Stop making China suffer toxic pollution for Western fashion

A Greenpeace investigation exposed the gender-bending chemicals used in clothing production. Puma, Nike and Adidas have agreed to phase out the toxic chemicals, but can we expect others to follow, asks Tamara Stark

What will be the phrase on London's fashionistas' imacculately glossed lips during this year's London Fashion Week? Probably not Nonylphenol Ethoxylates, but it's a term being bandied around the boardrooms of some of the world's biggest brands. Today Greenpeace brings you some genuine fashion secrets and lets you in on how what you wear is going to change over the next decade.

‘Fashion secret' sounds a bit implausible - how fashionable can something be and still be a secret? You'd be surprised. A recent Greenpeace investigation tested clothing samples for the presence of toxic chemicals and exposed an industry-wide problem. Lab tests revealed that clothing from 14 out of 15 global brands that had been purchased in 17 different countries all contained the chemical nonylphenol ethoxylates. These NPEs, as they're known, break down in water into toxic, persistent and hormone-disrupting nonylphenols - contaminating fish, wildlife and people - often having the greatest impacts on rivers near the factories where the clothing is produced.

Some of the impacts of toxic river pollution on fishing villages and other communities living by rivers in China and elsewhere are truly appalling, but having exported much of our pollution to the developing world, now we in the rich west are importing it back again in our clothes, and, when we wash them, put it back into our rivers.

Clean water is a universal right

It was just last year that the United Nations voted to include access to clean water within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This late addition to a list that defines our basic human rights probably comes as a surprise to many people - but I can only imagine that when the Declaration was passed in 1948, no one had envisioned a scenario where, in many countries, access to clean water would hit a crisis point.

Yet here we are in 2011, with almost 1 billion people on the planet foregoing a universal right, and some industries - including the textile industry - adding to the problem of global water contamination. That's why Greenpeace is campaigning to clean up the industry and, correspondingly, contaminated rivers and waterways in manufacturing countries such as China.

Personally, I don't want to be a contributor to this problem. Did you know that as much as 70 per cent of the rivers, streams and reservoirs in China alone are contaminated? Meanwhile, we're lucky enough to live in a country where some efforts have been made to clean up our environment, so these toxic chemicals have already been banned in manufacturing in the EU. What these testing results make clear, however, is that these chemicals are still showing up in clothing I can buy here in the UK, so people like you and I unwittingly become part of the problem when we purchase them.

So this investigation is important, because it reveals the extent of the toxic pollution the industry is causing, and it's a problem globally. Given the high levels of attention paid to China as the world's largest manufacturing nation, it would be easy for consumers to think that poor production processes are restricted to only China - or to 1 or 2 other countries at most. The report Dirty Laundry exposes the fact that whether we're purchasing clothing made in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam or any of the other 9 nations whose clothing was tested, there's a high probability that toxic chemicals were used in manufacturing.

I want to make purchasing decisions that I know to be ethical as well as attractive, and right now the state of the textile industry is such that it's extremely difficult to be confident that what I'm buying is truly ethical - and non-toxic. That's why we challenged these global brands, such as Puma, Nike and H&M, to de-tox their clothing lines.

The good news: De-toxing is back in fashion

At least some clothing corporations are getting the message. Within two weeks of our report, Puma contacted us, pledging to completely eliminate hazardous chemicals from their supply chain by 2020, and Nike quickly followed suit. Sportswear giant Adidas took longer to convince but at the end of August they, too, committed to develop an action plan with clear timelines attached that will eliminate the use of these chemicals. They will also challenge their suppliers to be more transparent with local communities, and voluntarily disclose what chemicals they use and discharge in their manufacturing, wherever it occurs. This could be the first step to bringing fashion's dirty secrets out into the open, and that's what we urgently need if we're going to clean up this industry and protect both China's rivers and our own.

What's less heartening is that - as yet - companies such as H&M, Ralph Lauren, and Abercrombie & Fitch aren't accepting responsibility for cleaning up their supply chain.

Global responsibility

An interesting part of the debate that ensued after we released our findings focused on the question of how far corporations have to go to be considered truly responsible citizens. Most CSR commentators supported the need for these corporations to hold to the same ethical and environmental standards across the markets where they operate. But a few did tentatively put forward the argument that surely they should only have to abide by local regulations, even if those regulations are extremely lax. This argument, to me, is one of the most spurious defences they could possibly offer. What kind of double standard is really defensible when it comes to people's health?

These companies benefit hugely from lower production costs already, which is why they moved their manufacturing overseas in the first place. So the people living in those countries have the right to know what's happening to their waterways, what is being discharged into each of them and which company is responsible.

The need for transparency and ethical decisions applies also to people like me, living in countries where these clothing items, many of which still contain hazardous chemical residues, are sold by the thousands every day.

Truly becoming 'fashion forward'

I'm personally willing to do more to ensure that products I buy aren't poisoning people elsewhere, but I think I have the right to challenge the fashion industry and others to do the same. At Greenpeace we recognise that there's a lot of good will in the sector already, and some clothing companies are showing real leadership on this front. As Nike's vice-president of sustainable business and innovation, Hannah Jones, wrote recently in the Guardian 'At stake is not whether we share the same vision of good (as Greenpeace) - we do. Nike was already working to eliminate hazardous chemicals from our supply chain; Greenpeace challenged us to move faster.'

And that's what we're asking other companies to do, because if water truly is a universal right then we clearly need to do a damn sight more to get clean water to those one billion people who currently don't have access to it.

Tamara Stark is currently the communications director at Greenpeace UK, and previously worked in China as a campaigns coordinator


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