What’s in your jeans? A rogue’s gallery of unpronounceable chemicals whose effects on humans are suspect.
Perfluorochemicals , phthalates and azo dyes are among the substances that are widespread in making clothes. Under pressure from consumers demanding safer alternatives to harmful chemicals, American companies including Levi Strauss & Co. are taking a more European approach. The European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,000 chemicals; in the U.S., fewer than 50.
Consumer demand for safe products has global companies scrambling for greener ingredients, but obstacles are daunting.Suppliers are often reluctant to share their formulations, buyers balk at higher costs, and in some cases cost-effective safer substitutes simply aren’t available.
Levi’s has prohibited certain chemicals since 2000, but this is different. The jeans maker and other companies are asking suppliers to use materials generated from bacteria, fungus, yeast and methane gas to replace the petroleum-based substances that make up more than 95 percent of U.S. products’ inventory of chemicals.
There are plenty of incentives to change. A Pike Research report estimates that the global market for green chemistry will increase to almost $100 billion by 2020, from $11 billion last year. Millennials are overwhelmingly interested in sustainable investing, according to Morgan Stanley. And innovating can give companies a competitive advantage, said Monica Becker, co-director of the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council , which works with companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Companies can make false promises that a product is consistent with green-chemistry practices, Becker said, but guarding against that are assessment methods used by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice program.
Rules can also confound the efforts of U.S. companies. To approve chemicals and processes, the European Union uses a so-called hazard-based approach that the Chinese government is also considering. Manufacturers need to prove their products meet safety standards before they bring them to market. The U.S. method is risk-based. It involves weighing metrics, such as quantity and duration of exposure, to assess the danger in an existing product — if data exist.
Proponents of a hazard-based approach argue that exposure to even tiny amounts of some chemicals correlate with learning disabilities, asthma, allergies and cancer.
“Shouldn’t it be that chemicals are guilty until research proves them innocent?”
“Shouldn’t it be that chemicals are guilty until research proves them innocent?” said Amy Ziff, founder and executive director of Made Safe , a new hazard-based certification program. Levi’s said its goal is to use only chemicals that pass hazard-based screens by 2020.
Even as some suppliers push back, “we wouldn’t give up on hazard-based,” said Bart Sights, Levi’s director of global development.
Levi’s already uses some green methods to make its signature blue jeans. To give them a worn look, Levi’s uses an enzyme derived from fungus and tumbles the jeans in ozone gas instead of bleach — a process that Sights estimated has had the added benefit of saving the company a billion gallons of water in the past three years.
“Some companies are spending the same amount on environmental compliance as they are on research and development,” said John Warner, president and chief technology officer of Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry , who created the first green-chemistry Ph.D. program in the U.S., at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Companies can be roiled by the use of non-green chemicals. Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. was beset by lawsuits last year after a “60 Minutes” investigation said it used unsafe levels of formaldehyde. Shares plunged before a government probe ended without a product recall. The company no longer sells the flooring.
Such problems have investors taking notice, said Mark Rossi, whose company, Clean Production Action , created the Chemical Footprint, modeled on the carbon footprint, that investors can use to measure risk and costs. It also developed and licenses a chemical-screening method used by Levi’s and others.
Rossi has signed on firms including BNP Paribas, Calvert Investments and Trillium Asset Management, while companies like Johnson & Johnson and Clorox Co. participated in the first survey to assess their footprint. Gojo Industries Inc., maker of Purell hand sanitizer, has pledged to cut its chemical footprint in half by 2020.
In the five years since it launched a campaign to spur clothing makers and sellers to get rid of toxic substances, Greenpeace International has signed on 78 brands, said Kirsten Brodde, head of the organization’s Detox My Fashion campaign.
At the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry , across the Bay Bridge from Levi’s San Francisco headquarters, students have worked with the jeans maker and companies such as outfitter Patagonia Inc., office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. and Mango Materials Inc., which manufactures plastics out of methane gas, to develop safer materials, including a non-toxic resin for Autodesk’s 3D printers.
