London-based retailer River Island issued a product recall in July after finding that five garment lines contained lead and cadmium in excess of legally permitted levels within the EU.
The recall concerned clothes with metal accessories such as beaded fringe tassels, metal beads, drawcord cap ends and decorative brooches and were sourced from India, China and Turkey.
“Our previous tests showed everything was within the legal limits, but safety comes first, we’re recalling the products and are now working with our suppliers to find out how this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” the company told Chemical Watch in July. The company did not respond to requests for additional information.
Under REACH, cadmium and its compounds cannot be used or placed on the market in clothing and their accessories in a concentration equal to or greater than 0.01% by weight. For lead, the limit is 0.05% by weight.
The appearance of hazardous substances in clothing and footwear has been a problem for many years. The hazardous materials come from a myriad of sources such as dyes, chemicals used for sizing and fire retardation, and the metals used in clasps, zippers and more. For a number of reasons, this is not just the problem of the fashion business. Many of these problems can also be applied to PPE and similar protective clothing.
Responsible apparel makers should and do, recall products that are found to contain toxic substances. And recalls occur more frequently than one might expect.
The OECD maintains a global recalls portal that brings together information on mandatory and voluntary recalls issued worldwide. Between 1 January to 31 July of this year, 162 recalls of clothing and footwear were issued.
In the US, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) maintains a list of recalls in clothing for the presence of phthalates, lead and other substances. In Europe, apparel recalls are tracked by the rapid alert system for unsafe consumer products and consumer protection (Rapex).
In 2018 the EU restricted more than 30 hazardous substances from clothing and other consumer textiles. These substances – which include lead, cadmium and other toxic metals – are used to colour and treat textile products but they may also cause cancer as well as harm DNA and reproductive health.
“The clothing and footwear industries take product safety very seriously,” said Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA). “The industry has been aggressive in its efforts to eliminate hazardous chemicals in their product.”
For the past ten years, AAFA has published a global restricted substances list. Mr. Herman said the list is the “most restrictive iteration of regulations on chemicals that are used in apparel and footwear around the world”.
Updated every six months, AAFA recently published its 20th edition. The industry uses the open-source list as a baseline standard for apparel production.
“The industry, especially in the US, is aggressively trying to make sure that hazardous or potentially hazardous chemicals are rooted out and do not appear in their products,” said Mr Herman.
Mike Kellner of international shoe and apparel maker Nike told Chemical Watch it has, in conjunction with the Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemical Foundation (ZDHC), committed to a goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in their supply chain by 2020.
Mr. Kellner said that the company “works collaboratively across our Nike teams and with industry peers to evaluate and restrict the use of certain chemicals, promote the development and use of better chemistries and make products in a way that protects consumers, workers and the environment.”
And Puma, a ZDHC brand member, reported on its website that it is on track to achieve a goal of zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals from its supply chain. The company has phased out the use of PFCs and is maintaining a restricted substance list (RSL) failure rate below 3%.
NGO Greenpeace and Beuc, the European Consumer Organisation, said the apparel industry needs to do more.
“Addressing the use of hazardous chemicals at their source is the most effective way to eliminate both their discharge to water and their presence in products,” said Ana Hristova, Greenpeace global campaign strategist for toxic pollution.
Ms. Hristova told Chemical Watch that the Greenpeace Detox Campaign, launched in 2011, has helped reduce hazardous chemicals in about 15% of the clothing market. “The Detox campaign now needs to be implemented by the remaining 85% of the clothing and textile industries,” she said.
Greenpeace noted that China, the world’s largest manufacturer of textile products, is a major supplier of fabrics containing hazardous chemicals. But, the NGO said, Chinese manufacturers, are not the only offenders. Many global fashion brands outsource their production to countries with cheaper labour and low wages for maximum profit.
“The best way to protect consumers is to adopt specific legislation for textiles that would address all the chemicals that may harm health,” said Monique Goyens, Beuc Director-General, told Chemical Watch in 2018. “Until then, eco-labelled products remain the safest alternative for consumers – a standard that industry should put more weight behind.”
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