Greenpeace puts the spotlight on hazardous chemicals in childrenswear

Greenpeace puts the spotlight on hazardous chemicals in childrenswear


The environmental activist organisation Greenpeace released a new investigation titled “A little story about the monsters in your closet“[1] which is a continuation of a long campaign against leading multinational fashion brands, a campaign that started in 2011 as “Detox campaign” and caused leading brands to establish their Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC) programme. The progress of ZDHC has been criticised repeatedly as being slow and  inefficient, and founding members adidas and Nike have even been blacklisted as “greenwashers”, in Greenpeace´s Detox catwalk[2]. We have covered the story since 2012[3]. It seems, if one measures the vision of a 2020 phase out against the current data from the latest Greenpeace study, it is still a long way to meet the targets of zero discharge in the textile industry.

Through this way of campaign escalation, by putting the spotlight of toxic chemicals in childrenswear, the general public will be reached emotionally and more awareness will be created for Detox campaign.

Greenpeace_monsters_closet2For parents everywhere, this is a toxic nightmare”, says Nadia Haiama[4], a Senior Policy Advisor for the Greenpeace Internationalglobal Detox campaign.

The pressure on fashion brands will further increase to change things. On the other hand, it also changes the focus of the Detox campaign from water issues at production sites to textile articles found in departments stores.

Greenpeace commented  in the report“Despite the fact that all the products purchased were for children and infants, there was no significant difference between the range and levels of hazardous chemicals found in this study compared to previous studies analysing those chemicals.”[1]

Greenpeace has stressed the issue of chemicals in childrenswear before.

Already in 2004, a Greenpeace report revealed  that hazardous chemicals are present in Disney childrenswear. Disney garments, including T-shirts, pyjamas and underwear, were bought in retail outlets in 19 countries around the world[5].
Late last year Greenpeace released a report “Kid’s wear made in China carry toxic substances[6], claiming children’s garments made in the biggest kid’s wear manufacturing towns in China would contain hormone disruptors and chemicals that are toxic to the reproductive system. The articles are mainly sold in the domestic market or in e-commerce platforms globally. It was based on 85 children’s garments collected by Greenpeace staff, all made in either Zhili Town (Zhejiang) or Shishi City (Fujian). Tests were conducted by independent third-party laboratories and revealed that more than half of the tested samples detected NPE, while nine in ten items made of polyester tested positive for antimony. Phthalates, which are known for their toxicity to the reproductive system, were also found in high concentrations on two samples.
In the current investigation by Greenpeace, released just a few days ago, a broad range of hazardous chemicals was found in children´s clothing and footwear across a number of major brands  including fast fashion, sportswear and luxury brand. It confirms that the use of hazardous chemicals is still widespread in the textile industry all over the world.
A total of 82 children’s textile products were purchased in summer of 2013 in 25 countries/regions worldwide from branded stores and authorised retailers. They were manufactured in at least twelve different countries/regions, top ranked by China (29), Thailand (8), Vietnam (7), Bangladesh (6), and Indonesia (6). Important textile manufacturing hubs such as Turkey (3) and India (1) were under-represented in the study.

The brands included world´s leading fashion and sportswear brands, such as American Apparel, C&A, Disney, GAP, H&M, Primark, Uniqlo; adidas, LiNing, Nike, and Puma. The luxury brand Burberry was also included. All products were investigated for the presence of certain hazardous chemicals. The results are summarized in the following table.

