EP21 – Dr. Anna Lennquist, ChemSec, unravelling the complex topic of chemistry in textiles & fashion.

The textile industry is considered one of the most chemical-intensive industries, as chemicals are used everywhere in production. The topic of chemicals in textiles & fashion has been on our wish list to discuss, but considering its complexity, we were waiting to find the perfect expert to discuss this in an Ellie.Talks podcast.

Recommended by one of our previous guests, Jo Van Landeghem, we have found this perfect expert, hence we are pleased to introduce to you: Dr. Anna Lennquist, Senior toxicologist at ChemSec from Sweden.

In this episode, you will learn more about the use of Chemicals in textiles & fashion and its challenges, and opportunities for a more sustainable industry. Anna will also share concrete tips & tools to not only understand chemical management better but also enable you to make steps in the transition towards a cleaner industry.

A must-listen episode for anyone working in textiles & fashion, looking to understand sustainability in all its dimensions.

Key takeaways

  • Transparency is the key to sustainable transition: get insights into your supply chain and obtain product information from the beginning of the process.
  • Legislation plays a crucial role, keep track of the developments related to the use of chemicals like updates for the Reach legislation.
  • Involve & educate your customers on your sustainable choices, they play a key role in the transition to a cleaner, greener chemical environment.
  • Start acting on the elimination of PFAS today, as this will be the only way forward.
  • The challenges of the chemical sector are similar to those of the textile and fashion industry in Europe. To make the world a better place, these two industries must act together.
  • Collaboration inside and outside your organization is essential! Include all parts of the company that work on developing more sustainable and safer products, including management and the marketing department.

Meet Anna, a driver for change

Anna has always wanted to work for the environment. After finishing her master’s thesis in biology and research and starting to work in the lab, she did not feel like she had done anything concrete to change the world. That is why she then turned to the study of journalism: “I thought that if something was published in a newspaper, it would have an effect or could have a big impact.”

Today, as a senior toxicologist at ChemSec, Anna has balanced her passion for science with the need to ensure that the resulting knowledge also reaches companies and policymakers, who can make a real difference.

About ChemSec, an organization that globally empowers chemical safety

Founded by four Swedish large environmental NGOs, ChemSec – the International Chemical Secretariat – is an independent non-profit organization that advocates for the substitution of toxic chemicals for safer alternatives. Based in Göteborg in Sweden, ChemSec mainly works on an EU or global level; both in terms of regulations and the companies they help.

The organization is not considered a consulting firm and therefore provides free services to various kinds of businesses and organizations, pushing it to seek other types of funding from charities or research funds to finance its work. ChemSec supports these companies and organizations in the implementation of their chemical management system by providing general tools and services looking at alternatives to toxic chemicals.

Among these services, Anna cites the SIN list – which lists hazardous substances that are likely to be regulated in the near future because they meet the regulatory criteria, but are not yet on the candidate list – but also other tools such as a guide for organizations to better understand the use of PFAS in products and to know what concerns them and what to do.

Finally, ChemSec shares a lot of information online, with the organization of webinars, the participation in conferences or podcasts, or the sharing of newsletters ensuring awareness and information to the public, with their target audience being SMEs and companies without in-house sustainability resources.

While most companies know ChemSec through their network, ChemSec tries to spread what it does as far as possible also using social media. Although its resources are limited, the user base is growing and growing.

Combining sciences, collaboration, and advocacy daily

At ChemSec, no two days are alike for Anna. While her scientific background allows her to bring her expertise to the organization and verify facts, she is also involved in the various tools the company develops. For instance, she explains that her experience in studying the hazardous properties of chemicals allowed her to work on the development of the SIN list. 

In addition, Anna and her team participate in conversations, webinars, and conferences, and engage in regulatory processes by contributing as much as possible to committees, meetings and consultations, and other activities.

Finally, as many of our previous podcast guests already said, collaboration is also an essential part of the organization. Through the organization of meetings with different companies, ChemSec tries to find agreements or common interests to work together.

Zoom on the use of chemicals in the textile industry

Clean chemicals are often seen as a kind of black box in the textile and fashion industry, yet it is a very important topic with different layers and great potential for innovation.

