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Chemicals in textiles

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The textile industry is one of the largest industries in the world with an estimated value of US$ 1.3 trillion that employs more than 300 million people along the global value chain. It is a significant industry for emerging economies and developing countries with their role on the rise. From an environmental and social perspective, the textile industry has still a lot to undertake in order to become fully sustainable.

The current system is highly resource-intensive, contributing significantly to environmental challenges in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and use of several hundred potentially hazardous chemicals in the various textile processing steps. The Global Chemicals Outlook summarizes chemical use and trends in the textiles sector, noting a doubling of production in the last 15 years and still growing, with the annual retail value of apparel and footwear is expected to increase by 30 per cent between 2017 and 2030. A key driver is a phenomenon known as “fast fashion”, characterized by quick turnarounds of new styles, a larger number of collections offered per year, and lower prices coupled with a lower cloth utilization rate. A growing textile industry leads to an increase in the chemicals used in textile processing, the market value of which is estimated to be US dollars 31.8 billion by the end of 2026.

Environmental and social impacts associated with the textile value chain are significant and therefore of increasing concern to the global community. Though the overall economic benefits of phasing out substances of concern might be difficult to assess due to low transparency on chemical use or data on worker-related health impacts, it is estimated that eliminating today’s negative health impacts emanating from poor chemicals management in the textile industry would have an economic benefit of 7 billion € (8 billion US$) annually in 2030. In the current, mostly linear, system for producing, distributing, and using clothing are more than $500 billion in value is lost from the system every year due to under-utilized clothes and the lack of recycling. As the demand for clothing grows, systematic risks are emerging.  Negative impacts on resources, environment, and people and the industry’s future profitability. 

Deeper knowledge to lever action in the value chain – about its actors, the environmental and social impacts, and associated intervention strategies for a more sustainable and circular value chain – is required.  Hazardous substances in the value chain are a barrier to achieving a circular economy.  Transparency on the product’s chemical content, production history, and properties for use and after use is fundamental.

The textiles sector is currently considered in the SAICM context through what is known as the ‘Chemicals in Products Programme’. The programme focuses on four priority sectors: textiles, toys, building products and electronics. The Chemicals in Products Programme is an ongoing activity at UN Environment on the policy and practical facets of access to information on the chemicals contained in everyday products. The activities focus on increasing the availability and access to the information actors need – throughout the life-cycle of products – so that they can properly manage those products and the chemicals in them.

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