The Forever Chemicals in Fast Fashion

  • by Vivienne Austin

If you’ve been following us in our sustainability journey, you’ll likely be aware that the fashion industry's use of toxic chemicals has long been associated with the brightly-coloured rivers of countries like China and Bangladesh. However, many shoppers in the Western world are unfortunately unaware that these same chemicals are present in their clothing and accessories, not just in the rivers. Did you know that toxic substances can remain on garments from production to the consumer's closet, leading to dangerous exposure? Fast Fashion is unfortunately where this issues becomes a real problem, as well as all of its other downsides.



Even major fashion brands are not immune to the issue, as evidenced by recalls of garments containing hazardous levels of chemicals. While the EU has stricter regulations than the US, but toxic products still make it to the market. In 2018, River Island had to recall several pieces due to unsafe levels of lead and cadmium. In 2020, Primark recalled a pair of kitten heels for excessive chromium. Of course, Shein is also one of the brands highly associated with hazardous chemical use, as it was selling a toddler’s jacket with 20 times the amount of lead that Canada’s health department deems safe for children. Zaful and AliExpress were also found selling garments with high levels of toxic chemicals, like phthalates. You can search on the European Commission’s website for fashion products with high levels of hazardous substances that have been recalled, blocked at the border or destroyed.


A recent study found that out of 150 textile samples tested, half of them contained 22 banned synthetic dyes. In a quarter of the samples, these compounds were present at high enough levels to pose concerns for consumers' health. Some of these chemicals, such as tributyl phosphate, dimethyl fumarate, and disperse dyes, have been detected in clothing by scientists, can cause skin reactions or asthma, and are acutely poisonous or hazardous. Some others, which have been shown to have links to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and skin sensitisation, are also present in clothing. 



Unfortunately, chemical use is intrinsic to some materials, including viscose, which is used to make dresses, blouses, skirts, and more. To transform wood pulp into fibre, chemical input is necessary, such as carbon disulphide, a very harmful and powerful solvent. Nevertheless, we have become accustomed to chemical use in our clothing. Dyeing, bleaching, and processing clothes all require chemicals, some of which are more harmful than others.


In Indonesia, more than five million garment workers, some living near a viscose plant, have been forced to stop drinking from their local water source. They are concerned about the impact of the toxic chemicals on their families, particularly their children’s health. In India, people in communities surrounding factories are suffering from serious health conditions, including cancer, tuberculosis, reproductive problems, birth defects, and stomach disorders. Not only do these chemicals harm people, but they are also an environmental disaster, running off into the water and polluting the air and soil around the factories.

However, safer alternatives do exist, such as alternative plasticisers, not phthalates, or other dyes instead of using the one that is the source of the lead. Unfortunately when it comes to chemicals, it is possibly one of the most greenwashed issues. For some brands, it is done out of naivety, whilst with others it is more malicious.

As individuals, it’s important to research the brand and fabrics we’re buying into. Spread what you know though, because the only real way out of this, is for governments to put in some stronger restrictions!


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