By working in chemicals, Anna knows this well: textiles are considered one of the most chemical-intensive industries, as chemicals are used in every step of the production process. Thus, from the very beginning, pesticides may be used to produce cotton, synthetic materials from petroleum must be treated in diverse ways, lubricants and other substances help to spin the yarn, the fibers may be dyed, anti-crease or anti-mildew agents may be used, as well as biocides, the garments must then be washed with detergents, etc. So, all these steps require the use of chemicals. 

Moreover, many may have heard about the Greenpeace detoxification campaigns, showing pictures of Asian textile production sites and underlining the bad state of the environment around these factories (polluted factories, environmental problems…) that are in part caused by chemicals. And because these affected countries are far from us, we often ignore these problems.

© Lance Lee / Greenpeace

The importance of transparency in a sustainable transition

When you want to make a sustainable transition in the textile and fashion industry, but also in many other industries, there comes a major challenge: transparency.

To effectively control chemical management, it is necessary to control the supply chain and obtain information about these products from the beginning of the process: Where do they come from? How were they treated? etc.

Yet, obtaining this information can be difficult since textile supply chains are very diverse and long. While some industries or large companies may have a more limited number of suppliers that they know better and have closer contact with, only a very few of the companies ChemSec has contact with have full disclosure of materials and full control of everything that goes into their products, hence setting up such a system takes a lot of effort.

Finally, the digital product passport, which is highly anticipated in Europe, will certainly contribute to playing a role in this evolution towards sustainable chemicals and more transparency. However, according to Anna, this may depend on what chemical companies will have to disclose and on confidentialities. So, to be effective, this digital passport will have to be meaningful and contain as much information as possible on as many chemicals as possible.

From Resistance to Progress: Companies’ positive transition in Chemicals

In her 12 years with ChemSec, Anna has seen a positive transition in the way companies manage chemicals. Today, companies are more willing to implement transparency systems and to better control chemicals, and these sustainability choices are influenced by two main external factors.

On the one hand, regulatory developments over the years have played a key role in this change. As an example, Anna cites the Commission’s proposal to implement the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, elements of which will require much more transparency and accountability from companies with respect to chemicals.

On the other hand, sustainability is something that customers value and that they can use as a marketing advantage.

There is now a more general understanding that everyone is confronted with various aspects of sustainability and that while no one is perfect, the effort is seen positively. Anna explains that when she first started, companies were reluctant to communicate what they were doing about chemical management because they thought it was wrong to say they had used bad chemicals before replacing them with better alternatives. More companies are now daring to say what they have done and what they plan to do.

Going towards green chemicals

Beyond clean chemistry, other similar concepts are being talked about, such as green chemistry or sustainable chemistry.

According to Anna, green chemistry would have always existed, but it is getting more attention today, and this is partly related to changes in legislation. While some companies and regulations have been progressive for a long time, other companies have been using restricted substance lists and things that go beyond regulation for many years.

There are, however, increased discussions on the topic, one of which includes safety and sustainability by design. The idea today is to figure out how to accurately assess the impact of hazardous chemicals in relation to other sustainability measures such as water use, climate change, diversity, child labor, and over social conditions, and weighing all these elements in a single measure would be helpful to all. And what is also problematic here is that there is no chemicals-specific SDG, but it encompasses all the other aspects (biodiversity, water quality…), taking them a bit away from this sustainability goal.

“I think traditionally when you’re using, for example, life cycle assessments, chemicals have been not so important in there or they have not really been acknowledged as the problem they are. So there is really room for improvement when it comes to that and there are a lot of discussions on how to do that best.”

Dealing with legislation in the textile industry

If some general restrictions exist for textiles, such as the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability mentioned earlier, or the restrictions focusing on carcinogens and toxic substances in CMTS, Anna mentions the Reach legislation that they know best. However, many regulatory changes are coming, and the Reach legislation will be revised soon, so it is important to follow what is going on in this area.

To help industries follow these regulations and know better about the chemicals in textiles, Anna explains that the SIN list can be filtered according to its use, here for textiles, to find information about where chemicals are used. Moreover, ChemSec also developed a guide specifically for the textile industry a few years ago. Although it may be a bit outdated as far as the database is concerned today, the information that explains how and why chemicals are used in the textile industry is still correct and relevant.

