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SDG 12 | Chemicals and Fashion

Welcome back to our series delving into the links between the Sustainable Development Goals and Australia’s textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry. This time round, we explore the role the TCF industry can play in achieving SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production. SDG 12 has a wide remit and many applications to the TCF industry, here we’ll be focusing specifically on the ‘environmentally sound management of chemicals’ targets.

by The AFC

7 November 2019


Chemicals and Fashion: Ideas for the TCF Industry to Make an Impact on SDG 12

WORDS | Julie Boulton & Aleasha McCallion, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

Welcome back to our series delving into the links between the Sustainable Development Goals and Australia’s textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry. This time round, we explore the role the TCF industry can play in achieving SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production. SDG 12 has a wide remit and many applications to the TCF industry, here we’ll be focusing specifically on the ‘environmentally sound management of chemicals’ targets.


Chemicals across the TCF industry

 Chemicals and textiles are not topics that are mutually exclusive. In fact, we know there has been both a long history as well as a more recent rapid development for performance and product design that has propelled the relationship of textiles, and textile products, with chemicals into a complex entanglement.

It is well established for both natural fibres and  manufactured fibres that chemicals, including some hazardous chemicals, permeate the lifecycle. The use of chemicals in textiles is largely performance driven - we want our raincoats to prevent us from getting wet and we want colour to be vibrant and colourfast! Whether it is for development, colour, style, performance, hand feel or finishing there are considerable chemical inputs involved during the production phase (ie. growing or raw extraction, spinning, milling, knitting, dyeing and finishing, as well as cut-make-trim). Using hazardous chemicals including known persistent, bioaccumulative and endocrine disruptors, for the production of our clothing, textiles, accessories and footwear products yields significant risk to human and environmental health.

The chemical component of textile production impacts all of the people involved in the supply chain, as well as the warehouse and retail staff, the end consumer during the use phase and those processing ‘waste’ during the end of life stage. For example, when pesticides are mismanaged on the land or hazardous chemicals are released from factories through untreated effluent and end up into waterways or seep into the soils that communities rely upon for hydration, food, cooking and cleaning. A New York Times article recently stated ‘the chemicals used in making, dyeing and treating many fabrics are so harmful that the  E.P.A. [US Environmental Protection Agency] regulates many textile factories as hazardous waste generators’. It is estimated that 70% of the rivers and lakes in China are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry[1]. Significant water pollution is also evident in parts of Indonesia and India where often chemical dyes are discharged straight into the rivers without being properly treated. The documentary River Blue exposes just how bad things have become.

Since 2011 Greenpeace’s detox my fashion campaign has been actively engaging industry brands, certification and standards bodies, as well as consumers, to mobilise for a change specifically in the fashion sector. In a 2018 state-of-play report, Destination Zero, it is clear that critical progress has been achieved, however the challenges in this space continue and ultimately the destination of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals will not be met by 2020. You can hear more about the journey of this incredible campaign and its impact over on Wardrobe Crisis with Clare Press.

Images | Via documentary River Blue, head to their website HERE for more.


How does this relate to the SDGs?

 SDG 12, responsible consumption and production, includes the responsible use of chemicals. Target 12.4 sets a timeline of 2020 – next year – for all countries to ‘achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.’ [1]

This Target is measured by the number of parties to international multilateral environmental agreements on hazardous waste, and other chemicals (Indicator 12.4.1),by the amount of hazardous waste generated per capita and proportion of hazardous waste treated, by type of treatment (Indicator 12.4.2).


Progress on SDG 12

 Multilateral agreements referred to under Indicator 12.4.1 include:

  1. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Basel Convention);

  2. The Rotterdam Convention on the prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade (Rotterdam Convention);

  3. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (Stockholm Convention);

  4. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol); and

  5. The Minamata Convention on Mercury (Minamata Convention),

Parties to these,(of which Australia is), are required to transmit information on the implementation of their obligations under those agreements. In the latest report on global progress towards the SDGs (the Report of the Secretary General presented at the High-level political forum on sustainable development in July 2019), found that the rate of transmission varies and the average compliance rate across the four agreements is around 70%. (According to , Australia’s transmission rate was 83.33% for 2018.)

In terms of Australia’s hazardous waste, the Transforming Australia report rated Australia as off track for Indicator 12.4.2 as hazardous waste generated per capita is increasing.


How are chemicals in products regulated in Australia?

The ACCC regulates chemicals in textile products imported to Australia while NICNAS “assesses the risks of industrial chemicals to human health and the environment, and makes recommendations to other government agencies that regulate the use and disposal of chemicals”.

Globally, the EU’s REACH regulation is seen as “the most advanced and comprehensive chemical legislation in the world” and the EU has its own ecolabel. Textiles carrying this label have been produced with limited use of hazardous chemicals. The EU has been working to identify and significantly reduce chemicals in clothing, as well as provide tools for the industry such as the ChemSec Textile Guide. Last year the EU restricted the use of a further 33 substances known to cause cancer and reproductive health problems (so called CMR substances) for their use in clothing, footwear and other textile articles by setting maximum concentration levels[2]. 


How do we know what our TCF products contain?

 We should all have the opportunity to produce and purchase clothing that is made free from hazardous chemicals which are known to cause harm and increasing transparency efforts beyond tier one is a critical strategy to this end.  Greenpeace has a useful list of the top 11 chemicals to avoid in clothing and textile products and there are a number of certifications and standards that guide both producers and consumers including:

  1. OEKO-TEX: offers a portfolio of independent certifications and product labels which enables companies along the textile chain and consumers to make responsible decisions in favour of products that are harmless to health, environmentally friendly and manufactured in a fair way.

  2. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): applies to the dyeing of the clothing, with each garment having been dyed with its own organic wash recipe certified by GOTs.

  3. Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC): a coalition of fashion brands, value chain affiliates and associates - together empowering the global textile, leather, apparel and footwear value chain to substitute hazardous chemicals for safer ones in the production process.

  4. Better Cotton Initiative: applies to cotton that is produced in a way that “cares for the environment, minimising the negative effects of fertilisers and pesticides, and caring for water, soil health and natural habitats.” In Australia, BCI cotton is certified under the name myBMP (My Best Management Practice).

In Australia a great start is looking to source from textile suppliers through our local Raw Assembly team and utilising global standards and aggregated information tools through organisations mentioned such as  EU REACH, ZDHC and OEKO-TEX, which focus on eliminating hazardous chemicals from the production supply chain and identifying the best alternatives.




Going forward from the perspective of the Greenpeace Detox campaign “A lot more still needs to be done. Companies report many technical challenges, but also point to the need for policy-makers in the EU and countries of manufacture to take responsibility and translate the best practice into regulation. The chemical industry also needs to be more transparent on the formulations they provide, develop safer alternatives and further reduce unintentional contaminants”.[3] 

As articulated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s critical steps toward a circular textile economy, a key focus is designing out pollution and specifically to eliminate the use of harmful chemicals in textile production across the entire supply chain[4]. Collectively we can work to produce and import goods that are in line with benchmark EU legislation and support advocates to improve local regulations against the use and importing of globally identified hazardous chemicals, as well as support research into alternatives so hazardous chemical use is eliminated to zero. 


Further Reading & Resources

Raw Assembly

ChemSec Textile Guide


Good on You

Ellen MacArthur Foundation


This article is thanks to Julie Boulton & Aleasha McCallion from Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University. Stay tuned from more from this series as they delve into the SDG’s in detail over the coming months, and join the conversation on Twitter at @MonashMSDI

 To read more about SDGs look here:

To see Australia’s overall progress on SDGs, look here:








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