Chemical products are commonly used in the textile and garment industries. This may have started as early as on farms, where pesticides may have been used to grow raw materials such as cotton or flax. Chemicals can also be used in the production of clothing itself, such as fabric dyeing and treatment (e.g. odor or wrinkle resistance), or for aesthetic purposes, such as denim finishes or other decorations.
How can we ensure a more sustainable use of chemicals in the textile and apparel industry as consumers pay more attention to the materials and processes in the product manufacturing process?
What are the regulatory requirements?
Today, a number of regulations have been implemented to help control the use of general chemicals:
The reach (registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals) Regulation of the European Union applies to all chemical substances used in industrial and consumer applications. The law requires companies to show how they manage potential risks and how to use chemicals safely.
In the United States, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates both the introduction of new chemicals and the use of existing chemicals. The law was introduced in 1976 and updated in 2016 by the Frank R. Lautenberg chemical safety act for the 21st century.
China's MEP order 7 (also known as China reach) is similar to the EU's reach regulations. Chemical producers and importers are required to submit traffic notification and obtain approval before producing or importing chemicals.
However, none of these regulations specifically address the use of chemical products in textiles or clothing products.
Of course, this does not mean that chemicals can be freely used in textile and clothing production. Companies often develop restricted substance lists (rsls) to provide guidelines for global suppliers to limit the amount of chemicals that may be present in the final product. Manufacturers can also implement their own rsls to limit the use of hazardous chemicals in the production process. Although these lists are usually created according to government regulations, they are ultimately maintained by businesses or associations, such as the RSL of the American clothing and Footwear Association (AAFA).
For consumers seeking more transparent, sustainable and ethical products, the lack of regulations for the use of chemicals in clothing may be a concern. However, the new initiatives are paving the way for more responsible chemical practices in the fashion industry.
Reducing the demand for chemicals
At present, many initiatives to reduce chemicals in the clothing industry are focused on denim production, because denim often uses dyes and other chemical based finishing processes to create final products.
Several innovative companies are developing new processes to reduce the use of chemicals in denim:
Textile printing company Intech digital uses digital printing to replace dyes, which significantly reduces the use and waste of water
Huntsman is a leading supplier of dyes and has produced a range of reformulated dyes free of harmful chemicals
Start up colorzen has developed a pretreatment method to enhance the combination between dye and cotton fiber, thereby reducing the water requirement of dye and other chemicals
SAITEX, a denim manufacturer whose customers include J. crew, target and G-star raw, has taken steps to reuse wastewater (usually mixed with dyes) in its building materials
In 2018, Levis launched a new program to replace chemicals and other labor-intensive processes with lasers to complete jeans
These initiatives demonstrate that the fashion industry does not need to rely as heavily on chemicals as it did in the past. Major apparel brands are also aware of this and are publicly committed to improving chemical management. Gap Inc., H & M and PVH, which own major brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, all plan to eliminate the use and emission of hazardous chemicals in their supply chain by 2020.
What should textile and garment enterprises do to use chemical products more responsibly and sustainably?
Willing to change existing methods. This may mean investing time and resources to evaluate and improve existing practices. Change won't happen overnight, but once the right tools and processes are in place, the return on investment will come.
Work with supply chain partners. Change cannot happen in a vacuum. Communicate with your supply chain to understand how everyone involved can implement and benefit from more sustainable chemical practices.
Get more visibility of the supply chain. Collect data on your direct and indirect suppliers, their facilities and their practices to ensure that your supply chain is in line with your new chemical management practices“ The "transparency one" platform can help identify the source of the supply chain and ensure compliance at all levels.