Report uncovers use of toxic chemicals in sportswear

Chemicals such as phthalates have been used in sportswear to keep it sweat free, according to Greenpeace

(Unsplash/ Derick McKinney)

A toxic chemical banned from children’s toys has been found to be used in the production of sportswear.

According to a Greenpeace International report, sportswear and fashion brands, have been using phthalates and other toxic chemicals to keep their clothing sweat-free. The chemical was previously banned from the production of children’s toys in 2008 due to being linked to ADHD, asthma, diabetes, breast cancer, and numerous reproductive issues.

Greenpeace’s investigation was spurred on by the success of the Greenpeace Detox Campaign, which exposed the links between textile manufacturing facilities using chemicals and water pollution.

“These chemicals have been used for a long time in sportswear,” says Stephanie Phillips, the textile specialist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Wilson School of Design. “And absolutely we need to be working on it. Our problem at the moment is that there are not very many good replacements for these fibers.”

The latest investigation looked at global fashion brands, including Armani, Levi’s, and Zara and more hazardous chemicals. According to the report, the investigation looked at clothing designed for men, women, and children, including jeans, trousers, t-shirts, dresses, and underwear made from both artificial and natural fibres.

“One of the things, when we talk about textiles, it’s really about making sure that the right fibre is used for the right end goal. And so right now, when we’re looking at these, we’re looking at fabrics that we would really like to…not absorb the water,” she says, adding that most of the natural fibres we use can absorb water.

“So there is the possibility of changing, but that needs to happen within the realm of chemistry.”

The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments, and cancer-causing amines from the use of certain azo dyes in two garments reads the report. “As inherently hazardous substances, any use of [nonylphenol ethoxylates], phthalates, or azo dyes that can release cancer-causing amines, is unacceptable.”

The Wilson School of Design does not offer any education on this chemical as part of the fashion program, as that knowledge falls under the realm of chemistry, and is outside of their focused area of knowledge.

Phillips says that the fashion school works “significantly with the understanding of materials and material cycles.”

“So we talk about the standardizations around the chemistry and how it’s used from the certification blue sign that students become familiar with, as well as the Higg Index, which is the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s measurement of material sustainability, as well as the organic textile standard,” Phillips says.

The Wilson School of Design focuses on how their work as designers can support the chemists, Phillips says.

“We’re not gonna be able to test the material for a phthalate,” says Phillips.“I’ve been working in the world of textile sustainability for 10-15 years now,” says Phillips. “What I worry about a lot is how reductionist everything becomes when we’re looking at fixing one tiny problem, when in reality we really need to fix the system.”

“We need to fix the fact that we have material cycles that are unsustainable in the long term,” she says.