China’s giant clothing industry is not only contaminating its rivers and abusing its cheap labor force, but it is also poisoning the world in different ways.

In 2021, Canadian scientists found that a children’s jacket, sold by Chinese retailer Shein, contained a dangerously high level of lead. It was almost 20 times the safety threshold stated by Health Canada. CBC News highlighted that lead, a popular chemical used for dyeing fabrics, can cause damaging health effects to the brain, heart, kidneys, and reproductive system, with children and pregnant women the most at risk. 

This toxic jacket is just a drop in the ocean of the growing fashion industry in China. In the same Marketplace investigation on three Chinese giant retailers: Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein, the laboratory tests showed that out of 38 samples of children’s, adult’s, and maternity clothes and accessories, one fifth had excessive levels of chemicals, including lead, PFAs, and phthalates.

Fashion United in 2018 also recalled that the U.S. Federal Customs Service has postponed the delivery of pink children’s outfits imported from China due to the lead content, and requested the destruction of the goods according to the law on hazardous substances. However, as Harper’s Bazaar worried, apart from the regulation on the two substances – lead and phthalates – and only for children’s clothing, “no one from the federal government is checking inside the boxes for toxins before they’re offloaded from container ships and planes and dropped off at our front step.”

Who is in charge?

A representative for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission told Harper’s via email, “It is the manufacturer’s (to include importer’s) responsibility to ensure that exposure to the product does not present a risk of injury.” Unfortunately, according to the 2022 Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, more than half of the 250 largest global brands lack a restricted substance list (RSL), and only a quarter have committed to eliminating hazardous chemicals from their supply chain by a certain time. 

China is the world’s largest manufacturer of textile products, with many global brands’ factories located there. According to Statista, in 2020, China represented 31.6% of the global clothing export value. The most recent statistics from the World Bank show that China is the biggest exporter of textiles and clothing to the United States, accounting for 32.59% of total U.S. import and trade value at more than $39 million in 2019.

Then, without the federal government’s regulation and inspection, how can American customers be assured that Chinese exporters, who are notorious for toxic food and toys, will provide them with safe clothes?

A dye factory in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, 2012 (Lu Guang/Greenpeace)

5 main toxic chemicals in Chinese clothing

As reported by Fashion United UK, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (BCP) published a list of 5 main toxic chemicals found in low-cost clothing made in China, with lead topping the list. The other four include: 

(1) NFE (nonylphenol ethoxylates and nonylphenols) – NFE is generally found in industrial detergents used for washing textiles: Accumulating in the tissues of the body, they can disturb hormone activity and damage reproductive functions. In 2013, Greenpeace, a U.S.-based NGO, found that more than half of all products from two main production centers for children’s clothing in China, contained NFE. Most of the clothing is exported to countries including the United States

(2) Phthalates – They are usually found in plastisol printing, rubber materials used to create images and logos on T-shirts. As endocrine disruptors, phthalates can lead to a disruption of hormone levels and even breast cancer. In a study by Greenpeace on Chinese textile centers, a high content of phthalates in two samples was found.

(3) PFC (perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals) – PFC is used to create a water-repellent coating mainly for raincoats and shoes. Numerous combinations of PFCs, such as PFOS and PFOA, have caused kidney disease and cancer.

(4) Formaldehyde – It is widely used to give textile products with “non-destructive” properties, and to avoid bacteria and fungus being accumulated in the folds of clothing during transport: Lengthy exposure to formaldehyde can lead to nausea, burning eyes, nose, and throat, cough, and skin irritation.

The risk would possibly be higher while considering the combined effect of toxic chemicals from various low-quality products around us. Harper’s Bazaar made an example that, even when some fashion brands voluntarily follow the most stringent international rules to keep formaldehyde levels below 75 parts per million, consumers could still be threatened by what hides in their underwear, their wrinkle-free shirts, while getting their hair straightened with an unsafe product at a salon, and breathing in formaldehyde from their furniture.

Hidden story of Chinese clothing production chain

Purchasing “made in China” clothing is not only harmful to our health if it contains toxic elements but also sinful to the environment and Chinese workers who have to work under awful conditions.

According to the 2022 Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, 20% of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where over a million Uyghurs are being forcibly detained by the CCP and producing for global brands and retailers.

This report also revealed that out of 250 of the world’s largest brands and retailers, only 12% disclose their material suppliers, which creates loopholes for hiding their forced labor sources. Chinese export brands are probably even less transparent on where and how their clothing is made.

