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Your Clients Could Get Sick From Apparel You Sell

….activewear and uniforms are just part of the problem.

7/17/2023 | Jeff Jacobs, The Brand Protector

Your Clients Could Get Sick From Apparel You Sell

….activewear and uniforms are just part of the problem.

If you’ve worked in the promo industry for any amount of time, or visited here before (hopefully), you’re likely aware of the siren call that is fast fashion. Amazingly good margins at client-tempting price points, while the dodgy labor practices, lax environmental standards, and the mountains of waste piling up on the shores of developing countries boil beneath the surface. Sometimes, quite literally. But before now, there’s been surprisingly little in mainstream trade publishing that considers the dangerous effects activewear and uniforms have on the health of users. Award-winning journalist Alden Wicker breaks open the story hiding from end users in plain sight: the unregulated toxic chemicals that are likely in your own and your clients’ wardrobe right now, the harm they are causing, and what can be done about it.

Ms. Wicker is a sustainable fashion expert, and founder and editor-in-chief of EcoCult. She’s published investigative pieces for The New York Times, Vogue, Wired, and has been interviewed for the BBC, NPR, Reuters, Fortune, and the CBC. Her latest hardcover, To Dye For, is what I consider required reading for anyone in our industry that wants a real working knowledge of the risks of fast fashion to share with their clients. In To Dye For, Wicker reveals how clothing manufacturers have successfully swept consumers’ concerns under the rug for more than 150 years, and why synthetic fashion and dyes made from fossil fuels are so deeply intertwined with the rise of autoimmune disease, infertility, asthma, eczema, and more. She discusses the financial reasons that there is little to no regulation of the clothes and textiles we wear each day — from uniforms to fast fashion, outdoor gear, even the face masks that have become such a part of our sale over the past couple of years. Wicker explains how we got here, what the stakes are, and what all of us can do in the fight for a safe and healthy wardrobe for all.

You’ve likely heard of the uniform issues with both Delta Airlines and Alaska Airlines as they switched from traditional wool uniforms to synthetic materials. Tests commissioned by Alaska Airlines and the flight attendants’ union as far back as ten years ago found tributyl phosphate, lead, arsenic, cobalt, antimony, restricted disperse dyes known to cause allergic reactions, toluene, hexavalent chromium, and dimethyl fumarate, an antifungal that had recently been banned in the European Union. But the uniform maker, Twin Hill, avoided culpability in court by saying none of these many mixed chemicals, on their own, were present at high enough levels to cause all the different reactions. Alaska Airlines announced in 2013 it would procure new uniforms, without admitting the uniforms had caused health issues. A lawsuit from attendants against Twin Hill was thrown out in 2016 for lack of evidence.

But a 2018 Harvard study found that after the introduction of the uniforms, the number of attendants with multiple chemical sensitivity, sore throats, cough, shortness of breath, itchy skin, rashes and hives, itchy eyes, loss of voice, and blurred vision had all more or less doubled. “This study found a relationship between health complaints and the introduction of new uniforms,” the study’s authors concluded.

Twin Hill announced a management buyout in 2019 in an effort to stop the PR bleeding and shield the company from further damage, but it was too little, too late.

“Flight attendants are the canary in the coalmine because of the length and consistency of their exposure,” said Dr Irina Mordukhovich, one of the Harvard study’s authors. “That doesn’t mean that other people in the population are not still being affected in some way. Let’s say someone has clothing with the same components – they may not even notice; they just don’t wear it so much.”

The Center for Environmental Health in California has found high levels of the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA in polyester-spandex socks and sports bras by dozens of large brands, including Nike, Athleta, Hanes, Champion, New Balance, and Fruit of the Loom, at up to 19 times California’s safety limit.

When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had 38 pieces of children’s clothing tested from the ultra-fast-fashion brands Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein, it found that one in five had elevated levels of toxic chemicals such as lead, PFAS, and phthalates. This year, the period panty brand Thinx settled a lawsuit stemming from a test by a Notre Dame professor showing high levels of fluorine, indicating the presence of PFAS, a highly toxic class of “forever chemicals” that provide water and stain repellency.

“It’s becoming more difficult to avoid these chemicals,” Dr Elizabeth Seymour, at the Environmental Health Center in Dallas, says of additives like solvents and heavy metals. “There are multiple chemicals that are put in everything. And your clothing is included in that.” But while beauty, cleaning products, and packaged foods come with an ingredient list, fashion does not, even though testing reveals it has some of the most complicated and multilayered chemical profiles of any product, running up to 50 chemicals or more. Simply put, in most cases at this point, without a federal standard on what we know as fast fashion, you can’t definitively say an article is dangerous, and you can’t say definitively it’s not. Is that the kind of risk your client is prepared to take?

This is the last in the series of posts for PromoCorner that we’ve called the Brand Protector. It’s been eight years since we started, and if you’ve been a regular reader, I thank you for that, but it’s time to let someone else take up the torch on product safety and responsible sourcing. I appreciate the platform that PromoCorner has provided over the course of the last eight years, and their interest in the subject matter. They’ve said the columns will remain available in the archives, and I’m thankful to them for that. Until we chat again, please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or just to chat, my contact info is below. Until next time, then, please stay safe out there.

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 TwitterLinkedInInstagram, or read his latest musings on food, travel and social media on his personal blog jeffreypjacobs.com. Email jacobs.jeffreyp@gmail.com.
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