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Article related to: People and perspectives
Safer textiles – talking to Italian SMEs and H&M
The chemicals legislation and increased consumer demand are driving innovation in the textiles sector. We talked with representatives of a group of textile SMEs from Italy and the second largest global clothing retailer H&M, to find out how they work to produce safer textiles.
|Andrea Cavicchi. |
Image: CID Consortium.
If you want to go far, go together
Making fundamental changes to your business can be a daunting task. Especially if you are a small company working within a complex supply chain. To make textiles safer or produce them with chemicals that are less hazardous, 27 Italian textile companies came together to join Greenpeace’s Detox commitment campaign in 2016. They are all from Prato, in Tuscany, Italy which is the largest textile district in Europe. The companies have different specialities, from dyes to yarn and fabric finishing, often supplying large European brands.
The Detox commitment challenges companies to eliminate harmful chemicals from their entire supply chain by 2020. “To achieve such an ambitious goal, it is essential to establish new ways of cooperating between manufacturing companies and chemical producers, and to exchange as much information as possible,” says Mr Andrea Cavicchi, President of the Italian Consortium for Detox Implementing (CID) and Confindustria Toscana Nord (CTN).
One of the Detox campaign’s goals is to remove polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) from supply chains. Many of them are environmentally hazardous substances that are persistent and bioaccumulate in the environment as well as being linked with serious negative effects on human health. According to Mr Andrea Franchi, Chemicals Division Manager at the Buzzi Lab (a specialised laboratory carrying out testing for the textile companies in the Prato district) seven of the Prato companies used processing techniques in which PFCs are involved. They joined forces to reduce PFCs from their production.
|Andrea Franchi. |
Image: Buzzi Lab.
“Those with wet processes analysed input and output water. Those producing water repellent articles using the substitute for PFC analysed their finished product to ensure that PFC was absent. They also tested the performance of the non-PFC product against PFCbased articles. Learning from all of this, the companies are still working together to improve the performance of non-PFC-based articles. All data are shared and available for other Detox committed companies,” Mr Franchi explains.
For small companies, help from industrial federations is very important. “Everyone has received support from the industrial federation CTN and, since July 2016, from the CID. This has allowed them to benefit from ongoing research and development projects that help to increase the efficiency of the production processes and promote sustainability. CTN has also offered them important technical support and helped to organise meetings between manufacturing companies, chemical producers and different international organisations that are involved in environmental safety for the textile and fashion market,” Mr Cavicchi tells.
Does legislation help innovation?
The global textile chain H&M has also signed the Detox commitment. According to Ms Ylva Weissbach, Sustainability Business Expert from H&M, the company has been working actively to restrict the use of hazardous chemicals in their products also before joining the Detox commitment. This applies for example to nonylphenol ethoxylates, which are toxic to aquatic life. "We started restricting nonylphenol ethoxylates in 1999 and since 2007 we have applied the limit of 100 ppm that will become the legal limit in the EU in 2021. This year we have enforced an even stricter limit as a step further towards zero discharge.”
|Ylva Weissbach. |
In addition to more voluntary initiatives, she recognises the need for stronger regulation of chemicals in the EU. “Chemicals legislation, such as REACH, help us to strengthen our work to replace harmful chemicals, putting a clear demand on better chemicals management and raising awareness in the whole supply chain,” Ms Weissbach says and continues, “since we share suppliers with many other companies, it also helps us to avoid contamination since the same rules apply to all the brands.”
H&M have set up an entire infrastructure to support companies in their supply chain. They have an office in place in most countries where they produce, each housing chemical experts focusing on the final products, discharge and working conditions. “These teams are crucial in communicating with our suppliers and giving them training and support when needed,” she emphasises.
Ms Weissbach explains that the work on safer textiles is continuous and improvements happen regularly. “We are currently reviewing the process of how we evaluate chemical information, for example received in safety data sheets, to ensure that the substances used are safe. Our aim is to introduce a new method involving third party assessment.”
Help is available
Legislation and voluntary initiatives from non-governmental organisations both push companies to innovate, and there are many different tools and databases that can help find safer alternatives.
Ms Weissbach mentions ChemSec’s SIN List and SINimilarity tool as useful sources. The SIN List aims to identify substances that can be problematic before they are potentially placed under regulatory scrutiny. The SINimilarity tool allows you to compare potential alternative substances to avoid replacing one bad substance with another. In addition to these tools, Ms Weissbach recommends companies to consult scientific reports and keep up-to-date with the latest legislation to stay one-step ahead.
Since finding safer alternatives can be time consuming, Ms Weissbach suggests taking a stepwise approach. “When we phased out PFCs, for example, we didn’t do it all in one go. We started in 2009 with the winter overalls in our children’s range and then enforced a ban in our whole range in 2013.”
Setting an example
Campaigns such as Detox show that companies making a commitment for a safer and more sustainable future can benefit from public recognition and build trust in their brand.
“From our experience, market demand plays a fundamental role in how we innovate and make our products more sustainable,” Mr Franchi points out. Consumers want safer textiles and through initiatives like Detox, companies can meet those demands, gain a competitive advantage and improve their production processes. “It has only been a year since we made the Detox commitment but many more brands are already showing an interest in it. We hope this will have a positive impact on the market and our business,” Mr Cavicchi concludes.
Representatives of both H&M and the companies in the Prato district are speaking at our free webinar on substitution in the textiles sector on 23 February 2017.
Did you know?
Sources: Greenpeace and H&M
Greenpeace's Detox campaign
Interview by Adam Elwan
Top image: ECHA
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