Hazardous chemicals Greenpeace findings Purpose, source, issues
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) Found in 50 of 82 articles (61%),
8 > 100 ppm, 3 > 1000 ppm
Surfactants, detergents substance hormone disrupters[7], accumulating in the environment
Aromatic amines No concentrations found above detection limit By reductive cleavage of azo dyes, often contamination from manufacturing.
Certain aromatic amines (arylamines) are cancerogenic
Phthalates Found in 33 of 35 articles Plastisol printed fabrics[8], PVC softeners. Hormone disruptive, toxic to reproductive development in mammals
Organotins high concentrations found in footwear Used as biocides or fungicides and stabilisers in plastisol prints, impacting the development, immune and nervous system of mammals, even in very low concentrations
Per/poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs) detected in waterproof clothing articles, footwear and swimwear Used for water and soil repellency effects in outdoor products, PFOA and PFOS are especially critical[9], hormone disrupting, cancerogenic, impacting the reproductive and immune system
Antimony detected in all polyester articles Important catalyst in manufacturing of polyester fibres, generally used during synthesis of PET (polyethyleneterephtalate) ,
comparable to arsenic, dermatitis, irritation of respiratory tract, interfering with the immune system

The chemicals were tested depending on relevance for the each type of product. According to Greenpeace, the products were analytically examined by independent accredited laboratories, except for antimony which was analysed at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories.

Childrenswear investigation opposite the Detox catwalk ratings

Apart from the fact that in many articles there is obviously a serious issue with the implementation of zero discharge, and all brands are affected more or less by this, there are differences between brands.

child-clothesThe substance class APEO , especially NPE (nonylphenol ethoxylate), have been part of ZDHC phase out initiatives since the very beginning as one of the 11 most critical substance classes. It is stunning that after 2 years running the ZDHC programme, more than half of the articles screened still contain detectable amounts of NPE, and even in childrenswear, which is one of the most sensitive areas. The idea of a 2020 goal wasn´t to wait till 2020. The data tend to suggest that brands either do not implement, or their supplier do not comply which means brands don´t manage well their supply chain.
According to the Greenpeace findings,  C&A and American Apparel had several articles with very high NPE content, far above the levels of other brands. The highest concentration was even 17.000 ppm (!) in a shoe of C&A made in Mexico, but C&A had a second article with almost 4000 ppm which is also far above the levels of all other brands. Second worst is American Apparel, then Burberry and Disney articles also have high NPE concentrations, according to the particular screening test.
It should be pointed out that adidas and Nike, classified by Greenpeace as “greenwasher” brands[2],  have far lower NPE contents compared to some others, e.g. C&A who was rated as one of the Detox “leaders”. More than one article of C&A had extremely high NPE contents. This is opposite the ranking in the Detox catwalk. Real progress of implementation should count more than verbal commitments which seemed to be the basics of the Detox catwalk. In that sense, Greenpeace is inconsistent, it seems their criteria in the Detox catwalk are not reflected at all by findings in the real market. It would be fair and appropriate to include screening results such as the current investigation to reconsider the catwalk ratings: However, until today, companies such as C&A still carry the label of a “Detox leader”, despite the very critical NPE findings.

The following table shows the statistics of the NPE analysis (taken from the detailed technical report)


With respect other hazardous chemicals, adidas, Nike as well as other brands had articles which contained, according to Greenpeace, high levels of PFCs. Even the banned PFOS was found in a H&M coat, and particular high concentrations of PFOA was found in adidas swimwear. PFOAs in high levels were also found in Nike and adidas coats. A Puma shoe, a Nike coat and H&M trousers contained high levels of  other PFCs (for more details see technical report of Greenpeace[1]).

Other extreme cases were phthalates found in a Primark t-shirt, found in Germany, contained with extremely high concentration of 11% (11.000 ppm!), and a cotton baby item of American Apparel 6.100 ppm. High concentrations of organotin was found in Puma and adidas footwear.

What is the definition of zero?

