The US Federal Trade Commission has something to say about what you wear.
While not a fashion arbiter and unable to advise on attire for family gatherings, the FTC oversees what appears on the labels inside your clothes. As the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Textile Products Identification Act and related laws, it makes sure clothing is accurately labeled with its fabric content. But it turns out, apart from these laws (and a few — including some state laws — that restrict certain hazardous substances from being used in children’s clothing), there is no overarching US law that regulates or requires listing of materials outside of fabrics that go into producing our clothing.
Why does this matter? Because manufacturers use hundreds of substances to produce clothing that don’t show up on clothing labels. And many of these are hazardous to the environment and to human health.
Garment production involves chemicals at every step of the way, whether the process begins “on the land” — as Eileen Fisher’s sustainability leader Shona Quinn describes the origin of cotton, linen and wool — or involves entirely manmade textiles. Some are used in the dye and fabric production process. Others make fabric resistant to insects and biodegradation. Still others are used to give fabrics fire-, odor-, stain-, water- and wrinkle-resistant traits, or to assemble footwear and prepare finished garments for sale. Added to these are those used in decorative details such as printing and bits of metal.
Some of the chemicals used in clothing production, such as dyes, have histories that date back centuries. Dye pollution was a huge problem in Europe and the US in centuries past. Now that burden has largely shifted, with the industry, to Asia. Others, such as formaldehyde used in “permanent press” technology, are 20th century inventions. Yet others, such as those involving nanotechnology — for example, nanosilver used to inhibit odor-causing bacteria — are brand new. There are also certain garment industry occupational hazards linked to fashion trends, such as the “stone washing” used to “distress” blue jeans that exposes workers to cotton and silica dust linked to respiratory and lung diseases.
Chemicals of particular concern include highly fluorinated compounds used to make durable waterproof finishes, such as those on rain jackets. These compounds are known to be extremely environmentally persistent and are associated with adverse neurological, endocrine and other health effects.
Formaldehyde is a known respiratory and skin irritant and carcinogen that has long been used to create “permanent press” and other wrinkle-resistant fabrics. This involves applying formaldehyde and essentially baking it onto the fabric, in some cases enlisting the assistance of other hazardous chemicals.