Mannequins guard the doors of Cinderella’s Closet, a bridal boutique just off the corner of East 11th Street and Santee. Tulle dresses of blue, red and purple hues churn in the wind as dueling stations of Mariachi and Hip-Hop music fill the streets, battling to be heard above the incessant honking from the road. A black Honda Civic attempts to avoid a shirtless biker weighed down by two bags filled with multicolored clothes attached to either side of his bike seat. Woven fabrics cascade from the competing storefronts as bacon and pepper scents waft into the air from the hotdog vendor on the corner.
This is Los Angeles’ bustling Fashion District. Spanning 100 blocks in the center of Downtown LA., Santee Alley houses thousands of independently owned retail and wholesale businesses selling everything from apparel, “designer” accessories, shoewear, fabrics, and more.
The way we make our clothes has lasting negative effects on our environment and our personal health. The direct cause: the chemicals added to dye and manufactured fabrics and textiles used in everyday apparel.
The idea of sustainable or eco-friendly fashion has been a topic within the fashion industry for decades. The movement, emerging in the 1960s with American biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, forced consumers to question the impact the fashion industry had beyond aesthetics. Carson’s book exposed the solemn reality that how our clothes are made contributes to widespread pollution associated with the use of agricultural chemicals.
So what relationship does toxicity have with our clothing?
Founded in 2019 to “advocate for radical and coordinated research activity commensurate with the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change,” the Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF) is one of fashion’s driving forces demanding sustainability within the trillion-dollar industry..
UCRF, along with other experts in the field, ascertain that the way we make our clothes has lasting negative effects on our environment and our personal health. The direct cause: the chemicals added to dye and manufactured fabrics and textiles used in everyday apparel.
Finding the Chemicals in Our Clothing
In Greenpeace International’s 2012 report, “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up,” the organization investigated the environmental impact of brands like Armani, Calvin Klein, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara. The report found that an alarming number of the clothing tested had an increased number of harmful chemicals such as phthalates and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Of the 141 articles of clothing tested as part of the investigation, 89 of those contained NPEs, detergent-like substances that have the potential to lead to widespread release into aquatic environments, and azo dyes, widely used to treat textiles and leathers, which can release cancer-causing compounds.
The inception of these chemicals into garments begins during the manufacturing process. Chemicals are manufactured containing NPEs and are delivered to textile manufacturers to use in processing, additionally some azo dyes are used in dyeing processes. Relaxed regulations on the usage of these chemicals leads to chemical-laden wastewater disposals containing these hazardous chemicals that then enter public waterways, such as rivers and lakes. The global textile industry then delivers clothes containing phthalates, residues of NPEs, and other hazardous chemicals to markets around the world, where we, the consumers, then buy them from brands like H&M, Zara, Shein, and FashionNova. The Greenpeace report goes on to state that “[b]rands’ inadequate policies then force consumers to become unwitting accomplices in the cycle of toxic water pollution when they wash their new clothes…as this releases these hazardous chemicals into their domestic waste water.”
As far as personal health risks for the individual wearing the clothes, it’s possible.
As far as personal health risks for the individual wearing the clothes, it’s possible. According to the National Biomonitoring Program’s Phthalates Factsheet provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the CDC has said that the human health effects of phthalates are “unknown,” but “exposure is widespread” in the US. Of those affected, women have higher levels of exposure for several phthalates and phthalate alternatives that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products and apparel. In her book Conscious Closet, Remake Director of Advocacy and Policy, Elizabeth Cline states that exposure to these harmful chemicals can result in skin irritation, allergic reactions, and asthma, but there is the potential for more serious health risks such as cancer, reproductive and developmental problems.
One of the biggest proponents of the use of chemicals in our clothing is the fast fashion and wholesale industry.
“People should be shocked,” said Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and professor at the University of Toronto, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “This is hazardous waste,” Diamond continued. “I’m alarmed because we’re buying what looks cute and fashionable on this incredibly short fashion cycle. What we’re doing today is to look [for] very short-lived enjoyment out of some articles of clothing that cost so much in terms of our … future health and environmental health. That cost is not worth it.”
A Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color
In an article published to Environmental Health in 2018, authors Rachel Bick and Erika Halsey stated that “globally, 80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased each year, translating to $1.2 trillion annually for the global fashion industry.” And of those 80 billion pieces, an estimated 85% of the clothing Americans consume is shipped to landfills totalling nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, or 80 pounds per American, per year.
These environmentally unfriendly practices disproportionately affect communities of color.
“This water causes sores on the body,” said an anonymous resident from Savar, a city in central Bangladesh, in an interview with CNN. In the interview, he goes on to describe the rivers surrounding the manufacturing district that have run black from textile factories causing fevers and skin irritation on residents’ hands and faces.
“People don’t have any other option so they have to … drink (from) it. They are hopeless, they don’t have money to install a filter or drill (for) deep water,” said Ridwanul Haque, chief executive of the Dhaka-based NGO Agroho, in the same interview.
Many rivers and lakes in China — the world’s largest clothes manufacturer — were so polluted that they were effectively dead, as a result making water not polluted by dyes and chemicals hard to come by for those communities.
Countries such as China, India, and Ethiopia are among those that manufacture a bulk of the world’s clothing, due to the cheaper costs of labor in countries that tend to have larger rural and poor populations. In 2020, CNN interviewed Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmentalists who told CNN that before he founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), many rivers and lakes in China — the world’s largest clothes manufacturer — were so polluted that they were effectively dead, as a result making water not polluted by dyes and chemicals hard to come by for those communities.
