Earlier this year, a Greenpeace report sent ripples throughout the footwear industry when it released findings of an investigation that showed children’s clothes and shoes made by major brands -- including Disney, Burberry, American Apparel, GAP, and Primark -- contained residues of toxic chemicals. In some cases, the levels were higher than just residue.
While there is no evidence that the levels of chemicals found would cause harm to children coming into contact with them, the news was such that it raised concerns among consumers, parents, and retailers. This is because, in certain quantities or exposures, some of the chemicals used by the industry, such as Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), can accumulate in the body and disrupt hormones. Phthalates, commonly used to soften plastics, and other chemicals found in the Greenpeace survey can cause a range of adverse health conditions, including disrupting immune systems, triggering dermatitis, and causing breathing problems.
The industry’s response was quick, with Primark saying it was working to remove chemicals from its production process. Burberry said it was already working with Greenpeace to tackle the issue and stressed that, “Burberry products do not pose a danger to customers.” The British Retail Consortium issued a statement in which it said, “Current chemical test methods are very sophisticated and can detect chemicals at extremely low levels so, although detected, this does not mean that the chemicals would cause health problems to children and may only be present as very low level contaminants.”
The Greenpeace report came out at the same time that the Hong Kong Consumer Council issued a warning after it found that more than half of the 28 models of children’s casual footwear, slippers, and rain boots it tested contained high levels of harmful chemicals. According to its January 14 press release, “The levels of phthalates detected in the test were a cause for concern. For example, the highest amount of a particular phthalate in 12 models reached 15.2% to 43.3% - way over and above the stipulated 0.1% level.”
The release also warned that, while phthalates are not easily absorbed by the skin, they can be released into the air and inhaled. Exposure increases the risk of asthma and allergies and can disrupt hormonal balance, which impairs reproduction and early development, it said.
Such reports and warnings, however, are not new, and they join a long list of product recalls by major retailers. Nordstrom Department store, for example, had to recall 31,000 units of girls’ shoes a few years ago because the surface paint on the outer sole contained excessive levels of lead, in violation of US federal paint standards. Nordstrom offered consumers a full refund or exchange, at considerable cost.
But as the Greenpeace report and the history of product recalls show, even if retailers meet the standards set by regulatory bodies, the public relations fallout from selling children’s products with even tiny residues of hazardous chemicals can be costly and force companies to go on the defensive.
Some in the industry have gotten the message. A growing group of major retailers has decided to wean themselves completely off hazardous chemicals. Some twenty global fashion leaders have committed to Greenpeace’s Detox international campaign: Nike, Adidas, Puma, H&M, M&S, C&A, Li-Ning, Zara, Mango, Esprit, Levi’s, Uniqlo, Benetton, Victoria’s Secret, G-Star Raw, Valentino, Coop, Canepa, Burberry, and Primark.
In today’s market, eco-friendly corporate decisions, such as detoxifying your supply chain, can boost consumer confidence in your product, increase transparency, and build a brand image that is more in tune with changing market demands and buyer preferences. The key to doing that, as in other supply chain decisions, is to source with only trusted suppliers and be willing and able to test and certify that your products are safe.