Harmful chemicals: European fashion industry at risk from imports
On January 30, Belgian MEP Saskia Bricmont presented to the European Parliament a report by researcher Audrey Millet (author in 2021 of The Black Book of Fashion) on the presence of hazardous chemicals in clothes in Europe, leading to conditions like cancer, lung disease and uterine contamination. A 54-page document that sheds light on the limitations of the EU’s REACH regulation, especially with regards to imports.
A public meeting on the theme “Stop Fast Fashion” was staged at the European Parliament on Monday, in the presence of representatives of the Clean Clothes Campaign and Euratex, the European Apparel and Textile Confederation. Millet’s report is freely accessible, and is set to become a benchmark. And make waves.
The report found that textile manufacturing regions in India are beset by a proliferation of cancer cases (to the skin, liver, thyroid, etc.), lung disease and infertility problems. Harmful elements are said to persist even on garments sold on the second-hand market. And the report stated that the observed rates of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in outdoor clothes sold in Europe are above the thresholds accepted by the EU itself.
In response to these issues, the EU has adopted the REACH regulation, prohibiting the use of certain hazardous chemicals on items destined for the European market. “A very fine tool, which inspired India, China and South Korea,” said Millet (whose presentation is available on video). However, she also underlined some of the regulation's shortcomings, notably with regards to imports. Because, although Europe is keen to re-localise manufacturing, it is still dependent on imports for its clothes. And checks at the gateways to the European market are far from optimal.
“In practice, (…) customs and market surveillance authorities have other priorities,” said Bricmont. “Europe imports most of its textile products from countries located thousands of kilometres away, such as Morocco, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and China, where the REACH regulation’s requirements are not necessarily known, and even less adhered to. Therefore, health risks exist also for workers at the end of the supply chain, who often make garments and shoes without wearing adequate protective equipment, and mostly without having even been informed of their harmfulness,” she added.
Among the many studies and surveys cited by the report are those by professor Tarun Grover, on the work undertaken by apparel brands to remove toxic elements from their products. An investigation which found that hazardous chemicals have been detected in some products by Nike, Li-Ning, Limited Brands and Adidas, with only the latter being committed to detoxifying its products.
The report also cited studies showing that chemical elements transferred from clothes to future mothers are then transmitted to their children before birth and during breastfeeding. And while it is not possible to assess how long these chemicals will remain in clothing, it has reportedly been demonstrated that they are to be found in the human body even after death.
How to address this issue? By strengthening REACH, according to Bricmont, who deplored an unexplained postponement of such a course of action by the EU Parliament at the end of last year. She also called for better consumer information, for the introduction of so-called mirror clauses (to force supplier countries to comply with EU standards), for a duty of vigilance featuring specific obligations with regards to apparel, and the introduction of textile-specific provisions within trade agreements.
In the first half of 2022 alone, the EU imported €43.6 billion worth of apparel (equivalent to a 38% increase), mainly from China, Bangladesh, Turkey, India and Vietnam. Added to this, it imported €20.3 billion worth of textiles (a 23% increase) to supply European manufacturers and garment makers.
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