Chemical industry says attempt to clean up toxic textiles is “abuse” of industry regulations

Chemical industry lobbyists have intervened in an attempt to block toxic chemicals being banned from use in the European textile industry. The group even called moves to ban harmful substances an “abuse” of the regulatory system.

In a paper seen by META, the European Chemical Industry Council, known as ‘CEFIC’, claims no EU action should be taken to ban three harmful substances, including known carcinogens from use in the European textiles sector.

They argue that while certain chemicals pose a serious health risk, this does not mean they should be controlled by industrial regulations, saying: “We understand concerns about formaldehyde under health aspects… but would like to remind that the [standards] should be about environmental impact.” (Original emphasis).

The paper criticises an environmental group’s attempt to reduce the use of dangerous substances in the textile industry – including endocrine disruptors and cancer-causing chemicals. It also says that falling rates of contamination mean no action should be taken, and that chemicals should be put on the list only when they pose a “broad risk”.

Industrial emissions expert Christian Schaible from the European Environmental Bureau rejected this reasoning. He said:

If a substance is toxic for humans it is also toxic for the environment. Rather than only acting when a problem is widespread, EU protections that are supposed to describe the very best available techniques that can make industry as clean and safe as possible. This means substituting dangerous chemicals, in particular by reducing and replacing the use of hazardous substances at the production stage. The idea that falling contamination rates reduce the need for dangerous pollutants to be banned is crazy, this is a perfect chance to eliminate harmful substances entirely.”

Environmental standards for the textile industry are being reviewed under an EU law that covers hazardous chemicals, emissions, and resource efficiency in over 50,000 industrial installations in the EU.

Under the review, the European Commission added formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethylene to a list of priority substances to be controlled – as so-called ‘Key Environmental Issues’ (KEI). While the chemical lobby welcomed the “limited scope” of this initial list, proposed by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre based in Seville, Spain, the EEB’s Christian Schaible said that “not enough substances have been prioritised” and that “the KEI list is a concept dreamt up by the European Commission to limit the scope of the textiles’ review and keep workload down”.

Stronger protections are in place for substances that are granted KEI status for use in EU industry.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) represents the voice of nature and the environment in discussions about new industrial rules.

While industry groups are represented by numerous lobbyists, environmental groups usually have just one seat at the table.

The chemical industry is represented by CEFIC, who by their own admission are “not directly involved in the handling and production of textiles”.

Responded to this admission Schaible added:

It’s interesting that CEFIC are playing such an active role in this process as by their own admission their members don’t even produce or handle textile products. New textile industrial rules shouldn’t be drawn up based on the self-interested market concerns of the chemical industry.”

The EEB has called for more harmful substances that appear on the Commission’s list of hazardous chemicals – referred to as so-called ‘Substances of Very High Concern’ (SVHC) – to be tackled under industrial rules on textiles, and for the rules to also look at the production of man-made fibres and yarns, in particular viscose filament yarn.

80 billion garments are made globally every year – a 400% increase compared to just two decades ago.

According to the Greenpeace DeTox campaign, up to 3500 chemical substances are used to turn raw materials into textiles, and approximately 10% of these are hazardous to human health or the environment.

The NGO ChemSec identified a series of pollutants of high concern to human health and the environment that are still commonly used in textile production – including formaldehyde, trichloroethylene , and tetrachloroethylene.

23 global brands have already signed up to a voluntary initiative which aims to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile and footwear supply chain by 2020.

Schaible said:

The Commission should be promoting the detoxification trend being led by some frontrunners and blacklist unwanted toxic substances for good. As countries all over the world look to EU industrial standards when setting their own rules the impact of ambitious textile and supply chain standards could also be felt beyond Europe’s borders.

The current environmental benchmarks for the textile industry are based on information dating back to 2001 and an updated document is already eight years behind schedule.