High price for cheap clothes

Water poisoned by chemicals which harm people’s health and the environment, an increased number of cancer patients, consumers who develop serious allergies. The price which is paid for the companies’ chase of bigger and bigger profits is high.

The street we’re walking down is small, grey and sort of uneven. Even if there’s a distance of a couple of feet to the clothing- and shoe factory we’re heading to, we can feel a strong scent that none of us can find familiar. There’s water in the edge of the street with a dark color, almost black, probably filled with chemicals. When we finally reach our destination the first thing that draws our attention is the state of the environment. The factory has a very poor safety system, we can’t spot a single worker who wears protective clothing; instead there’s a lot of them who literally stands in the chemicals while working. They use a lot of chemicals which would be illegal if the producing took place in Europe, but here in Bangladesh there’s no chemical agency which controls the conditions that the employees are working under or which chemicals that are used. Since no one check how the factory takes care of the waste from the production, it’s very common that it’s let out completely contaminated in the drain. Is that really safety? When we ask the workers, they say that they know about the risks of working with these substances, but they need this job in order to survive and support their families. Not only the employees are harmed by the chemicals, people who drink and wash themselves with water containing chemicals fall ill, and the environment too.

Since 2005 to 2012 investigations show that more than 172 workers in Bangladesh lost their lives in accidents related to the clothing industry. It could be because of inhaling of chemicals, clothing factories falling apart or fires. And besides this, a lot of people being put out to those chemicals later suffer from sickness such as cancer. Whatever the reasons are, all those lost lives can be saved with a little more safety and rules in countries where they produce clothes and shoes, such as Bangladesh.

We decide to dig deeper into how consumers and employees in warehouses are affected by these harmful substances in a distance not that far away from us, in Europe. In a laboratory in Gothenburg we meet Staffan Olsson, who works as an analyser. He works mainly with analysing clothes and shoes bought in shops popular among the consumers. He figures out how big amounts of chemicals the clothes contain and of which kind. This information is later used by for example the Swedish ‘Consumer Agency’ to warn consumers for especially harmful products.

Which are the most common chemicals in clothes and shoes, and why are they harmful to us?

– A common chemical that most people probably have been in contact with is dimethylformamide, also known as DMF. You can find it in small white packages in shoe boxes and sometimes the shoes is impregnated with this substance, even though it’s forbidden in Europe. There are a lot of cases where consumers have had inflammations and painful skin eruption when they have been in contact with products that contain DMF. Heavy metals such as lead, mercury and chrome are also common in clothes and shoes; they are cancerogenic and can harm organs like heart, kidneys and lever. From my German colleagues I have heard about a German woman who suffered from a severe kidney-disease after she had been working with ironing jeans at a big clothing company. There is also a lot of colouring that’s harmful for us, such as azo -dyes and dispersions-dyes. This kind of substances can lead to allergic reactions and azo-dyes are also cancerogenic.

What kind of functions does this chemicals have, why are they used in clothes and shoes?

DMF, as I mentioned before, is used to protect the shoes from moisture. Heavy metals are used by the industry when preparing leather so that it can be used to both shoes and clothes, they are also used to give garments a shiny surface. The azo-dyes and the dispersion-dyes are used for dying fabrics to the clothes. The azo- dyes have mostly been found in black and red garments. You usually say that the stronger the colour is on for example a shirt; the more poisonous it is for us.

But if the chemicals are so dangerous, why do the companies then allow it in the production of their products?

That’s a good question, a colleague of mine asked that question to a couple of the biggest companies in the fashion industry when he was leading a project a few years ago. Many of the companies ignored the question, but the ones that actually answered said that they had to use all those chemicals to be able to “secure the quality” of their products. It’s a lot cheaper to produce clothes and shoes with a lot of chemicals than not using any at all, and the companies want to make as big profits as possible. The price for this is high, a price that the consumers, the workers and the environment have to pay.

Written by: Alexander G, Emma F, Sara J & Kevin S, 9:5

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