Fashion is Toxic, but What's the Haulternative?

Speaker: Sarah Peel
Written by: Sheena Jain & Esha Jain

As children, we were used to our parents picking out our outfits, but eventually we were given the opportunity to discover who we were within the world of clothes. Using the language of fashion, clothing allowed us to learn to speak about ourselves. When we get dressed we take on the role of an artist, painting a self-portrait, highlighting interesting and attractive things about who we are and in the process clear up any misconceptions. Clothing and style give a crucial introduction to the self. Fashion is creative, and acts as a form of self-expression. Frances Corner stated “faster than anything else, what we wear tells a story of who we are or who we want to be.” In addition to the importance of personal style and fashion, it is important to know how your wardrobe is being processed and manufactured.  Sarah Peel is the program director of Fashion Takes Action (FTA), Canada’s only fashion oriented non-profit organization. Their mission is to advance fashion sustainability through education, awareness and collaboration. FTA takes a systems thinking approach, which entails working with academics, the public, various brands, industry and consumers.

The fashion industry is the second largest global polluter for overall impacts after oil. It is the second most chemical dependent industry. 8000 chemicals turn raw materials into textile. These toxic chemicals pollute 5,640,000 Olympic sized swimming pools of water per year. The environmental problems associated with the textile industry are those associated with water pollution from the runoff of untreated waste during the processing of toxic chemicals used when producing clothing. The toxic chemical use is of environmental concern, as it decreases oxygen concentration due to the hydrosulfides, which block the passing of light through water and becomes detrimental to the water ecosystem. The chemicals used get evaporated into the air we breathe and can get absorbed through our skin, resulting in allergic reactions and can cause harm to children prior to birth. Moreover this chemical pollution can cause physiological and biochemical alterations, resulting in impairments to our respiratory and reproductive systems and eventually lead to mortality.

There are dye houses worldwide that are notorious for polluting the local water supplies by dumping waste water into local streams and rivers. A solution to this particular issue includes the use of waterless dyeing. Dyeing clothing works best in an airless environment with pressurized high heat, which allows the dye to disperse throughout the fabric. This method could be practical for polyester and natural fibers such as, cotton and wool. The down side is that the fabric can become damaged when undergoing such a process. Nonetheless as 45% of all fibers comprise of cotton, perhaps this could be a solution of improvement for producing less water waste. Other methods include AirDye, which uses less water and energy to dye their products. This allows air to disperse the dye, so that the dye can be embedded within the fibers instead of just superficially, thus allowing for long lasting colour and the ability to withstand more washings. Lastly one company uses DryDye technology. Instead of water, they use compressed and pressurized carbon dioxide to diffuse the dye within polyester fabric. The CO2, takes on a liquid-like property and is contained in stainless steel chambers. After the dyeing cycle, the CO2 becomes gasified and the dye within the cotton fibers condenses as it separates from the gas. The CO2 is then recycled and pumped back into the dyeing vessel. Thus using CO2 is safe and environmentally friendly as the gas is contained and can be used repeatedly without the risk of any gas being emitted.

The fashion industry employs more than 200 million people worldwide, which does not include cotton farmers. 80% of garment workers are women. 36 million people living in modern slavery, supply to various chains of Western brands. As a society we purchase 400% more clothing today than we did 20 years ago. A lot of that goes to waste because it is not quality clothing. Therefore this is considered a fast fashion garment that has a short product life cycle. Such that factory workers in economically disadvantaged situations work in poor conditions to create a product that is considered disposable. Since the product does not last long and is never found in vintage shops, the clothing does not get recycled, but gets dumped. Sarah stated that every household in Ontario sends approximately 48 kilograms of textiles to the landfill per year. She urges consumers to donate old clothing instead of wasting it, as textiles can be repurposed.

It is necessary to be aware that clothing manufacturers are using an array of toxic chemicals on new garments. Flame retardants are used to protect the product during shipping. Therefore that new clothes smell is actually flame retardants in which the clothing has been dipped in. Formaldehyde is also used as an anti-wrinkle and to prevent mildew while the items are being shipped. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic chemical that by the International Agency for Research on Cancer has been classified as a carcinogen. In a study conducted in New Zealand, it was found that clothing produced in China emitted levels of formaldehyde up to 900 times over the limit considered safe for human use. Such clothing is sold daily in other countries with less strict regulations. People with chemical sensitivity, who have been exposed to heavy toxin loads, may suffer from headaches, fatigue, nausea, aches/pains, and breathing difficulties. Those who do not have particular sensitivities can experience rashes, in areas where the clothing is tight.  

