These chemicals, called nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), are commonly used as detergents in industries including the production of natural and synthetic textiles. NPEs break down to form nonylphenol, a dangerous toxin that has persistent and hormone-disrupting properties. This toxin has been proven to mimic female hormones, alter sexual development and affect reproductive systems.
Greenpeace said it purchased 78 different branded clothing samples (most of them made in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines) from 18 countries around the world and subjected them to careful scientific analysis. NPEs were detected in two-thirds of the samples the group tested, including popular brands such as Calvin Klein, Adidas, Converse, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Bauer Hockey, Cortefiel, Uniqlo, Gap, H&M, Lacoste, Nike, Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation (PVH Corp) and Puma. During the course of the past year, Greenpeace has found that all of these commonly purchased brands are linked to two specific manufacturers.
The issue of toxic chemicals in clothing is not only a problem for the developing countries where textiles are made. Since residual levels of NPEs are released when clothes are washed, these chemicals are now inching their way into countries where their use is banned or avoided.
The danger of NPEs
Certain components of NPEs have been involved in the widespread "feminization" of male fish in parts of Europe and also in the disruption of hormone processes in some mammals, according to the campaign group WWF. Even at low levels, this toxin represents a big threat to the environment and to human health. It is no coincidence that use of NPEs is completely restricted in Europe.
Our skin is our largest organ and what we put on it our bodies literally drink in. Everything we consume - including the chemicals that linger on and in our clothing -- either gets assimilated or eliminated. Chemical toxins we expose our skin to through our clothing and skincare/body products can tax our bodies in a major way.
NPEs can certainly contribute to the increasing incidence of health problems linked to hormonal disturbances.
All of our modern-day toxic overload concerns should be considered against the backdrop of a monumental biological shift. Only 150 years ago, girls got their first period at around age 15 or 16 and went through menopause in their late 30s and 40s. However, in modern times girls often begin puberty as early as 9 and menopause generally does not occur until around 50.
Not only have we increasingly begun pushing and trifling with our bodies in ways we never did before, but our environments are also becoming increasingly toxic in ways we are often not fully aware of. This is evident when noting the fact that the period in which women's bodies go through a series of significant hormonal shifts has extended over a much longer period of time, increasing not only their fertile years, but also their chances of getting breast cancer. Toxic chemical exposure through household products, our modern food supply, beauty/care products and clothing certainly all play into this.
The alarming truth about clothing factories
In the past, Greenpeace became concerned by the amount of water used to make the majority of our clothing. On average, fiber for one cotton t-shirt requires 713 gallons of water to make, and traditional wet-dye methods for clothing use from seven to 75 gallons of water per pound of fabric. All this adds up to trillions of gallons of water each year passing through textile factories merely for dyeing alone.
Now Greenpeace has gone on to prove that the water leaves the factories polluted with heavy metals and toxic chemicals that cause serious health problems to animals and people. Recently "Dirty Laundry" has outright accused the manufacturers of well-known textile brands such as Adidas of polluting major rivers in China with chemical waste.
The practices of two of China's major textile dye factories were closely examined within the details the company released of its year-long investigation. To gather the information Greenpeace campaigners wore protective suits and collected water samples from outside the factories being carefully analyzed. The results clearly showed that toxins are spilling into China's rivers on a daily basis.
According to Greenpeace, the discharge from these factories includes heavy metals and "hazardous and persistent chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties were found being discharged from these facilities." Alkylphenols including nonylphenols were found in wastewater samples from both factories examined, and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were present in the wastewater from one of the complexes (the Youngor Textile Complex).
Eight samples of wastewater from two factories in the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas, identified as suppliers for the brands, contained "a cocktail of hazardous chemicals": Greenpeace said in last month's "Dirty Laundry" report.
Clothing companies respond -- or do they?
Most of the international brands found to be tainted with these toxins have denied using the dye services at either of the two guilty factories, saying that they are only "cut and sew" customers for these locations. However, that does not change the fact that the practices of these two factories are typical of what you'll find all over China - where most of our clothing is made -- and anywhere else wet-dyeing is used in the production of clothes.
When the Greenpeace report was released, Greenpeace activists dressed as referees caused a ruckus when they surrounded one of Adidas' busiest flagship stores in Hong Kong and demanded that the store eliminate hazardous chemicals in their products. The activists also forcefully urged potential customers to "rethink" their decision to purchase the contaminated clothing.
After storming the store, the activists handed out campaign leaflets to customers and gave store staff yellow warning cards that cautioned the brand line of clothing to "play clean".
Since then Nike and Puma have been the only brands to promise to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in their products -- but only by year 2020!
One would assume that as the second biggest supplier in the sportswear industry, Adidas has a clearly posed obligation to detoxify its global supply chain.
However, Adidas has ignored repeated requests for comment, according to a Greenpeace spokeswoman. The company previously admitted it uses the Youngor Group -- one of the accused clothing suppliers -- for garment cutting and sewing only and not to source fabrics. Adidas has now asked Youngor to investigate Greenpeace's claims and added that the company has a comprehensive policy on avoiding dangerous substances and chemicals.
Many of the name-brand clothing companies accused have reportedly been working on improving their sustainability efforts and reducing the environmental footprint of their products. However, their plans at no point included clear-cut goals to eliminate toxic dyes.
Greenpeace urges companies: "Detox Now!"
Greenpeace has now launched the Detox Now! campaign to pressure Nike, Adidas and other big clothing companies to publicly agree to eliminate the release of hazardous chemicals from the entire lifecycle of their products.
People around the world are responding rapidly and enthusiastically. Thousands have signed an online petition, and 600 people in ten different countries showed up outside Nike and Adidas stores and did a striptease on July 23rd of this year.
The pressure from the public is beginning to take some effect, but not nearly enough. Puma was the first of the companies last week to take responsibility for the toxins released in the making of their athletic apparel and shoes. However, the company has stated that elimination of these toxins will take up to 9 years. In a statement posted to their website, Puma says:
"...Sportlifestyle company PUMA recognizes the urgent need for reducing and eliminating industrial releases of all hazardous chemicals. According to its approach based on prevention and precautionary principles, PUMA is committed to eliminate the discharges of all hazardous chemicals from the whole lifecycle and all production procedures that are associated with the making and using of PUMA products by 2020."
No word has come yet from Adidas or other brands on if they will agree to Greenpeace's request and eliminate these dangerous toxins from their supply lines.
These toxins are unnecessary harm to our lives
The Greenpeace report is an important step toward educating people about just how hazardous the textile industry is. It's also a good method of putting necessary pressure on big name brands who claim to want to be eco-friendly (and have the resources available) to move the apparel industry into a non-toxic future. You can sign the Detox Now! petition here: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/water/detox/Tell-Nike-and-Adidas-to-Detox/
Synthetic textiles don't need water in order to absorb dyes properly. The high temperatures these textiles require to get the fibers to take on colors can be achieved without using water at all. This means that these popular apparel brands DO have choices in the matter and could easily eliminate the toxins used to dye their shoes, shirts, and other products.