The State of California’s decision to ban the production and marketing of textile and apparel items containing PFAS is now law. PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not decompose, coming to accumulate in the blood and organs with serious health risks. The news on the legislative front that also involves Europe comes with ZDHC’s commitment to the elimination of PFAS from production cycles, according to a structured approach well embodied by the CHEM 4sustainability protocol.
California says stop to PFAS, a class of thousands of hazardous chemicals with proven links to respiratory and kidney disease, infertility and fetal developmental damage, as well as cancer.
Widely used to impart valued characteristics such as water repellency, stain and fire resistance to textiles and clothing, PFAS must be retired by 2025, net of exemptions for certain critical end uses. Considering that if California was a sovereign nation, it would represent the fifth largest economy on the globe according to the World Bank, the implications for the environment and for business are no small matter…
Back in 2021, the California governor signed a measure to ban the use of PFAS in the production of many items for children or which children may otherwise come into contact. The combination of the two decisions speaks volumes about the California General Assembly’s orientation toward sustainability and ecological transition.
The same strategy is also well established in New York State, where both the Assembly and Senate have released a bill (SB S6291A) banning the sale and distribution of clothing containing PFAS, defined in the proposal text as “chemicals intentionally added” to perform a given function.
Damage to health
The sources of PFAS exposure are a lot: from consuming contaminated drinking water and food to inhaling contaminated air outdoors and dust in enclosed spaces, contact with waterproofed clothing, skin care products and cosmetics containing them, electronic materials…
We are all exposed, but at greatest risk are workers employed in textile and fashion production, characterized, as we well know, by global and fragmented supply chains where controls are even more difficult. Only last year, Chinese fast fashion giant Shein had faced an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that found high levels of lead, phthalates and PFAS in its garments. The attacks were repeated on social media this year, but Shein is by no means an isolated case.
Forward-thinking brands are running for cover, in part because established or strongly suspected health risks are increasing as research on toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors evolves. Exposure to PFAS is correlated with several diseases: cancer, infertility, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, immune system impairment, among others. And the more awareness increases in consumers, the more substantial the economic and reputational damage for “bad” brands.
The situation in Europe
Since 2020, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have been working on a joint proposal to restrict PFAS in all European Union countries, to be achieved through reform of Annex XV to REACH, the 2006 European Union Regulation No. 1907 on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (hence the acronym REACH). The hope is that the proposal can enter into force as early as 2025, with similar timeline to that established in California.
The European Commission, in turn, has listed a number of actions in its new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS, 2020), including the phase-out of PFAS in all nonessential uses.
The MRSL By Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC)
The laws have a complicated process and because they often have to contemplate different needs they propose compromise solutions that expose them to criticism from several fronts. One of the weaknesses of REACH, for example, is the nature of the limits imposed on the use of given substances, which are very strict in the case of products coming out of factories based in Europe, less incisive for everything that arrives from outside. And the problem also lies in the control mechanisms at customs, in the ease of circumventing them.
Not everything is in the hands of the lawmakers, of course. PFAS, for one, have for years been included in ZDHC’s MRSL (Manufacturing Restricted Substances List), a large list of chemicals whose use in manufacturing is banned or severely restricted because of their toxicity or harmfulness to human health and the environment. The working table, then Foundation, charged with drafting and updating is called Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. It is joined by international fashion & luxury brands, supply chain companies, chemical manufacturers, research laboratories, associations and consulting firms. More than 160 different organizations collaborate to achieve the common goal of “cleaning up” the fashion industry’s processes. If a brand has joined ZDHC, it means it is at least addressing the problem. Maybe it has just started its engine, maybe it is traveling fast in the fast lane… But it is certainly on the right track.
We should say thanks for this to the environmental association Greenpeace, which in 2011 shook consciences with the launch of the Detox campaign, ripping the veil off the widespread use of toxic and harmful chemicals in fashion. ZDHC was born in November of the same year as an operational replay to Greenpeace’s ultimatum to zero out the use of hazardous substances. We say “an operation replay” because it was and still is based on a concrete roadmap founded on three distinct phases.
While traditional approaches focus on the finished product, ZDHC proposes a list of chemicals whose use is already prohibited in the processes to make them. This list is called MRSL.
“Safer inputs make a difference if they are used in the right way”, reads the ZDHC website. “By applying good procedures and best practices, the results are more environmentally sustainable and the processes more efficient”.
Indicators such as atmospheric emissions or wastewater and sludge quality are monitored to see if interventions on inputs and processes have been successful. The relevant data are published on an open platform that allows brands to assess the real impacts of their suppliers by rewarding their efforts or supporting investments in innovation aimed at moving away from the use of certain substances.
The 4s CHEM protocol for the implementation of the ZDHC MRSL
The 4s CHEM protocol that forms the first core of the 4sustainability® framework integrates the ZDHC approach from its origins, supporting more and more companies in the fashion & luxury supply chain in phasing out chemicals included in the ZDHC MRSL. Companies that adopt 4s CHEM offer a concrete guarantee they are using chemicals that comply with this restriction list and thus cleaner production cycles. Which also means cleaner wastewater and more sustainable products.
Francesca Rulli, CEO at Process Factory and founder of 4sustainability, highlights that some companies are far along this path, to the point they have already earned the Excellence level of implementation. “It is clear – she argues – that the more companies follow suit, the more effective the push on chemical formulators to innovate in order to offer the market alternative substances that are ideally zero-impact”.