Toxic Presents: Be Careful What You Unwrap

By Hugo Plunkett 10 December, 2012

GAP year student Hugo Plunkett on unwanted gifts bought in stores from London to Germany

Greenpeace report shows 89 (63%) out of the 141 items of clothes tested positively for NPEs (hormone disruptors)
It doesn't matter where you shopped; all high street brands tested across 29 countries had at least one or more item that tested positive

What is on the top of your Christmas shopping list this year? A pair of Abercrombie jeans, the latest Armani runway dress, a new pair of shoes from Zara or what about a little bit of nonylphenol ethoxylate…

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a subset of alkylphenols that are used to form commercial detergents that feature in clothes’ manufacturing supply chains globally. Sounds pretty harmless but, just like thousands of other chemicals, they are used to make the clothes we buy at major brands throughout the world, however, what if I told you the use of this chemical is restricted in the EU and the US. Then what if I told you these NPEs are considered endocrine disruptors, in other words, these chemicals have the ability to mimic estrogen and, in turn, can disrupt the natural hormone balance in your body.

Greenpeace just issued a follow-on report ‘Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up’, from its ‘Dirty Laundry’ campaign, that looks at what chemicals are used to manufacture clothes that are eventually sold by some of the world’s most well-known brands. The findings weren’t pretty; out of the 141 items of clothes that were tested for NPEs 89 (63%) items tested positive at above 1 ppm. All of the brands tested contained at least one item or more that tested positive for NPEs. However, it isn’t just NPEs which were found; other hazardous chemicals including potentially cancerous amines were also discovered.

It doesn’t matter where in the world you shop

“As an inherently hazardous substance …. all NPE use is unacceptable, as it gives rise to persistent and bioaccumulative nonylphenol.”

Greenpeace, ‘Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up

This is a global problem. During April 2012, the 141 tested articles of clothing were taken from stores in 29 different countries, 25 of which tested positive. The chances that you are buying clothes with these chemicals in London, Germany, France, Italy and the US are equally high. So there is a real chance you could be unwrapping a not so nice Christmas present this year. (However, interestingly out here in Hong Kong, the chosen clothes samples all tested negative which is surprising given its proximity to China!)

We all wash our clothes and in doing so creates more problems. Washing releases some of the NPEs into our water system. Although NPEs are restricted, the question here is whether any NPE use is acceptable. Greenpeace doesn’t think so: “As an inherently hazardous substance …. all NPE use is unacceptable, as it gives rise to persistent and bioaccumulative nonylphenol.”

Watch out what you buy

Unfortunately, your favourite high street shops are some of the worst perpetrators with brands such as Calvin Klein, Gap, Zara and Tommy Hilfiger all selling clothes with high levels of NPEs (see chart below and refer to report for more details)

Greenpeace has kept track of which brands are trying to clean up their act. Leaders who have been setting an example are the likes of H&M and Marks & Spencer. They are trying to encourage more brands such as Nike, Adidas and Puma to join these other two brands in committing to local online disclosure of releases of hazardous chemicals by some of their suppliers.

The next group are companies who have intended, but not yet made formal commitments, to having a zero discharge policy. Some examples of brands that are at this stage are G-Star Raw, Jack Wolfskin and Levi’s.

At the bottom of the pile, those seen as the ‘detox villains’, are companies who haven’t made any credible statements about their intentions for a zero discharge policy but still have some form of a chemical management policy. Brands who fall under this category are the likes of Zara, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Mango and GAP.

Even worse there are a few companies who don’t even have a chemical reduction policy in place and have made no commitments to targeting zero discharges. Some examples of companies at this stage are Esprit, Metersbonwe and Victoria’s Secret.

Now this is all very shocking but what can we do to prevent our exposure to these chemicals?

It’s not as simple as just boycotting products which have used NPEs as often it is very difficult to see whether the clothes you buy contain these chemicals. There aren’t any anti-NPE labels; in fact stores want to draw as little attention as possible to them. So what can you do?

Before you go out shopping, read the report for more details of what chemicals where found in which clothes.

Who’s to blame? It’s not just China

Although a significant amount of clothes are ‘Made in China’, it’s not just the lack of regulation in China that is causing this problem. The clothes tested were manufactured in 18 different countries out of which 13 showed positive results. In the study they tracked the clothes they tested for these NPEs back to where they were made and although China was one of the biggest polluters other places such as Mexico, Vietnam and India all had a high proportion of the clothes they made test positive for NPEs.

Make the right choices

This is why it should be the brand owners who are in a position to bring about change, who should try stop NPEs from being used and we can help by trying to avoid buying clothes which use them for their production. After named as a detox villain in the report, Zara has since committed to eliminate the discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products by 2020.

With coercive action by consumers, brands will be more likely to change their policies towards these hazardous chemicals and start making real changes. Finally, it’s not just a matter of ecological activism but these chemicals can have negative effects on our health too. So it is an anthropogenic and anthropocentric problem we must get rid of.

Further Reading:

Hugo Plunkett
Author: Hugo Plunkett
Hugo Plunkett is currently on his gap year where he is spending 5 months working in Hong Kong for ADM Capital and HSBC after which he will be working at a social rural enterprise in India. During his time at ADM Capital he spent two weeks with the China Water Risk team where he was able to pursue his interest in the environment and how it impacts the global economy and our everyday decisions. Hugo studied Economics, Politics and Maths at school and will explore these topic further at university.
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