The challenge of chemicals

There are many different chemicals and those pose problems in diverse ways. Today, many choose to focus on one group of substances over time, such as PFAS, which is one of the key issues ChemSec and many stakeholders are currently working on.

PFAS represents a group of substances ranging from 5000 to 6 million in number, used in many applications such as in rainwear for their ability to repel water and dirt, but also in paints, floor coatings, make-up products… The main problem of PFAS is that they do not degrade in the environment or the body, so their level accumulates permanently, and nothing can be done about what already exists – hence the fact that the public media call them “lifetime chemicals”. Today, the level of PFAS in the environment is so high that they reach the same levels as those that would be considered safe for consumption, and there are adverse effects on health and the environment.

Completely eliminating the production of these substances is a significant challenge and one that all companies should address now to prevent levels from continuing to rise. A universal restriction proposal is being developed in the EU to ban PFAS in all products with limited exemptions for uses where alternatives are not yet available.

Moreover, because supply chain transparency is a complex topic, ChemSec offers several solutions to help companies determine if their products contain PFAS:

  • The PFAS Guide helps to understand the properties and functions of PFAS in different types of products. Knowing the function of substances makes it more obvious whether they are PFAS before asking the supply chain.
  • The database proposed by ChemSec allows searching for different products to see if PFAS are likely to be present.
  • Questionnaires are offered to be sent directly to suppliers. As this applies to all European companies, it is hoped that suppliers will be more used to answering these questions and will have easier answers. So, the more questions asked, even if it may seem unnecessary or you lack confidence in the answers, the easier it will be in the future as suppliers verify the information.  

Besides, setting up collaborations, common lists of regulated substances, and common requirements for suppliers makes things much easier and more efficient in solving issues related to chemicals in general. It is important to admit that even the biggest players in the textile industry have encountered difficulties with transparency and have realized the efficiency of working together. So just because a fashion brand will share chemical information does not mean it will lose a competitive advantage. However, Anna recommends that small businesses stick to an existing list, such as the SIN list – one of the best known – rather than inventing their own chemical management.

Finally, there are other organizations that can help the textile industry, such as ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals), which offers databases and resources, but whose members must pay a fee.

Take it one step at a time but start asking for transparency based on a core list that ChemSec can provide right now.

The role of consumers in the sustainable transition

The transition to a cleaner, greener chemical environment is influenced by the power of consumers, who are now more aware of the need to buy sustainable and organic products.

The chemical industry often tends to believe that we cannot replace these hazardous chemicals because the consumer expects a certain color, a certain package, a certain smell… However, if the consumer knew that they had a choice between a hazardous chemical and that specific color, packaging, or smell, Anna has no doubt that they are highly likely to accept the replacement. As an example, she mentions Coop, a Danish retailer, that is making a greater effort to educate the consumer by explaining why they have removed popular products from the shelves and finding alternatives with safer chemicals.

“It’s about empowering consumers as part of the sustainability work and taking a kind of shared journey in that regard.”

The challenging future of the chemical sector

According to Anna, the chemical industry faces many challenges, the main one being its dependence on oil and fossil fuels, which account for more than 99% of raw materials for chemicals.

In addition, it is a conservative industry. Because the industry has very high-investment facilities and infrastructure, there is a reluctance to change current production processes and products. With the increase in litigation, there is increasing pressure from financial investors with whom ChemSec works in part to make chemicals and production more sustainable, and it is also becoming difficult for chemical producers to ensure their production facilities, as insurance companies consider it a risky business.

So these challenges in the chemical sector are like the challenges that the textile and fashion industry in Europe also faces. To make the world a better place, it would be conceivable for the chemical and textile industries to act together.

Collaboration is key!

The main point Anna insists on is to work towards more transparency and collaboration on issues related to chemistry and to put them forward.

It is also important to include in these transitions the different parts of the company that are working to develop more sustainable and safer products, including management and the marketing department. In this way, this transition can be used as a marketing element to ensure that the company is perceived as sustainable.

Start making change now!

Has this episode inspired you and do you want to go further in the topic of chemicals in the industry?

Note that you can access ChemSec’s various lists and tools on chemsec.org, attend ChemSec’s webinars, and sign up for their newsletter to receive regular updates on scope and regulatory topics, as well as information about the chemical world.