The chemicals are used in textile production as wetting agents, detergents, and emulsifiers. This toxic chemical then remains in the garment, released once you wash your clothing, breaking down to form toxic nonylphenol.
A huge victory for Detox supporters came out of Europe this week as all EU member states voted to ban toxic chemicals called nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) from textile imports.
This decision closes a trade loophole that allowed clothing containing dangerous levels of NPE to enter the EU even though the substance is banned from regional manufacturing.
The chemicals are used in textile production as wetting agents, detergents, and emulsifiers. This toxic chemical then remains in the garment, released once you wash your clothing, breaking down to form toxic nonylphenol (NP).
Nonylphenol is a persistent chemical with hormone-disrupting properties that builds up in the food chain and is hazardous even at very low levels. Although a relatively weak estrogen mimic, it is hazardous in the environment due to the high concentrations in which it can occur.
The wide use of NPE in the textile industry was brought to light by a Greenpeace International report, Dirty Laundry 2: Hung Out to Dry. Released in 2011, the report initially drew huge media attention, as it pointed out a loophole in the EU's REACH chemical regulations.
Released in 2011, the report initially drew huge media attention, as it pointed out a loophole in the EU's REACH chemical regulations. While NPE was banned in textile products within the EU, it did not ban the use of NPE in imported textile products.
Now the exporting countries will have to clean up their act
As the report made clear, "major clothing brands are making their consumers unwitting contributors to increasing levels of hazardous nonylphenol in the environment and water bodies of countries where the products are purchased, as the washing of these clothing items can release residual levels of NPEs contained within the apparel into sewage systems.
"Although the level of NPEs in any given article of clothing is small, the sheer volume of clothing being sold and subsequently washed means that the total quantities being released may be substantial."
This ban will now need to be adopted by the European Commission, which should happen in the upcoming weeks and will take effect within five years, allowing the fashion industry ample time to remove NPE from its supply chain.
Manufacturing countries such as China, rely heavily on their trade relationship with Europe. For more than a decade, Europe has been China's number one trade partner and China's textile production needs that relationship to continue.
That said, China's textile industry needs to be more progressive in identifying and banning harmful chemicals from their products otherwise they will lose a key market.
Problems in China too: the polluted Yangtse Delta
Two earlier studies published by Greenpeace. found that nonylphenol (in addition to a range perfluorinated chemicals used as fire-retardants) were present in fish from the Yangtze River Delta.
A more recent study, detailed in the original Dirty Laundry report, found hazardous chemicals in samples of wastewater discharges from two Chinese textile processing facilities, the Youngor Textile City Complex and the Well Dyeing Factory Limited.
These facilities have links to a number of major international and national clothing brands including Adidas, Nike, Puma and the Chinese company Li Ning. Nike and Puma are among the companies to have promised to stop releases of toxic chemicals by 2020.
Nike's commitment to zero discharge by 2020 adds a commitment to action on disclosing its hazardous chemical discharges to the public, and offers to share its tools with the whole apparel sector, seeking to catalyse a sectoral shift, and so support the goal of systemic societal change.
Since then hundreds of thousands of supporters have called on high street brands to clean up their supply chain, including Abercombie & Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Converse, G-Star RAW, H&M, Kappa, Lacoste, Li Ning, Nike, Puma, Ralph Lauren, Uniqlo and Youngor, all companies identified in the report.
While the EU's decision is a huge win for a cleaner, toxic free future, Greenpeace will continue to monitor this industry's use of NPE. "But we still need your help", say campaginers. "The Detox campaign is far from won and we need your support if we are going to have all hazardous chemicals banned from use in the textile industry."
Greenpeace is calling on the brands and suppliers to become champions for a toxic free future, by eliminating all releases of hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and their products.
Yixiu Wu is the Detox My Fashion Project Leader at Greenpeace East Asia.
This article is based on an original article by Yixiu Wu published by Greenpeace with additional reporting by The Ecologist.