Chemicals in Clothing: The Hidden Price of Fashion


Don’t we all like to feel fashionable from time to time? This past week thousands have gathered in New York City for Fashion Week, and what a better time to talk about the hidden price we pay for our fashionable clothes. <<Big groans>> Debbie Downer is at it again! – Don’t worry, there’s some great news at the end of this post.

So just how pervasive are toxic chemicals in the clothing and textile industry? Toxics are showing up in all parts of the supply chain of textiles, in the production and manufacturing, the clothes themselves, and our routine cleaning of garments.

Fashion Model


Image: © Kena Betancur/EFE/ZUMA Press.

Why is this happening? 

Before we get into other ways our clothing is affected by toxic chemicals, it begs the question: why is this happening? In the U.S. we have weak, lame laws on toxic chemicals. Due to these weak laws, companies can use whatever chemical they like to make our clothes (other products and during the manufacturing process.) That is why we’re asking Congress to get tough on toxic chemicals and pass the Safe Chemicals Act (take action now!)

Toxics in the production & manufacturing of clothes

The dyes used to color our chic blouses and dark blue jeans can be harmful to the environment and drinking water. According to NRDC, “Textile manufacturing has a huge environmental footprint, polluting as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric with a suite of harmful chemicals, and consuming tremendous amounts of energy for steam and hot water.” You can read their Clean by Design report for more information.

Toxics in clothes

  • Major sportswear companies like the North Face and Patagonia came under pressure to remove the toxic PFCs (the Teflon chemical) from their high performance jackets, pants and other clothing items. The PFCs are used to repel water and other liquids, certainly we can do that without toxic chemicals! Our factsheet on PFCs outlines some of the health and environmental concerns with this chemical.
  • Jeans, t-shirts, and jackets from major brands tested positive for nonyphenol ethoxalates (NPEs), a chemical shown to break down into hormone disrupting chemicals in the environment. Although there is no direct evidence of harm caused by wearing these pieces of clothing, we know that exposure to our skin and the environment is not a good thing. To see a list of some of the products found to have this toxic chemical you can read the Toxic Threads results here.
  • Phthalates were found in popular brands of t-shirts, and even women’s underwear by Victoria’s Secret.
  • Pesticides are often used in transportation of clothing from overseas, so be sure to wash new clothes before wearing them.

Companies moving in the right direction

The good news is that thanks to Greenpeace’s “Detox Campaign” many major fashion brands have agreed to move away from toxic chemicals in their supply chain (Nike, AdidasPumaH&MM&SC&A, Li-NingZaraMango, EspritLevi'sUniqlo, Benetton and Victoria's Secret). According to Greenpeace, here is what these brands have agreed to do:

Zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals – Eliminate toxic discharge (which is very common in the fashion and textile industry) through waste water pipe discharge, solid waste and air pollution. 

Prevention and Precaution – These companies have agreed to move away from chemicals shown to cause harm, even in the face of scientific uncertainty and replace them with safer substitutes. What a concept! 

Right to know – The brands agree to publicly disclose information about the hazardous chemicals used and discharged when making their products.


I aim to both educate consumers about health and environmental risks of toxic chemicals all throughout the supply chain and give you some tips to protect yourself. But please remember that the burden should not fall on our shoulders to find clothing free of toxic chemicals.

We need strong laws on toxic chemicals that remove the burden from consumers and instead put the responsibility on chemical manufacturers to produce safer chemicals. Please join us in asking your Senators to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act today.

Take Action NOW!


Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @Lindsay_SCHF


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