An important question for the whole textile processing and chemical industry dealing with “zero discharge”  is:  What is the definition of zero?
Greenpeace says[1]


In that sense, zero would reflect to the analytical detection limit which is a moving target, depending on scientific progress of individual analytic techniques. However, it is very challenging to put the compliance level to a moving target for thousands of chemicals.
But is “zero” being the detection limit practical? The question is not easy to answer in general; science has progressed to a point where in some cases individual atoms can be detected and parts per billion concentrations can be measured, e.g. dioxins[10] in lakes and rivers. Having said that, the input processing water may already be too toxic for any processing. Therefore, “zero” being the detection limit is not practical, apart from the enormous cost imposed in the textile industry.
We could challenge the validity and inconsistencies of the given detection limits, since we are aware of the limitations of the underlying analytical methods, but it would be beyond the scope of this article to discuss this matter. We assume that Greenpeace used the given detection limits because accredited labs told them these are the detection levels; other organisations, put detection levels at different (higher) values[11].
Is it wise to classify a chemical as hazardous in a yes/no decision, independent from the actual risk level? Probably not.
Another way would for putting a limit value be the concentration when a chemical would pose a risk for humans, animals, plants or the environment. The problem is: this is very difficult and very comprehensive to assess, for thousands of chemicals it is a long, tedious and expensive exercise; but ultimately this is scientifically the best way. These methods could be established over time. For example, with chemical safety assessments and chemical safety reports under REACh legislation[12] in the European Union, a more substantial basis is established over time.

Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals programme moving, but slow

As mentioned above, ZDHC (Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals) was the response of big fashion & apparel brands  to address the challenge of Greenpeace Detox campaign.
The current Greenpeace investigation reveals it is still a long way to reach the 2020 goal of phasing out all hazardous chemicals from the supply chain. The investigation again suggests that even the most sensitive market segment of childrenswear, and even the substance classes of the initial focus, is far away from a mission accomplished.
Meanwhile, in the ZDHC programme the participating members released “a framework for prioritizing hazardous chemicals in textiles”[13]. A list of identified restricted chemicals will now be (finally) prioritised for action, to rank the chemicals by three main criteria: hazard, volume and use pattern. The ZDHC members committed to three focus areas, specifically chemical hazard assessment and prioritisation and assigning phase out or research actions. More specifically, the ZDHC members created a database of chemicals used in the apparel and footwear industry in 2012, and identified  a list of chemicals based on their appearance on restricted or watch lists[14].
The methodology sounds very much reasonable, however, we wonder why it has taken more than 2 years to reach this point? The progress is still slow and bureaucratic, considering the fact that all decisions need to be aligned between 18+ large global corporations.
The ZDHC also intends to publish the outcome of more production site audit compliance reports, to be expected soon[15]. We are eagerly waiting for the release of the audit reports.
The bottom line is: the ZDHC takes action in the right direction, but is slow, bureaucratic and influenced by lobbyists of the chemical industry. More has to happen, and Greenpeace will surely maintain then pressure.


[3] StepChange Innovations Blog: ZDHC

[5] Greenpeace: Tests reveal Disney childrenswear contains hazardous chemicals
[7] Winkler,F.: The risks and alternatives of APEO and NPEO in textiles, part1, part 2


[11] Greenpeace, with reference to Hohenstein´s Oeko-Tex® 100 standard, says   “the credibility of such standards can be questioned as they do not publicly indicate that the best current testing technology is applied”[1].

[14] based on the bluesign® system substance list, brand restricted substance lists (RSLs), the Substitute it Now (SIN) list and the KEMI hazardous chemicals in textiles.
The SIN (Substitute It Now!) List is an NGO driven project to speed up the transition to a world free of hazardous chemicals. The SIN List 2.1 consists of 626 chemicals that ChemSec has identified as Substances of Very High Concern based on the criteria established by the EU chemical regulation, REACH.

[15] Textile Exchange Conference 2013 Istanbul,Turkey, ZDHC workshop

Christian Schumacher

Dr. Christian Schumacher is the founder and managing director of StepChange Innovations GmbH, a technology development and consulting firm based in Germany. He has more than 20 years of experience in the chemical industry with global players such as Hoechst AG and DyStar Textilfarben GmbH as head of R&D, senior regional business manager Asia Pacific, head of e-commerce, head of marketing services, new product development manager and R&D chemist.

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