Ma continued: “Every season we know that the fashion industry needs to highlight new colors…each time you have a new color you’re going to use more, new kinds of chemicals and dyestuffs and pigments and catalysts,” essentially poisoning the water supply of workers and people living next to these textile and dyeing factories.
How to Cut Chemicals Out of Your Clothing
With growing evidence of the negative and toxic effects the chemicals in our clothing have on our health and that of laborers, we must look to change our buying habits. From upcycling and secondhand fashion crazes on TikTok to annual calls to end the purchasing of toxic fast fashion on sites like Twitter and Instagram, we’re seeing an uptick in the demand for more sustainable options.
In 2020, upcycling, taking clothes previously owned and sewing them into something new, became a trend on TikTok with creators designing chic outfits from oversized hand-me-downs and thrifted apparel. Online second hand stores like Depop and Ebay also continued to grow in popularity with this trend.
The reuse of clothing has proven to reduce the amount of waste associated with the manufacturing of our garments. If this trend of recycling continues, it will allow us to limit the amount of toxic waste that is discarded into public waterways around the world during the fabrication process, resulting in cleaner water for communities. Furthermore, with the reuse of clothing and fabrics, the frequency with which those garments have been washed reduces the amount of chemicals that live within the clothes, resulting in reduced bodily exposure to these harmful chemicals.
Join the Conversation
I appreciate this information and I am one of those people that buys mostly used and I wear my clothes to death! One of my concerns is the black clothes especially black panties which I like to wear and now I am wondering how safe those are.
One question though, you state that rayon is a petrochemical fabric and I thought it was made from plant cellulose. Did you make a mistake perhaps?
Hello Anto: You are so welcome! Thank you for reading –and for catching that mistype that we have since corrected. Rayon is indeed a semi-synthetic (not a petrochemical fabric) made from plant cellulose. Because rayon requires a chemical-heavy industrial process, we recommend tencel as an alternative.
BAMBOO?? Word on the street is that bamboo fabric may contain chemical residues that can cause infertility.
I know the bamboo has tp be crushed and then soaked in chemicals to release the goo to make the thread from.
Does anyone know any more about the chemical residues in bamboo fabric?
My concern is when these clothes are being ironed ,what about the fumes the person is inhaling while ironing ,I know they can’t be good for us. I have never seen an article written pro/ con anywhere or any medical column addressing this issue.Than you kindly.
I have sewn for the public for years and know for a fact when ironing some fabrics they are so bad my eyes burn and sinuses become irritated. Not sure what the future will be for me and countless others who have breathed these fumes but what a shame we weren’t protected. I recently had a reaction to some decorator fabric and my eye became very irritated and swollen. Later read fabric was not to be ironed!! Will not see these fabrics again, I am done with them!! Thank you for this post!
This is a fantastic summary and I love the action steps. However, my concern with Modal is that it could be produced from trees that have their origins in rainforests vs. sustainable cellulose.
Hi Loren: Thank you so much for your comment and concern! You are correct, the non profit organization Canopy has recently traced modal back to forest and rainforest deforestation – which leads to green gas emissions, destruction of animal habitats and so forth. It really depends on where the modal is coming from/produced that dictates whether the woods are being ethically sourced from the forests, or not. Unfortunately, for now, that information is difficult to obtain. This is why we continue to push the industry for more transparency so we as consumers are equipped with the information we need to make the most conscious consumer choices. We recommend Tencel as a better choice b/c it is made with sustainably sourced eucalyptus and requires less chemicals in a closed loop process.
I read your report and found it to be very informative. My friend is a flight attendant and says that their new uniforms are causing many attendants a variety of issues such as itching. It is such a problem with her airline as well as others, that it is in litigation.
I will share your article. Thank you
This is extremely concerning. Could you link your sources so I can read up more on this?
Is formaldehyde banned in Aus?
Thanks for the article, I’m glad this information is being provided for people!
I have to disagree about tencel though. I know from experience , working with it, that some tencel clothing lines use toxic chemicals as finishing on the clothing to enhance the feel of the garments in the store. The smell was obvious and very strong, and both my co-worker in the small boutique, and I became very ill after 3 years of exposure and handling. Skin rashes on our hands, breathing issues, and autonomic nervous system problems were all part of the results we had. Tencel is also a potentially dangerous fabric because of how some companies ( at least this particular one) treat the fabric before it goes to the consumer.
Great article. Thanks for posting. I am just kind of finding out how dangerous some of this stuff is to our health and was wondering how to filter through and find safe clothing for my family that doesn’t break the bank? Thanks
Hi Kara! Yes, please check out our “Sustainable Brands Directory” to explore brands that have safer practices, are friendlier to the environment, and implement ethical labor and pay standards.
Hi I bought new bra in a big mall.. I wore it then after using i washed the bra.. I smelled very strong chemicals . I cant described.. I went out from the washing room because i almost can”t breath..isthis dangerous?
I only purchase organic clothes for my baby girl to avoid toxic chemicals! Tiny Twig has been my go to for organic clothing
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Washing clothes is also bad for the environment. Because of the toxins and micro fiber. We need to just go back to our own country harvest, make and sell to our own country. Stop import and export deadly chemicals and killing the earth and humans. This should be considered murder. And the industry should be held accountable