A report regarding 20 top fashion retailers stated that two-thirds of their clothing contained nonylphenol ethoxylates, which in high concentrations can disrupt the endocrine system of animals. The products were also found to contain high levels of toxic phthalates and cancer-causing amines from carcinogenic dyes. Since Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads/Dirty Laundry campaign, large retailer companies from the fashion industry have begun working on phasing out harmful chemicals used in the processing of their products. Additionally Greenpeace continues to urge companies to eliminate such chemicals as perfluorochemicals, which are used in water-proofing fabric, and eliminate the use of alkylphenol ethoxylate, used in detergents; and to additionally allow consumers to follow and be aware of what chemicals and type of manufacturing process is being used. Only 16/600 dyes are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency as safe for human and environmental health. Therefore it is necessary to wash new clothing before initial wear and to try to find clothes with nontoxic dyes.

When purchasing your wardrobe, ask yourself is it sustainable fashion? Sustainable fashion refers to any process used to attempt to make the production of that textile more conserving and ecologically safe; by avoiding the depletion of natural resources and without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore things to go over include:

  • Locally made
  • No waste
  • Fair trade, responsible labor
  • Use of organic, sustainable or recycled fibers
  • Natural, non-toxic dyes
  • Slow fashion (not mass produced, quality made garments)
  • Can be applied to all garments, shoes and accessories

The 7R’s of fashion crusaders

  • Reduce the amount of clothing you buy
  • Reuse garments
  • Recycle (many textiles are recycled and used for clothing)
  • Repurpose clothing
  • Research
  • Repair/tailoring
  • Rent clothing


1)  What other substances should I be aware of?

  • Brominated Flame Retardants – used on children’s sleepwear
  • Perfluorinated chemicals – used to make breathable synthetic fabrics
  • P-Phenylene diamine (PPD) – used as colouring agent on black clothing, leather and hair dyes
  • Phthalates – used to make plastics softer, i.e. new shoes or synthetic clothing and jackets

 2)  What can I do to avoid toxic exposure and how do I shop now?

  • Wash any new clothes before wearing (Note this will NOT remove certain types of chemicals)
  • Shop for natural fibers i.e. cotton, bamboo, linen or wool (refer to list in question #3)
  • Avoid permanent-press or wrinkle-free clothing and try using steam to eliminate wrinkles instead
  • Avoid direct skin contact with synthetic or treated fabrics, especially in hot or humid weather, as your pores open and admit more toxins
  • Avoid products labelled water-resistant unless the manufacturer provides details of chemicals or processes used
  • Purchase second-hand clothing
  • Purchase locally made or organic clothing items, as well as natural and vegetable dyes
  • Look for fabrics that are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified


3)  What are some healthier textile alternatives?




Considered sustainable, as they are produced in small quantities, cultivated without pesticides and come from plants that are not agriculturally produced.

-  Aloe


- Abaca

- Banana leaves

- Coir: from outer shell of coconut palm

- Flax

- Kapok: used in cushions, mattresses and life jackets

- Milkweed

- Nettle

- Pina: from leaves of pineapple

- Raffia

- Sisal: agave plant used in production of rope and twine



From industrial, agricultural or commercial production. Most fall under category of rayon.

Defined by origin and type of processing to become a textile

- By-product fibers that are rayon processed are regenerated


 as cellulosic fibers and include: Lenpur and Cupro.                                                                

- Azlon fibers are by-products of naturally occurring proteins

 industrial food production; soy milk protein fibers are most

 common These proteins are subjected to enzymatic

 treatments and a wet spinning process to create a filament,

 which is used to create the fiber.

OTHERS:- Bamboo                                                                                                


- Cashmere: animal fiber, a type of wool, biodegradable and can be recycled                 

- Cotton                                                                            

- Linen: is biodegradable                                                                      

- Lyocell: type of rayon fiber produced from cellulose of trees and is biodegradable

- Nylon                                                                                                

 - Polyester: polyethylene terephthalate, some is biodegradable                                            

- Seacell: blend of lyocell and seaweed, ideal for undergarments due to soft and anti-bacterial qualities                                                                                                      

- Silk                                                                                                                          

 - Straw: after grain harvested, can be used for bedding, feed animals, used to make hats, sandals, rope or paper.

- Wool



1)      Floyd, Allison.”Toxic Threads’ No More: Fasion Industry Increasing Transparency, Reducing Impacts.” Web.23 Mar. 2017. <>.

2)   Kaye, Leon. "Clothing to Dye For: The Textile Sector Must Confront Water Risks." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.


3)   Sana Khan (4), and Abdul Malik (4)(5). "Environmental and Health Effects of Textile Industry Wastewater." Springer. Springer Netherlands, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. <>.

4)   The Alternative Daily. "Are You Wearing Clothes Treated with Toxic Formaldehyde?" The Alternative Daily. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. <>.

5)   "The Serious Business of Clothes." The Book of Life. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.  <>.

6)      "Toxic Fashion." Toxic Fashion.Web. 23 Mar. 2017.<>