Make it last: “What should one avoid when it comes to colouring and prints on textiles?”
(Anna Brismar): “There are different methods to create prints on textiles. Mechanical printing is probably the oldest printing technique still in use today. It stems from the 10th century in China when wood blocks, with raised printing surfaces of different shapes, were used to hand-press decorations onto textiles. This method is still commonly used in India and other developing countries. By the 1850s, industrial machines had replaced wood blocks in Britain, making large scale production of printed textiles possible. Screen printing, which uses a mesh of polyester, nylon, silk or steel stretched over a frame, is one of the most common methods for textile printing today. For example, the colorful graphic prints of Marimekko textiles are created using modern screen printing machines. In recent years, digital printing, using laser or inkjet machines and computers, has become a popular method for making prints on textiles, as it enables on-demand printing and easy modifications of the print image. Yet, irrespective of the actual printing technique, producing textile prints will always require some sort of coloring, fixing/binding, and solvent substances (see e.g. a video on screen printing). Still other agents may also be used, for example additives to give the print a glossy, metallic, glittery, suede-like or puffy texture.
There are many different types of coloring agents, so called inks. Most inks today are synthetically produced, as opposed to being made of natural ingredients. Moreover, some inks are water-based and others do not dissolve in water, so-called “traditional solvent-based inks” and “plastisol inks” (source). The traditional solvent-based and plastisol inks are the most harmful types. In fact, the most common type of ink used for garment printing is plastisol, which gives the print a plastic-like look. However, standard plastisol contains PVC and the associated softening agent phthalates, which are significantly hormone disruptive and carcinogenic. All clothes with plastic-like prints are thus likely to contain PVC and phthalates and should be avoided, especially for children! And on top of this, the plastisol ink does not decompose, which means it will remain infinitely in a landfill. And if the clothes with plastisol ink are incinerated, the trapped dioxins and hydrochloric acid will be released into the atmosphere, creating very harmful gases and acid rain that ultimately contaminate our waters, soils, plants, animals and finally our bodies through food intake.
Unfortunately, all synthetic substances, i.e. colors, fixers, binders, solvents and other used chemicals, have the potential to be harmful, in terms of skin irritations, allergies, and even respiratory, reproductive and carcinogenic effects. The initial dyeing of the fabric also involves chemical agents that may have negative impacts on human health and the environment.
According to a recent report by the Swedish Chemicals Agency, as much as 80 percent of all textile products consumed within the EU are imported from outside of the EU. This creates significant challenges in terms of chemical control, because the stricter European legislation for textiles does not encompass clothing and other textile products manufactured and imported from outside the EU. Even the fashion companies have difficulty in controlling the chemical usage throughout their supply chains. “The textile supply chains are often long and complex with a global span and important information is drastically decreasing in the many steps from producer to consumer.” Therefore, the “flow of chemical information in the supply chains is generally not adequate.” (source)
There are at least 2 400 chemicals that may be used in the textile products today. Ten percent of these are considered harmful to human health, which include direct azo dyes, acid azo dyes, and fragrances (source). Direct azo dyes are primarily carcinogenic and development disruptive, while acid azo dyes are associated with allergies. Moreover, direct azo dyes are mainly used in cotton textiles, while acid azo dyes are mainly used in polyamide, according to the same report. Because of the often long and complex supply chains, there is normally great uncertainty as to the actual concentrations of different chemicals in textile products, especially if the products have been manufactured outside of the EU (unless testing on the final product is performed).
Thus, the best way to avoid any potentially harmful chemicals is to only buy printed clothes that have been manufactured within the EU. If you are unsure about the prints’ origin, avoid printed clothes all together. Most importantly, avoid any plastic-like prints and go for prints that feel “part of the textile” (likely to be water-based and less toxic).
Moreover, prioritize fabrics manufactured within the EU as member countries must follow stricter chemical regulations for dyeing and other processes in production. Look for labels indicating natural, eco-friendly dyeing. Light colors may not always be better than dark, but natural white and soft, light colors should be prioritized before black, strong or neon colors, if uncertain. When buying clothes made of polyester, nylon and other synthetics, choose BlueSign partners such as Houdini Sportswear, Patagonia, The North Face or Adidas. When going for clothes of natural fibers (such as cotton, wool, hemp, linen or silk), look for fabrics certified by GOTS, the EU flower, Nordic Swan, Bra Miljöval or a similar eco-label. These steps should reduce the risk of any harmful chemicals in your clothes. In general, choose brands with a serious commitment to avoiding any harmful chemicals in the supply chains (tip: read their homepage).”