But an overnight change for the greener just isn’t possible.
“When it comes to materials, we’re at the very initial step, which is figuring out what the heck is actually in our products,” said Marty Mulvihill, a founder of the Berkeley Center and its former executive director. “A lot of companies are just completing that first step.”
A comprehensive replacement for formaldehyde, for example, hasn’t been developed, Mulvihill said.
Mulvihill is now a partner at Safer Made, a new venture-capital firm he co-founded that’s seeking investments in companies that use green chemistry. It’s looked at more than 100 companies, with plans to invest in 10 to 15 firms in the next five years, he said.
Patagonia has also invested in green chemical companies. A Levi’supplier, Beyond Surface Technologies , is one of a dozen the Ventura, California-based clothing maker has seeded out of 1,400 prospects it’s looked at since 2013.
“Ultimately, some of these companies that we fund could be able to help us clean up our own supply chain,” said Phil Graves, Patagonia’s director of corporate development.
There are 20 environmentally friendly chemicals available for the company’s textile finishes, compared with 200 to 300 that contain non-green chemicals, said Matthias Foessel, Beyond Surface’s founder and chief executive officer.
Developing safer alternatives can take years, while acceptable green substitutes for some substances used in waterproofing and stain protectants, such as perfluorocarbons, don’t exist, Foessel said.
New chemicals often behave differently than expected. Beyond Surface had been trying to create a water repellent when it developed a fabric that absorbs sweat instead.
Still, Foessel’s eight-year-old firm, based near Basel, Switzerland, now has more than 100 customers, including Adidas AG.
“Ten years ago, people wouldn’t have even talked to us,” Foessel said. “People accepted that you had to use chemicals that pose a risk.”
*This story first appeared on Bloomberg
Since 2013, Greenpeace’s “Detox” campaign against apparel companies successfully has catalyzed new approaches to eliminate hazardous chemicals from products and supply chains. It’s not just activist pressure, but also the desire within the industry to do good, that is driving the reduction of hazards in everything from children’s clothing to sportswear.
Efforts to reduce hazardous chemicals and environmental pollution in the manufacturing supply chain include the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Chemicals Management Module and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals’ Roadmap to Zero.
Traditionally, such efforts have centered around Restricted Substance Lists, which have been used in the textile industry since the late 1990s. They contain restricted chemicals that are usually, but not always regulated. These chemicals can be used in manufacturing and be present in consumer products, as long as the amount is not greater than the allowable limit.
The RSL is a tool to help brands meet regulatory compliance requirements and is typically implemented in three steps:
1. Establish the allowable limit in the product.
2. Train and educate manufacturers to implement the RSL.
3. Verify through product testing.
Because restricted chemicals may be used in manufacturing, there is always the possibility that hazardous chemicals may end up in discharge water.
A fundamental shift to ‘input chemistry’
Today, however, a sea change is placing greater emphasis on managing input chemistry rather than treating effluent. Hazardous chemicals are eliminated at the beginning of the supply chain before they enter the manufacturing facility. This prevents the need to clean up waste water and toxic pollution.
Some tools, such as bluesign, have been available for several years, while others are just being introduced, and some chemical companies are seizing the opportunity to lead in the marketplace.
The initiatives below are gaining wider acceptance and use:
The bluesign system is a standard for environmental health and safety in the manufacture of textiles. It was developed in Switzerland 15 years ago and is gaining momentum with chemical suppliers, manufacturers and brands.
Bluesign works with chemical suppliers to ensure their formulations meet strict requirements. Production sites are audited and a set of guidelines must be met prior to a chemical supplier selling “bluesign certified” formulations. Approved bluesign partners regularly report their continuous improvement and progress in energy, water and chemical usage, and are subject to on-site audits. Many large global chemical suppliers including Huntsman, Archroma, CHT and Dyestar are bluesign partners and produce bluesign-compliant formulations.
