Researcher Audrey Millet says next big health scandal will be about clothes’ toxicity
Historian Audrey Millet caught the fashion industry’s attention when she published The Black Book of Fashion in 2021, a work that vigorously advocated changes in industry practices. After the book's publication, she was commissioned by the European Parliament to produce a report on the presence of harmful chemicals in clothes sold in Europe, which was presented on January 30 in Brussels. An immediate follow-up to the presentation is expected in the coming weeks, involving garment tests carried out under the EU authorities’ auspices. Millet, a former designer with a PhD in history, now a researcher at the University of Oslo, spoke to FashionNetwork.com about the difficulty in obtaining research funding in this field, despite the reputational risks for labels and above all the threats to consumers’ health and fertility.
FNW: It’s almost the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. You believe we are confronted with another major disaster, caused by the impact of the chemicals contained in clothes on people's health. Is this problem less of a sudden occurrence, but a more insidious one?
AM: I don’t like to talk about the Rana Plaza, because other tragedies are occurring in the textile sector on a regular basis, as was the case of the factory that was fatally flooded in Morocco a year ago. The tragedy in Bangladesh has forced politicians to address the issue of working conditions [in the textile industry], spawning several initiatives, like the Clean Clothes Campaign.
With chemicals, we are facing deaths that are slower in coming, with effects lasting over the long term. And, on this subject, labels shouldn’t wait for consumers to wake up. It’s not simply a price [positioning] issue. It affects all market segments. I talked about it with the chief sustainability officers of some leading luxury groups. And they know that the next major health scandal will concern the toxicity of clothes. For the time being, this is acting as a block on the investments necessary to start addressing these issues.
FNW: How urgent is the issue of the harmful chemicals present in clothes?
AM: We’re talking about a problem whose effects will be felt over several generations. About infertility. Women find it increasingly difficult to have children. There are other factors involved, like nutrition, but no one is suspicious of clothes, because no one eats them. The risk is that, within two generations, women will no longer be able to have children. All [chemical] inputs ought to be modified, such as the substances used to make ironing easy, for example, or those for crease-resistant garments. It is also necessary to look at how colours are made, and with which kind of dyes. There is the issue of nanoparticles, which is in itself hugely problematic, one that needs to be monitored closely. Because nanoparticles could be the worst substances in terms of the effects [they cause].
FNW: What prompted you to start working on the problem of harmful chemicals in clothes?
AM: This work stems from one of my books, written before The Black Book of Fashion. While working on it, I met a kid in Punjab, India, who died soon afterwards from pesticide exposure. I wondered how a mere six-year-old could have become so ill. To find out more, I cross-referenced scientific and behavioural data because, for this type of problem, listening only to a chemical scientist or a sociologist doesn’t give a full perspective. But one of the woes this type of research suffers from is that it’s of no interest to anyone, in fashion as in other industries. This made the work I have recently done for the European Parliament all the more important, because it was the first time I’d had the means to do this kind of research.
FNW: Is the problem especially related to certain products or manufacturing stages?
AM: This is the real tragedy: in the absence of an in-depth study, it’s impossible to say which products are chiefly involved. On the sourcing side, serious issues are at stake when pesticides are used in fields where future fabrics are growing. But the final stages of apparel production pose huge problems too. And this heralds another trade-off: are consumers willing to accept less comfort in exchange for more safety in their clothes?
Another challenge is that, if we wash our new garments once or even twice before wearing them, then the chemicals enter nature’s cycle, and make it into the food on our plates.
Everything comes down to traceability. If labels are willing to play that particular game, that’s the way forward. But labels are still saying “We don't know, [the chemicals] come from a subcontractor.” However, in the case of dyes, producers must be rigorously exact in the mix of components they use, and are therefore able to give their exact composition to buyers.
“An issue affecting all market segments”
FNW: Your report highlighted the limitations of the EU’s REACH standards, which regulate the use of chemicals in imported products.
AM: There are the REACH regulations. And there are Western labels investing in these issues. But it is also up to the same Western labels to impose best practices across their supply chain. [Labels] must be prescriptive and, whenever possible, act in coordinated fashion. Like the Accord [on Fire and Building Safety] did with regards to working conditions in Bangladesh. We aren't allowed to sell surimi that’s radioactive, so we shouldn’t sell clothes that can kill people little by little, and/or make them infertile.
FNW: It took time for fashion labels to become aware of environmental issues. Are they now becoming sensitive to the problem of harmful chemicals?
AM: I think fashion labels have every interest in communicating specifically on this. In saying: “our clothes are phthalates-free, our shoes are ethylene-free.” The same as claiming that a shampoo is ‘paraben-free’. It’s a marketing strategy, as well as a moral imperative. However, apparel seems to me to be, for the time being, the very last problem people are worried about. But labels are realising they’re bound to end up in shit [sic]. I came across labels that did not respond to my queries, but came back to me after the EU report was published. There is a growing reputation issue.
FNW: Have you been asked by MEPs to choose a laboratory for carrying out tests?
AM: [Belgian MEP] Saskia Bricmont and the European Parliament have asked me to select a laboratory to carry out garment tests in Europe. It’s something that could happen very quickly, maybe in a matter of weeks. Because European MEPs are keen to get a move on. For the time being, apart from FashionNetwork.com and [Belgian newspaper] L’Avenir, no one has mentioned the EU report, when normally word from the EU [authorities] would act as a clarion call.
It’s worth noting that Greenpeace recently conducted chemical tests of this kind, though only on Shein. But there’s no need to test [products] to know where Shein stands. And it was intellectually rather misleading, associating the problem with Shein only, when the issue is more generalised.
FNW: Research funding is a widespread issue. Is this the case for consumer goods such as clothes?
AM: I’m only waiting for one thing, to be given €100,000 to do just that. To be able to analyse, assess and cross-reference data. But first there’s a specialism issue: people wonder why a historian is talking to them about phthalates. Then, they tell me that there are more important things, such as economic problems. While I reckon that the industry is shooting itself in the foot by failing to fund people seeking solutions.
I can't work in France. No one wants to finance me, including universities. Not so much because they fear lawsuits by any of the major groups or labels under scrutiny, not at all. But because the conclusions would annoy them. These conclusions would probably be taken up by NGOs. Which any funding institution would then be associated with, indirectly.
These funding issues expose a discrepancy, because all labels large and small say they are attuned to issues of environmental protection, inclusivity, race and more. That’s why my next book is entitled Woke Washing*.
I’m currently waiting for a reply about a scholarship to go to Prato [a textile production hub in Italy, editor's note] to assess the situation of textile workers exposed to chemicals.
FNW: The EU's anti-waste and climate laws are currently introducing changes to product labelling rules. Should chemicals be the next step in terms of labelling?
AM: It will be my next initiative. [The presence of] chemicals must be indicated on product labels. We're going to have to redefine the way labels are drawn up. Knowing that, depending on the country, there are issues even with fabric labelling. As I wrote in the report, in Italy, we came across labels stating ‘3% elastane’ without specifying what the other materials were. We have a long journey ahead.
As some industry specialists know, there is a law regulating this in California. But it’s terrible, it doesn’t prohibit the use of these chemicals, it simply requires that their presence be indicated. Products available for sale in stores simply bear labels saying they contain “substances considered to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic.” Products that, despite all this, the state allows to reach consumers. No consumer should be allowed to end up with this type of product in their hands.
*Woke Fashion - Capitalisme, consumérisme, opportunisme”, by Audrey Millet. Published by Editions Les Pérégrines on April 7 2023
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