Up until last year, I loved to treat myself to a new dress or a pair of jeans without a thought about who or how my clothes were really made. I didn’t think about how that jacket was the perfect shade of pink or the chemicals that might be needed to make it that particular colour. So it got me thinking, when it comes to the clothes we wear on our bodies, how ethical are they and are we wearing toxic chemicals?
When Pretty Little Thing changed their Terms and Conditions to include that their clothing contains toxic chemicals that could increase cancer in their customers, it urged some of us to reconsider who we buy from and question their ethical standards.
Unlike the nutrition facts on the back of our favourite foods, clothing doesn’t come with a conveniently itemised list of ingredients. Instead the 8,000 synthetic chemicals used in fashion manufacturing, most of which contain known carcinogens and hormone disruptors, are kept undisclosed and hiding within the fibres of the industry’s most sought out styles.
Due to social media marketing, we have been trained to shop through influencers and people we admire online. We’ve also been trained to buy based on labels and how things look on others and to not consider how things are made, we just want to look like that girl on Instagram.
These hazardous production methods and chemical cocktails aren’t just affecting our environment, they’re infecting our personal health, too. From the very first stages of someone making your top, jeans or dress, there are toxic synthetics being used to treat material, print a pattern and dye the material that perfect shade of pastel blue. The people who make these garments are exposed to these chemicals and breathe in the fumes. From the corrosive finishing products that flow into our water sources and agricultural systems every time we wash our clothes, to the leaching poisonous substances that absorb into our skin and into our blood stream and organs upon every wear, the thought of wearing chemicals isn’t a process we often acknowledge.
Synthetic + Performance Fabrics
FUN FACT: Your skin works to keep you healthy by discharging up to 1lb of toxins per day. Synthetic and performance fabrics are often used for sportswear/gym wear. Typically, you can find petrochemical fibres like; nylon, polyester, acrylic, acetate or triacetate in clothing like sports tops, bras, leggings, and even socks. These kinds of chemicals are bad because they restrict toxins from releasing in your skin. Marketing techniques have brainwashed us into believing terms like “performance fabrics” which often means synthetic fabrics can cause anything from headaches and nausea to skin rashes and respiratory problems.
Synthetic undergarments have also been said to contribute to infertility in men.
Recent studies have found microfibres from petroleum-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester in 83% of the world’s drinking water. It’s not surprising when considering that the laundering of a single polyester garment is estimated to release 1,900 individual plastic fibres that rinse off and end up in our oceans killing aquatic life.
The consumption of these plastics is particularly alarming because just like our skin, microfibres act like sponges and can absorb toxins in their journey from our clothes to our mouths.
Although making the switch to more ethically sourced brands could help eliminate plastic fibres, this isn’t always possible. Below are tips form the Environmental charity Hubbub’s #WhatsInMyWash campaign on how to reduce the number of microfibres released during wash cycles.
Ways swap: go natural
Unlike synthetics, natural materials like organic cotton, linen, silk, wool and hemp allow the body to breath, detox and regulate body temperature properly. Natural fibres are also naturally biodegradable and can be composted, while synthetics don’t break down and can live in landfills for hundreds of years.
Brand New Clothes & Wrinkle-Free Fabrics
New clothes are the consumer choice for their bright, crisply pressed and unworn-by-anyone-else appeal. But, what is that “new” smell we’ve been conditioned to appreciate? Oh well, it’s just a mixture of toxic finishing treatments like urea resins and formaldehyde. Used primarily in construction–and to preserve dead bodies–formaldehyde, has been linked to dermatitis and lung cancer. So why do we use this known human carcinogen on our clothing?
New clothing are often covered with formaldehyde to prevent mildew, wrinkling and parasites during shipping–especially those shipped from China.
In fact, Victoria’s Secret has undergone multiple lawsuits for the excessive formaldehyde levels found in their lingerie. Consumers should also be wary of any fashion labeled “easy care”, “wrinkle-free” or “shrinkage-free” as these fabrics are also known to release formaldehyde.
Black Clothing, Denim & Azo Dyes
Ever seen the warning label “Attention! This garment will lose dye and colour” on a prospective pair of jeans? In conventional dye methods, 35% of the colour is flushed away after dyeing, while only 65% is retained in the cloth. Azo dyes, the industry’s go-to, release chemicals known as aromatic amines that have been linked to cancer. Dark colours like brown and black contain higher concentrations of p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) a chemical that triggers skin allergies and can cause contact dermatitis.
Synthetic indigo that makes your blue jeans blue is made from a chemical cocktail that includes formaldehyde, which is not only harmful to humans, but to the environment when discharged after dyeing. It is estimated that 20% of our planet’s industrial water pollution comes from the dyeing and finishing processes of textiles as a single mill can use 200 tons of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric. In China, 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater from the textile and dye industry.
Ways to swap: choose second-hand clothing responsibly sourced
With second-hand clothing, you have the peace of mind that the garment has been washed several times and that the chemical residue is significantly less than what is found in new clothes. If second-hand clothing is not your thing, be sure to wash your new clothes with natural detergent before wearing to lessen the contact of formaldehyde and other harmful finishing agents. Natural detergents like Ecover and Kinn Living are a great sustainable, natural alternative.
Kinn’s Eco Friendly Neroli Delicate Laundry Wash states is:
*Made from plant based ingredients
*Not tested on animals
Next time, when browsing brands, check that they use plant based or natural materials to make their clothes, and are sustainably sourced so they are respecting the environment too. I feel like brands who truly care for their customers, will care how they manufacture their brand, too.
Here are five sustainable brands that use natural fibres to make their clothes:
I’ve also found these brands to be similar priced to high street brands.