Some images showing the abuse of forced labor in China’s prisons. (Google/Screenshot via TheBL)

In August 2021, Wang Yuyin (pseudonym), once political prisoner in Shenyang No.1 Prison, told Western media about his personal experience in prison, including slavery, torture, and corruption. He had been convicted of “insulting” (insulting the Chinese Communist Party) for his online comments criticizing social injustice. 

Wang said that he didn’t have enough to eat in the detention center, and was forced to work under terrible conditions.

“[The prison] pays you up to 40 yuan (less than $6) a month for work, if you work well. If you don’t work well, you will be given 10 yuan or 20 yuan. They assign work [to prisoners], and the labor time is long. I leave for work at 6:30 in the morning, and only come back at 7:30 in the evening.”

“If you can’t complete the task, the prison guards will scold you every day and find ways to torture you. They also find excuses to beat people, such as breaking the rules, walking in the wrong way, and behaving badly.”

According to Wang, Shenyang No.1 Prison mainly produces clothing for Tianjin Detai Co. Ltd., which is engaged in foreign trade and apparel exports. He said, “We mainly make women’s clothing, and we have all kinds of styles. Because we often have technical masters from Detai Company (to guide) when we make clothes, and there is a loudspeaker in the police station who often calls for a certain master from Tianjin Detai Company to come to a certain area. So I remember it rather clearly.”

Wang added, “There are many prisoners in the prison, and they asked me to report on them (Detai company). I heard that slave labor products are not allowed internationally. The company sells clothes to the United States and Canada, and sells them all over the world. The company is quite large. I heard that the company can make billions of dollars a year. The [Shenyang No.1] prison alone makes hundreds of millions of dollars, and it (Detai) covers a lot of prisons. Most of the prisons in Liaoning Province are processing clothing for Detai.”

According to the Tianjin Detai official website, the number of fabric factories and garment factories that the company has cooperated with has gradually increased over the years. To date, there are more than 200 factories. But the web page does not list the names of any of the partner factories.

The reporter called the company to verify its cooperation with prison authorities; the party that answered said he was a newcomer and did not know the situation well, and his leader would call back in half an hour. Half an hour later, the reporter called again. The same party answered the call and asked who had provided the information, then hung up the phone. As of press time, the reporter had not received an answer from the company.

This story is recent, but slave labor in China and the tactics used by the CCP to conceal it have existed for at least two decades. 

According to Minghui.org, before the collapse of the forced labor camp system in China in 2013, there were over 300 labor camps. Over 95% of people held in the labor camps were Falun Gong practitioners who were illegally persecuted for their beliefs. More than 100,000 practitioners are kept in about 700 prisons in China.

“Nearly all detained practitioners at these facilities were forced to do slave labor. The products include all kinds of daily articles, such as toothpicks, chopsticks, medical cotton swabs, injection bags, food bags, cell phone cases, soccer balls, footballs, stamp albums, candy, moon cakes, car mats, winter coats, embroidery, leather bags, ornaments, and crafts.

“Ms. Liu Youqiing, a [Falun Gong] practitioner in her 50s, was forced to work at Wuhan Women’s Prison. She was forced to sit on a small stool unraveling fabric from morning to evening. The workload was heavy, and she could not finish even by midnight. As punishment, the guards forced her to stand about three steps away from a wall and lean against the wall supported only by her head as torture. She unraveled fabric like this for 18 days, and the guards did not let her sleep in bed even for one day.”

What should we do?

Facing the market flooded with “made in China” clothing, it is important for us to protect ourselves and act responsibly as consumers.

To detoxify our closet, first, it is recommended to focus on the brand, not the materials. Harper’s Bazaar noted that even 100% organic cotton clothing could have been bleached, dyed, scoured, and finished with toxic chemicals. There are lists of chemical-free brands issued by international organizations that we can count on. 

It is also important to avoid cheap knockoffs. Dr. Martin Mulvihill, co-founder of Safer Made, said that the riskiest brands are the cheapest ones. He said: “It’s expensive to care. Chemicals that are safer are usually more expensive. The suppliers that are sourcing to meet the bottom lines of the [cheap] brands are sourcing the cheapest options.” Then, it would be safer not to be addicted to attractive low-cost Chinese fashions.

Avoid clothes that smell like chemicals when you take them out of the packaging, and carefully wash the new clothes before wearing them. Buying secondhand or swapping with your friends is also a good way to build a non-toxic wardrobe. 

A textiles factory discharge pipe in China (Lu Guang/Greenpeace)

While these steps may help us to protect ourselves from toxic chemicals in clothing, a united effort of the international community will to some extent put pressure on the CCP on human rights issues. Speaking about water pollution and environmental issues alone, there are sufficient reasons to be vigilant to “made-in-China” textile products.

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