Our clothes are a black box

            Do we know what’s in our clothes? Nowadays, we’re given more and more information about the products we buy. Beauty products and prepackaged foods come printed with long lists of ingredients and chemicals so that we can avoid anything we’re allergic to or simply don’t trust. Food labels may even break down the nutritional content of the food, colouring “salt” or “fat” a scary red if it takes up too much of your daily recommended allowance. Depending on the country, this may even extend to restaurants—last year, for instance, the UK introduced a law requiring large restaurants to include calorie counts on menu items.

            Sometimes all this information can be overwhelming. It can feel like you need a chemistry degree to get any meaning out of the back of a makeup product—how am I supposed to remember all the different chemical names and keep up to date with which ones are supposed to be good or bad for me? But on the other hand, it’s better to have this information than nothing. Even if we don’t understand everything, it allows us to avoid things we’re allergic to, or make the choice to avoid products that use ingredients we know to be unethical, like palm oil.

             But despite all the information we have access to today, there’s one type of product that we really know very little about: our clothing. Clothing labels usually tell us what fabrics and materials the garment is made from, gives us washing instructions, tells us where it was made, and that’s it. You might be wondering, “What else there is to know?”  Well, the materials a garment is made from might look like a list of ingredients, but it leaves out a big part of the picture: the chemicals that go into any dyes and special treatments (like anti-stain or anti-wrinkle technologies) that are used to create the finished garment.  Some of these chemicals may be harmless—others might be toxic.   The problem is: we don’t know. Our clothes are a black box.

What is actually in our clothes?

                 I was inspired to write this post after reading this article by Alden Wicker based on research she did for her book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back.

                Even before reading this article, however, I had my own questions about how the chemicals in our clothes might be affecting us. Although textile manufacturers aim for colour fastness when they dye clothes (i.e., how much of the dye stays permanently bonded to the fabric) this is never a perfect science, and some of the dye inevitably comes out in the wash, or even rubs off on skin or furniture—as anyone who has sat on a white sofa in a new pair of jeans might know. If the dye in our clothes can rub off on our skin or surroundings, it makes sense that we should be thinking more about what chemicals go into that dye.

                Wicker’s article lists some of the chemicals that were found in ordinary garments tested by researchers and advocates—and the results aren’t reassuring. A study by The Center for Environmental Health in California “found high levels of the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA in polyester-spandex socks and sports bras by dozens of large brands” at “up to 19 times California’s safety limit”, while tests by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tested 38 pieces of children’s clothing from “ultra-fast-fashion brands” Zaful, AliExpress and Shein, finding that “one in five had elevated levels of toxic chemicals such as lead, PFAS, and phthalates.”

What are the health impacts?

                 What are the health impacts of exposure to these toxic chemicals? The dangers of lead need no explanation—but what about BPA, PFAS and phthalates? These “have been found in time-bound experiments and longitudinal studies to mimic hormones and interfere with our endocrine system, causing a little-understood cascade of health effects ranging from extreme weight fluctuations and fatigue to infertility and chronic disease.” These health effects are particularly worrisome because once absorbed, some of these chemicals can hang around in the body for a long time. Lead has a half-life of decades in bone, and a month or more in blood and soft tissue, while PFAS is known as a “forever chemical” because it can stay in the body… forever.

                The effects of these nasty chemicals on textile workers working more directly with the chemicals is well known, with exposure linked to “breathing problems, rashes, and even death,” yet Wicker was surprised to find some evidence that even simply wearing clothes produced with these chemicals can impact our health: her strongest evidence is a case study in which hundreds of Alaska Airlines workers reported ill health following the introduction of a new uniform which, upon testing, was found to contain lead, arsenic, and a whole host of other toxic chemicals.

                One of the authors of a 2018 Harvard study into this case said that because airline attendants often have to wear these uniforms day after day in long shifts, the health impacts from wearing clothes with traces of toxic chemicals became more visible compared to the general population—yet, this “doesn’t mean that other people in the population are not still being affected in some way. Let’s say someone has clothing with the same components – they may not even notice; they just don’t wear it so much.” In other words, there is good evidence that toxic chemicals in clothes can affect our health—we are just not sure how much yet.


How *clean color tech does better?

                These are impressive numbers, if we do say so ourselves, but the best part is they’re not just hypotheticals. The technology is here already – it’s just waiting to be adopted on a wider scale. Over the coming years, we will be working with more and more fashion brands and suppliers to get clothes dyed with *Clean Color Tech in shops around the world.

                We’re using our skills and knowledge to make the fashion industry greener, but there are plenty of people in other industries making similar strides to change their industry for the better, too. If we all work to change what we can, we can make a difference.

                We read so many depressing news articles every day that sometimes the world’s problems can seem too big to overcome. But it’s important to remember that solutions are possible, and that there are plenty of people working to find them – even if you don’t always hear about it.