It’s So Hard to Make Blue Jeans Without Nasty Chemicalsby
Consumers increasingly care about what’s in products they buy
Replacing chemicals with safer substances can be difficult
What’s in your jeans? A rogue’s gallery of unpronounceable chemicals whose effects on humans are suspect.
Perfluorochemicals, phthalates and azo dyes are among the substances that are widespread in making clothes. Under pressure from consumers demanding safer alternatives to harmful chemicals, American companies including Levi Strauss & Co. are taking a more European approach. The European Union has banned or restricted more than 1,000 chemicals; in the U.S., fewer than 50.
Consumer demand for safe products has global companies scrambling for greener ingredients, but obstacles are daunting. Suppliers are often reluctant to share their formulations, buyers balk at higher costs, and in some cases cost-effective safer substitutes simply aren’t available.
Levi’s has prohibited certain chemicals since 2000, but this is different. The jeans maker and other companies are asking suppliers to use materials generated from bacteria, fungus, yeast and methane gas to replace the petroleum-based substances that make up more than 95 percent of U.S. products’ inventory of chemicals.
There are plenty of incentives to change. A Pike Research report estimates that the global market for green chemistry will increase to almost $100 billion by 2020, from $11 billion last year. Millennials are overwhelmingly interested in sustainable investing, according to Morgan Stanley. And innovating can give companies a competitive advantage, said Monica Becker, co-director of the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, which works with companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Companies can make false promises that a product is consistent with green-chemistry practices, Becker said, but guarding against that are assessment methods used by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice program.
Rules can also confound the efforts of U.S. companies. To approve chemicals and processes, the European Union uses a so-called hazard-based approach that the Chinese government is also considering. Manufacturers need to prove their products meet safety standards before they bring them to market. The U.S. method is risk-based. It involves weighing metrics, such as quantity and duration of exposure, to assess the danger in an existing product -- if data exist.
Proponents of a hazard-based approach argue that exposure to even tiny amounts of some chemicals correlate with learning disabilities, asthma, allergies and cancer.
“Shouldn’t it be that chemicals are guilty until research proves them innocent?” said Amy Ziff, founder and executive director of Made Safe, a new hazard-based certification program. Levi’s said its goal is to use only chemicals that pass hazard-based screens by 2020.
Even as some suppliers push back, “we wouldn’t give up on hazard-based,” said Bart Sights, Levi’s vice president of global development.
Levi’s already uses some green methods to make its signature blue jeans. To give them a worn look, Levi’s uses an enzyme derived from fungus and tumbles the jeans in ozone gas instead of bleach -- a process that Sights estimated has had the added benefit of saving the company a billion gallons of water in the past three years.
“Some companies are spending the same amount on environmental compliance as they are on research and development,” said John Warner, president and chief technology officer of Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, who created the first green-chemistry Ph.D. program in the U.S., at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Companies can be roiled by the use of non-green chemicals. Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. was beset by lawsuits last year after a “60 Minutes” investigation said it used unsafe levels of formaldehyde. Shares plunged before a government probe ended without a product recall. The company no longer sells the flooring.
Such problems have investors taking notice, said Mark Rossi, whose company, Clean Production Action, created the Chemical Footprint, modeled on the carbon footprint, that investors can use to measure risk and costs. It also developed and licenses a chemical-screening method used by Levi’s and others.
Rossi has signed on firms including BNP Paribas, Calvert Investments and Trillium Asset Management, while companies like Johnson & Johnson and Clorox Co. participated in the first survey to assess their footprint. Gojo Industries Inc., maker of Purell hand sanitizer, has pledged to cut its chemical footprint in half by 2020.
In the five years since it launched a campaign to spur clothing makers and sellers to get rid of toxic substances, Greenpeace International has signed on 78 brands, said Kirsten Brodde, head of the organization’s Detox My Fashion campaign.
At the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, across the Bay Bridge from Levi’s San Francisco headquarters, students have worked with the jeans maker and companies such as outfitter Patagonia Inc., office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. and Mango Materials Inc., which manufactures plastics out of methane gas, to develop safer materials, including a non-toxic resin for Autodesk’s 3D printers.
But an overnight change for the greener just isn’t possible.
“When it comes to materials, we’re at the very initial step, which is figuring out what the heck is actually in our products,” said Marty Mulvihill, a founder of the Berkeley Center and its former executive director. “A lot of companies are just completing that first step.”
A comprehensive replacement for formaldehyde, for example, hasn’t been developed, Mulvihill said.
Mulvihill is now a partner at Safer Made, a new venture-capital firm he co-founded that’s seeking investments in companies that use green chemistry. It’s looked at more than 100 companies, with plans to invest in 10 to 15 firms in the next five years, he said.
Patagonia has also invested in green chemical companies. A Levi’s supplier, Beyond Surface Technologies, is one of a dozen the Ventura, California-based clothing maker has seeded out of 1,400 prospects it’s looked at since 2013.
“Ultimately, some of these companies that we fund could be able to help us clean up our own supply chain,” said Phil Graves, Patagonia’s director of corporate development.
There are 20 environmentally friendly chemicals available for the company’s textile finishes, compared with 200 to 300 that contain non-green chemicals, said Matthias Foessel, Beyond Surface’s founder and chief executive officer.
Developing safer alternatives can take years, while acceptable green substitutes for some substances used in waterproofing and stain protectants, such as perfluorocarbons, don’t exist, Foessel said.
New chemicals often behave differently than expected. Beyond Surface had been trying to create a water repellent when it developed a fabric that absorbs sweat instead.
Still, Foessel’s eight-year-old firm, based near Basel, Switzerland, now has more than 100 customers, including Adidas AG.
“Ten years ago, people wouldn’t have even talked to us,” Foessel said. “People accepted that you had to use chemicals that pose a risk.”