Bluesign chemicals are available for all stages of textile production, from spinning to garment manufacturing. This enables brands and manufacturing facilities to make smarter and safer choices.
Bluesign assesses and assigns chemicals to one of three categories:
1. Blue: safe to use
2. Gray: special handling required
3. Black: forbidden
The bluesign system helps factories manage “gray” chemicals and replace “black” chemicals with safer alternatives.
Manufacturing Restricted Substance List
An MRSL differs from a Restricted Substance List (RSL) because it restricts hazardous substances potentially used and discharged into the environment during manufacturing, not just those substances that could be present in finished products. The MRSL addresses any chemical used within the four walls of a manufacturing plant, including those used to make products and clean equipment and facilities.
The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals group developed and published an MRSL with input from key stakeholders including brands and chemical companies. ZDHC developed one MRSL for the apparel industry. This benefits brands, manufacturers and chemical companies because they only have to adhere to a single set of criteria with the same chemical restrictions, limits and test methods.
Chemical companies are in the process of developing a list of MRSL-compliant formulations that adhere to the strict limits placed on a given chemical formulation rather than the finished product.
CHEM-IQ is a chemical management tool released by the VF Corporation. Developed in collaboration with third-party experts, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, CHEM-IQ provides a proactive, cost-effective method for identifying and eliminating potentially harmful chemicals before they enter manufacturing.
Samples from chemical formulations are tested in a lab for the presence of about 400 hazardous chemicals. If any are present above a certain limit, VF works with its supply chain to determine an action plan to move towards safer alternatives.
In addition to the tools and certification systems described above, two small textile chemical formulators, Garmon Chemicals and Beyond Surface Technologies, are also adopting a “front of the pipe” approach.
Garmon’s conscious chemistry
Innovative Italian chemical company Garmon Chemicals has taken an interesting approach in how it assesses, manages and chooses chemical ingredients in its formulations. It recently announced a partnership with Turkish mill Orta denim and Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals.
Garmon incorporates GreenScreens into its raw materials assessment. GreenScreen chemical assessments are based on the hazard profile of a chemical rather than the risk profile. All intentionally added ingredients are screened and assigned a GreenScreen score. Chemicals scored as “Benchmark 1” (to avoid as a chemical of high concern) are not accepted in any formulation. This approach helps Garmon prioritize efforts to find safer alternatives.
The company has developed a range of specialty chemicals called “environmentally conscious chemistry” using GreenScreen as an inspiration for innovation. Garmon has positioned GreenScreen as a platform to develop products for the eco-conscious consumer who demands transparency.
Particularly impressive, Garmon has eliminated potassium permanganate and sodium hypochlorite, two cheap commodity chemicals used to bleach indigo denim. It replaced them with their Avol Oxy White, which provides a similar visual effect.
The advantages of environmentally conscious chemistry include the capability to:
1. Establish long-term partnerships across industries and co-create new capabilities.
2. Drive science and design, with the goal of developing new aesthetics.
3. Trigger healthy changes throughout the manufacturing supply chain that injects “premium” and “sustainable” and “quality” and “integrity” as operational guiding principles in the garment industry.
Beyond Surface Technologies
BST, a small and innovative chemical company, has a different approach to assessing its raw materials. It selects raw materials with either the highest possible content of bio-based carbon (PDF) or materials approved for use in the personal care or food industry, so that it does not need to worry about contaminants and impurities. If it is safe enough to eat or put on your skin, it is safe enough to be used in apparel.
As these examples indicate, the textile industry is making progress in reducing environmental pollution in the textile supply chain by focusing on the management of input chemistry. Stronger partnerships among brands, manufacturers and chemicals companies; a more rigorous approach towards the elimination of hazardous chemicals; and innovating to find safer alternatives to chemicals of concern are moving the needle towards safer consumer products within cleaner supply chains.
** This article first appeared on GreenBiz.com here.