Greenpeace Germany has recently released the report “Taking the Shine off Shein: A business model based on hazardous chemicals and environmental destruction".

 



 

The aim of the report was to underline how the Chinese on-line fast fashion brand operates according to a business model based upon hazardous chemicals and environmental damage.

"Taking the shine off Shine" research by Greenpeace
Photo: Greenpeace
"Taking the shine off Shine" research by Greenpeace
The fast fashion business model is known to produce huge volumes of products on the market, evolving at a rapid pace. Moreover, such garments are used for very limited times and cause huge environmental and social impacts. Among the most visible consequences of this production model are large amounts of textile waste being shipped to countries in East Africa and the global South in general.




 

Although some fast fashion companies have tried to change their business models, the attempts remain scarce, although there is no shortage of "sustainability" or "circularity" initiatives, nevertheless they are often regarded as examples of greenwashing.

 




In addition to the fast fashion phenomenon, experts have highlighted the new category of "ultra-fast fashion", a business model promoted, for instance, by Shein, which seems to take the characteristics of fast fashion though brought to its extremes.

 




This approach forces suppliers to deliver products very quickly, within days, with orders ending up directly to customers around the world via air freight. It is a business focused on the exploitation of people and severe environmental impacts, based on the failure to enforce regulations to protect the environment, health and safety of workers and consumers.




 

 

The fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a major cause of water pollution worldwide, according to the Greenpeace report. More than 80% of environmental impacts occur in countries of the global South, where the vast majority of clothes that end up on the global market are produced.

 




Although Greenpeace's Detox campaign began in 2011 with the aim of raising awareness among many major companies in the industry to clean up their production chains to address water pollution through the elimination of hazardous chemicals, there are still few examples that see them embracing a new, more sustainable approach.

Tullahan River (Philippines) changes colour almost daily as several industries, including a dye factory, are nearby
Photo: Greenpeace
Tullahan River (Philippines) changes colour almost daily as several industries, including a dye factory, are nearby
All brands that have adopted Detox campaign standards, including fast fashion giants such as Zara and H&M, have also produced positive effects on supply chain transparency. However, these brands with their business model do not follow full circular strategies. Moreover, they promote a minimal part of sustainable initiatives compared to the totality of their offerings as, for instance, Shein does by promoting vast collections through its website and through campaigns on Tik Tok weekly.




 

In fact, little is known about the suppliers who make these products for the Chinese brand, the thousands of workers in Guangdong, China, who turn orders into products seven days a week, and even less about the factories that dye their fabrics (the production step that produces the highest water pollution).




 

 

To find out whether the huge volumes and extremely short delivery times of these products may be synonymous with a lack of attention to the management of hazardous chemicals in production chains, Greenpeace purchased 42 items from Shein's websites in Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland and five items from a store in Munich during Oktoberfest, Germany, and sent them to an independent laboratory for analysis for the presence of numerous chemicals including volatile organic compounds, alkylphenol ethoxylates, formaldehyde, phthalates, PFAS and heavy metals.




 

 

The results of the investigation
According to the research conducted by Greepeace, the results demonstrate Shein's disregard for environmental and human health risks, as well as the use of hazardous chemicals, which often results in violations of existing environmental regulations in Europe regarding chemical safety.

 




They noted the presence of at least one hazardous chemical in 45 of the 47 items submitted for laboratory analysis, accounting for 96% of the sample analyzed, which included clothing and footwear for men, women, children and babies.

 




For products sold in Europe, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) regulation identifies limit values for the presence of a range of hazardous chemicals in clothing, accessories and shoes.




 




Of the 47 products tested, seven (about 15% of the total) contained hazardous chemicals in concentrations above the limits set by EU regulations.

Textile and plastic waste at Dandora dump site in Nairobi
Photo: Greenpeace
Textile and plastic waste at Dandora dump site in Nairobi
All seven products were made wholly or partly from synthetic materials derived from fossil fuel refining: six of the seven analyzed were boots or shoes.

 




Very high levels of phthalates were found in five boots or shoes, with concentrations exceeding 100,000 mg/kg, compared to the EU REACH regulation requirement (less than 1,000 mg/kg). The highest level of phthalates was found in some black snow boots purchased in Switzerland, with 685,000 mg/kg of DEHP (a compound belonging to the phthalate group).




 

Formaldehyde was found in a girl's colored tutu, in amounts of 130 mg/kg in purple tulle and 40 mg/kg in a green strap (both above the REACH-identified threshold value of 30 mg/kg), and nickel release was detected above the permitted REACH value (0.5 μg/cm2/week) in a pair of red boots purchased in Spain (1.5 μg/cm2/week).

 




In fifteen products, concentrations were at levels of concern, as they counted for 32% of the total.

 




The results from the survey show how Shein sells products full of dangerous chemicals in Europe. Some of them, with contamination values that do not meet current safety levels in Europe, are to be considered illegal. This translates into potential impacts on consumer health as well. In addition, the findings indicate that Shein has little, if any, control over the management of hazardous chemicals used in production chains.

 




This exposes workers to serious health risks during various processes and results in significant impacts on the environment from the release of contaminants into nature.

 




Since 2011, Greenpeace's Detox campaign has revealed the widespread use of hazardous chemicals such as nonylphenols, phthalates, and PFAS (perfluoroalkyl compounds) in textile production chains, which were regularly discharged into waterways by suppliers of major international brands located in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central America.

 




Many of these chemicals are persistent and do not decompose once released into nature, accumulate in the environment and organisms, and leave a toxic legacy for future generations. Chemicals do not remain only in manufacturing areas: persistent chemicals, also used in the textile-fashion industry, have been found all over the world, from the polar ice caps to remote mountainous regions to the deep sea.

 




The fast fashion industry is notorious for the severe environmental impacts generated and the waste of valuable natural resources. Many products are manufactured in high volumes and made to be literally "disposable" and, to date, their recycling is only a utopia (only one percent of all clothes sold in the world are produced from textile waste). Unsold goods or goods returned by customers are also routinely destroyed. In Europe, it is estimated that products destroyed in 2020 alone-if packed individually in 45-centimeter boxes-would circle the globe 1.5 times.

 




At a time in history such as the present, when both the seriousness of the environmental impacts of production activities and various issues related to the availability of raw materials are emerging, there is a need to radically change the business models most in vogue in the textile-fashion sector.

 




The direction to follow is to produce fewer and better quality garments, that can live for longer life cycles and designed to be repairable and truly recyclable. Relative to end-of-life disposal, when old garments filled with hazardous chemicals are thrown away they produce pollution (regardless of their disposal in incinerators or landfills) and their contamination is a strong deterrent to the development of true circularity in the textile sector.

 




If brands really want to take the widely talked about circularity challenge seriously, they have to decrease the use of hazardous chemicals to avoid their presence not only in second-hand garments but also in recycled textile fibers. Unless there is a rapid change of pace in this direction, the presence of toxic substances in textile fibers will be almost endless in the coming decades.





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