chain, from seed to ready-made garment. “
3. Don’t fire him. Use safe chemistry to drive your sustainability strategy.
Sustainability can be overwhelming, forcing brands to track their impacts on climate and water, single-use plastics, waste, and more. But there is a simpler way of looking at it, says Michel. “At the end of the day, it all starts with chemistry. Detoxification can help brands frame all areas of environmental impact – from climate change, which is the burning of chemicals in petroleum, to water and air pollution, which is caused by release chemicals into the environment – and place them under one roof. “What I tell my brands is that when they want to communicate about their water program or about climate change and atmospheric emissions, it all starts with chemistry,” explains Michel.
4. Think about the impacts at each stage of your product.
In the past, many brands approached chemicals by only testing finished products for hazardous substances, but this approach only protects consumers without any attention to workers and the environment in producing countries.
Michel uses the example of a batch of jeans, which can be washed several times at the factory until all hazardous chemicals used in the production process are removed. But that means the chemicals are in the plant’s wastewater. “And we have global waterways. The chemicals travel, so it will come back to us, ”he says.
Brands must also think beyond non-toxic raw materials. A good example is organic cotton, which, although grown without pesticides, can then be bleached and dyed and sprayed with chemicals to prepare clothes for shipment. “Once the clothes are finished, they can be treated with biocides to prevent mold during transport and storage”, explains the Draws delivered. Think about the entire production process, from farm or refinery to finishing and shipping.
5. Educate your consumers about chemicals, but don’t do greenwash.
For brands, it’s tempting to tell black and white stories about sustainability, including stories about the “good” and “bad” chemicals. But be careful not to greenwash. For example, clothing sold in North America and Europe is required by law to meet consumer safety standards. “Those [brands] who claim to have safe products are literally just following the regulations, ”says Michel. Also, describing something as natural is not a shorthand for non-toxic. “Chemistry is no less toxic if it is natural,” says Michel.
There are authentic ways for brands to communicate what they are doing around safer chemistry. For example, if a company chooses non-toxic pigments or designs a shirt without a wrinkle-resistant finish, often based on formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, they can communicate that choice. “Educate your consumers on product performance and what is really needed,” explains Michel.
6. Improve traceability and get to know your supply chain.
Traceability is a buzzword in the buzz, and it’s the same tool brands need to really start detoxifying their supply chains. Chemicals are introduced during the manufacturing process, so working hand in hand with suppliers is the most important step, explains Michel. “Understand your suppliers and engage with your supply chain. The design team needs to have a close relationship with purchasing and purchasing, he adds, so that clear instructions are passed to factories on what substances can and cannot be used.
Although full traceability down to the raw material or farm level is a challenge in the fashion industry today (Michel predicts this will become easier in the near future, thanks to blockchain technology), a brand working with its major suppliers and contractors to use the ZDHC MRSL has a huge impact and is an easy place to start. “It’s very easy to implement,” says Michel. “It’s not rocket science. It’s just a list.
7. Small brands can take advantage of what big brands are doing.
A growing number of big brands are “investing heavily in understanding their products,” explains Michel, so where does that leave small brands and startups that don’t have the cash for expensive chain management? supply? The work of the ZDHC Foundation has helped streamline the industry around common chemical standards and this helps to reduce costs. Small brands can also leverage what big brands are doing, including using the same vendors who are committed to detox where possible, advises Michel. “Look what the big boys are doing. Try to take advantage of their supply chain.
“If you had asked me when we started, how possible is it to really eliminate dangerous chemicals in fashion,” says Michel, “I would have said we have a 30% or 20% chance. Fortunately, the impact of fashion on the environment is better measured and better understood today than a few years ago. There is a growing consensus around harmful chemicals and how to eliminate them. This provides a benchmark for fashion, so the industry can realistically track its improvements, says Michel, who has become optimistic about the prospects for detox fashion in earnest.
“I would say there is a hundred percent chance [we can remove hazardous chemicals]”, says Michel,” when governments and industry are pulling in the right direction. “
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