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Now Is the Time to Detox the Fashion Industry — Here's How to Do It

Can the fashion industry take the lead to reduce the use of harmful chemicals and become an influential global force in sustainability? ZDHC Foundation Executive Director Frank Michel outlines why now is the time for the industry to stick to its sustainability commitments, and offers the industry a free tool to start detoxing.

As Executive Director of The ZDHC Foundation, it is my mission to coordinate the global textile value chain to drive action to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals. This is an urgent issue and no easy task.

While the exact amount of chemicals used and water pollution produced by the fashion industry is not certain, there is no debating that chemicals in wastewater from the fashion industry severely impact local communities where textiles and garments are produced. 

COVID-19 has disrupted business as usual for everyone; and for those of us in fashion, we’ve witnessed the industry grind to a stop. Manufacturing has paused and retail is experiencing minimal traffic; but rather than wait for its return, this is exactly the moment to reevaluate “business as usual” — and this means confronting the truth about chemicals. 

Busting myths and misconceptions 

The word, “chemicals,” can send many industry professionals and fashion consumers into a panic, but the truth is that chemicals are not “good” or “bad.” We are made of chemicals, the air we breathe is chemicals, the water we drink is a chemical; and yes, some chemicals are toxic and must be used in moderation (a glass of wine too many proves this case in point).

“Why are there chemicals in my clothing? Are they dangerous? Are they necessary?” — these are some of the common questions I am asked, and this lack of understanding hinders progress. 

There are many misconceptions about how and why chemicals are used, and it doesn’t help that chemistry isn’t a topic you’re likely to see at all the latest sustainable fashion events; the feedback I hear is that it’s complicated, boring, complex or even scary. 

Why chemistry is key to sustainability 

The truth is that throughout each step of the fashion supply chain, chemicals are involved. This means that any effort to embrace sustainability must take chemistry into account. And this is why I am releasing an official ‘For Dummies guide,’ called Detoxing the Fashion Industry the first book to trace the entire detox journey and the role of chemistry in fashion, for free. 

The history of chemistry is intimately tied to the history of fashion. The royal colour purple became so famous due to its scarcity, and there’s a chemical reason the term "mad as a hatter" became commonly used. We need chemicals in fashion — they colour clothing; and make it functional, shiny, water-resistant and durable. 

However, as the industry has grown, the tricky relationship between chemicals and fashion has grown, too — with devastating effects on people and the planet. A lot needs to change; but if transformed, the fashion industry is a sector with an incredible potential to improve people’s lives. 

Will change come fast enough? 

Right now, the planet is sending us a message to take action to commit to a more sustainable world. It concerns me, however, that due to COVID-19, there may be pressure to reduce efforts in chemical management and sustainability for short-term cost savings, with the result that we will lose the momentum gained in the past several years

Using safer chemical alternatives and better control of the chemicals used in processes must remain a priority to protect workers and the environment in communities where production happens, as well as consumers. 

I hope this free resource helps more people to join us on this detox mission, and for brands to continue to clean up their value chain, including chemicals. The good news is that hundreds of brands, manufacturers and chemical suppliers are already collaborating to take action — to align on new standards and tools, and to train their supply chain partners on how to implement these. Further, new innovations in blockchain offer new possibilities in transparency and new safer chemicals substitutions are being developed. 

However, this challenge will only be solved through commitment and persistence; and I hope that the fashion industry will choose to set a new, global trend in chemical use for others to follow. After all, what is fashion if not about trends? Saving the planet and its people is a great way to be a trendsetter — and if not now, when? And if not us, who?

Detoxing the Fashion Industry for Dummies is free to download here.

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