The environmental parameters associated with textiles continue to attract both regulatory and value chain attention. In an interesting development, Vietnam just relaxed its chemical testing rules for exported textiles (e.g., textiles and apparel exported to the U.S. and EU markets), specifically for formaldehyde and aromatic amines. Formaldehyde is frequently used in treating textiles, including popular “no-iron” and “permanent press” textiles. Aromatic amines are present in some common dyes used in textiles and include chemicals that are either known or suspected to be carcinogens.
The presence of these chemicals in textiles is relatively unregulated at the federal level in the United States, though there has been some attention at the state level. For example, formaldehyde is subject to California’s Proposition 65, and some crafts/textile stores in California post Proposition 65 warnings for their imported textiles. Washington, Maine, and Minnesota have statutes with reporting requirements for what are typically described as “high priority” chemicals, including formaldehyde, intentionally added to children’s products (though not all of these encompass apparel). There has been occasional litigation based on claims of skin irritation allegedly caused by the presence of formaldehyde in apparel.
Perhaps more importantly than formal regulation, the chemical content of apparel, including formaldehyde, receives a certain amount of attention in social media. This reverberates into market impacts, with some companies trying to leverage this into a competitive advantage by advertising “chemical-free” clothing. This leverage could increase if major buyers begin to drive chemical content requirements through their value chains. Some of the most prominent retailers, including Walmart, have already launched initiatives to decrease or remove certain chemicals, including formaldehyde, from a range of products, including personal care, cosmetics and cleaning products. Some major buyers and brands, including Walmart, Levi Strauss, and VF have signed on to policies and standards associated with sustainable forestry and agriculture that affect the value chain for a variety of raw materials for textiles, including rayon and cotton.
Decisions by Vietnam to impose more stringent chemical content standards for apparel on its own market than it does for its strong apparel export market might increase public and retailer attention to this issue. The most likely ongoing pressure points will probably be from social media, consumers, and companies seeking to leverage this issue for competitive advantage. And even if increased federal regulation is viewed by some as less likely under the current administration, that will not restrict state regulators from taking action (the preemption provisions of the newly amended Toxic Substances Control Act will operate, roughly speaking, in inverse proportion to the degree of EPA regulation of specific chemicals: the less active EPA is, the more freedom of movement at the state level).