Apparel Companies Seek Safer Chemicals — Despite Obstacles

Numerous apparel companies are taking steps to produce their clothing without potentially harmful chemicals, but even proponents acknowledge the logistical and technological hurdles those manufacturers must overcome.

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Numerous apparel companies are taking steps to produce their clothing without potentially harmful chemicals, but even proponents acknowledge the logistical and technological hurdles those manufacturers must overcome.

Bloomberg this week detailed ongoing efforts by Levi Strauss & Co. to produce its flagship blue jeans without petrochemicals.

Levi's was one of numerous companies lauded by environmental advocacy group Greenpeace for progress toward eliminating numerous chemicals — namely alkylphenolethoxylates, phthalates and perfluorinated chemicals — from their supply chains.

The San Francisco-based company, the report said, is currently asking its suppliers to use a variety of alternative substances, including some derived from bacteria, fungus or yeast.

The textile industry, however, relies on thousands of chemicals — many of which are linked to environmental contamination and human health issues — and change hasn't been easy.

Suppliers are often less than forthcoming about their manufacturing processes, while alternative chemicals can be costly and, in some cases, haven't been developed at all.

Levi's and other companies nonetheless continue to press ahead with their environmental initiatives for environmental and financial reasons.

Although only a handful of chemicals are restricted in the U.S., the European Union — where companies must demonstrate their products' safety before they hit the market — banned more than 1,000.

In addition, shoppers are increasingly concerned about what goes into the products they consume. Bloomberg noted that the global market for so-called "green chemistry" is expected to jump from about $11 billion last year to nearly $100 billion by 2020.

"When it comes to materials, we’re at the very initial step, which is figuring out what the heck is actually in our products," Marty Mulvihill, who helped found the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, told the publication.

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