Wash Before Wearing, But That Still Won’t Get the Lead Out
We’ve talked before about the risks inherent with fast fashion. Answering the call for more approachable and affordable fashion comes with significant downside for the environment. While buying the latest trend almost as soon as it leaves the catwalk has never been cheaper, the clothing has also never lasted less time. Trendy disposable fashion has the landfills filling up at an alarming rate. Fast fashion's negative impact also includes its use of cheap, toxic textile dyes, making the fashion industry one of the largest polluters of clean water globally. More on that later.
The internet has been negatively fixated on one large vertically integrated global manufacturer and distributor the last couple of weeks, China-based Shein. You may remember Shein from an earlier TikTok conspiracy theory that their workers were writing “help me” on the clothing tags. That turned out to be just part of an unfortunate translation of instructions to wash the garment first with gentle detergent before wearing. But minds were already made up that Shein was perhaps in cahoots with the devil. Other conspiracy theorists suggested “help me” messages were allegedly also found with other clothing products, but then so was “I have dental pain.” Evidence of one help me message was found on a receipt for the “Help Me” bookmark, an item sold by the Chinese brand Romwe. That one wasn’t a hidden message, but rather just the name of the product itself.
In promotional products, it is fairly well-known that fast fashion brands often produce clothing under subpar working conditions. While erring on the side of fairness, there is admittedly still ample evidence to suggest that Shein has made a habit of violating labor laws. As Business of Fashion reported last year, an investigation by a Swiss watchdog group found that in some Shein partner factories, employees worked 12-to-14-hour days, 28 days a month, under incredibly unsafe conditions, like windowless rooms with no fire exits. Shein said in response to this report the company “takes all supply chain matters seriously” and would initiative an investigation of the factories in question. While there is documented history of poor working conditions, at least there is no evidence that Shein has gone to the extreme of enslaving people against their will or forcing employees to work there.
But the reason for the latest internet targeting hasn’t just started in the last couple of weeks, nor is limited to just Shein. In October 2021, CBC Marketplace conducted a lab test of clothing purchased from a number of fast fashion retailers. They discovered that various items purchased from Shein, as well as AliExpress and Zaful, all contained “elevated levels of chemicals.” Specifically, at the time, out of 38 samples of children's, adult, and maternity clothes, and accessories, one in five items had elevated levels of chemicals — including lead, PFAS and phthalates — that experts have long advised to avoid. "People should be shocked," said Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist and professor at the University of Toronto that oversaw the lab testing that Marketplace commissioned. "This is hazardous waste,” Diamond continued, "I'm alarmed because we're buying what looks cute and fashionable items on this incredibly short fashion cycle. What we're doing today is looking for very short-lived enjoyment out of articles of clothing that cost so much in terms of our future health and the health of our environment. That cost is not worth it.” Diamond also added that if the products pose health risks to the customers, they likely pose even higher health risks for the factory workers working 12-to14-hour days who have to handle the chemicals directly.
Lead has been linked to a number of reproductive and developmental issues, but how is it getting from the clothes to your clients and their customers? Well, that brings us back to the discussion of the dyes, which is where the lead lurks. Which is why the ill-fated Shein washing instructions from the viral TikTok videos weren’t a good idea, anyway. Washing the garments will dilute some of the dyes and chemicals, which MAY help reduce exposure. But washing may not remove ALL the dye toxins, and the washing process will discharge those toxins into the water supply anyway.
At the risk of sounding like we’ve given this advice before, the best way to avoid toxins in lead from dyes in fast fashion clothing is to tell your clients to avoid fast fashion altogether. They should instead look to sustainable fashion companies and advise their own end users to wear them as long as they can (they’ll appreciate the advice and buy more of something else from you instead). If you want to really double-down for yourself, shop for items from sustainable companies AND then buy them secondhand. That’s a win for your family all the way around.
Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance, the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. Connect with Jeff on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or read his latest musings on food, travel and social media on his personal blog jeffreypjacobs.com. Email email@example.com.