Chemical management in the fashion industry: Bluesign certification
In the fashion industry, weaving, dyeing, spinning and finishing processes are energy-intensive procedures that require the use of large quantities of water and chemicals. According to a report by the Swedish Chemicals Agency (KEMI), more than 3500 chemicals used in the textile industry have been identified, of which more than 350 are considered particularly hazardous.
The report Fashion and Sustainability 2022 by Cikis revealed that in 2021, 67.4 per cent of the companies surveyed stated that they would only follow the mandatory REACH regulation for managing chemical processes. However, companies that take a proactive approach to chemical process management, going beyond mere compliance with existing laws, will be able to adapt more quickly and easily to future stricter regulatory demands. In fact, the European Commission has announced the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, which will introduce stringent new regulations.
Among the programmes that can be joined on a voluntary basis is Bluesign. This programme is a complete solution for chemical suppliers, textile manufacturers and brands. It covers the entire supply chain and provides the tools necessary to promote, adopt and implement the use of safe chemicals and responsible practices within factories and plants.
The Bluesign certification system: definition and key objectives
Founded in 2000, Bluesign is an independent Swiss organisation committed to sustainable practices in the textile industry.
The Bluesign certification system is a comprehensive and integrated solution for chemical suppliers, textile manufacturers, accessories and brands. It offers support for the entire production chain, providing the necessary tools to promote, adopt and implement safe chemical use and responsible practices within factories and plants.
The implementation of the Bluesign system contributes to occupational safety and the reduction of negative environmental impacts. These results are made possible through the input flow management approach, which establishes the use of Best Available Techniques (BAT) and the elimination of hazardous substances early in the production chain, ensuring the safety of end products and work environments.
The Bluesign system focuses on three main aspects:
- People: Production processes along the textile supply chain can be harmful to workers and consumers. Bluesign system partners play a key role in ensuring the safety of people along the textile supply chain, creating a safe working environment for employees and ensuring maximum safety for consumers through responsible control and management of chemicals used in production processes.
- Environment: Various processes and chemicals are used along the textile supply chain that can cause harmful emissions to the environment. Bluesign partners must keep emissions to water, air and soil to a minimum through input flow management, chemical management and the use of Best Available Techniques (BAT).
- Resources: Responsible resource management has become essential due to the growing world population and dwindling available resources. Bluesign partners focus on protecting human health and the environment through effective and efficient management of water, energy, chemicals and raw materials during production.
How to get Bluesign certification?
To obtain Bluesign certification, companies must meet strict criteria concerning the responsible use of chemicals, water saving, energy efficiency and worker protection. Complete transparency in production chain management is also required, with traceability of raw materials used and measures to prevent cross-contamination.
Chemicals used in the production of textiles and leather are generally divided into two categories: effect chemicals, which remain in the finished product in small quantities, and process chemicals, which are used during the finishing or pre-treatment processes of raw materials and may be completely discharged into waste water during production.
The use of chemicals is regulated through three lists:
- The bluesign® SYSTEM BLACK LIMITS (BSBL): defines limits for chemicals in finished chemicals, such as auxiliaries or colourants.
- The bluesign® SYSTEM SUBSTANCES LIST (BSSL): defines safety limits for finished products.
- The bluesign® RESTRICTED SUBSTANCES LIST (RSL): is an extract from the BSSL that contains specific safety limits for consumers. It also includes recommended test methods for the most relevant and legally banned chemicals in textile articles and leather accessories.
Benefits of Bluesign Certification for fashion companies
Obtaining Bluesign certification offers significant advantages for companies in the fashion industry. First of all, Bluesign certification reduces health and safety risks for workers. The rigorous evaluation process of materials and processes ensures the use of safe chemicals and responsible production practices.
An additional benefit is resource savings and reduced operating costs. The system encourages the adoption of more efficient practices, such as optimising water and energy use, and responsible chemical management. This leads to a reduction in environmental impacts and enables companies to lower their production costs, improving their competitiveness in the market.
This also demonstrates the company's tangible commitment to protecting the environment and reducing negative impacts on the production chain, meeting the expectations of conscious consumers and consolidating the company's image as a responsible player in the industry.
Finally, Bluesign certification guarantees compliance with future industry regulations. The increasing focus on environmental protection has led to new regulations and restrictions on the use of hazardous chemicals and resource management, such as the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. Bluesign certification ensures that fashion companies are aligned with these regulations and anticipate future requirements, avoiding potential penalties or operational restrictions.
Bluesign and ZDHC: divergences and synergies of certifications for chemicals
One of the most important management systems for chemicals in textile products, next to Bluesign, is ZDHC. Nevertheless, the two management systems have significant differences regarding their scope and adherence by companies.
Bluesign is a certification system that certifies compliance with high environmental and safety standards for finished products. Since 2000, Bluesign has conducted scientific assessments of chemicals, analysing the hazards of more than 20,000 chemical formulations. This led to the creation of the first and most comprehensive list of chemicals considered safe or acceptable, known as the Bluesign Finder, which includes over 11,000 chemicals approved for use in textile and leather production.
On the other hand, ZDHC is a management system that companies can adhere to in order to commit to the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals during production processes.
In 2020, Bluesign was recognised as compliant with ZDHC's MRSL Level 3, which covers banned chemicals during production processes. This enabled Bluesign certified companies to achieve high recognition in the ZDHC Gateway - Chemical Module, confirming the quality of chemicals approved by Bluesign within ZDHC.
This synergy between Bluesign and ZDHC gives Bluesign certified companies access to the benefits and tools provided by both certifications, further strengthening their commitment to responsible textile production.
The limits of evaluation programmes for chemicals
Although these programmes require compliance with high standards, they are not without criticism and limitations. Indeed, the report Licence to greenwash by Changing Markets Foundation analysed the robustness and comprehensiveness of 10 certification schemes, including Bluesign and ZDHC.
According to the report, most of the initiatives examined have some critical issues, such as:
- Inability to support the achievement of ambitious targets;
- Lack of stringent requirements and deadlines to encourage members to progressively increase their ambitions;
- Low level of transparency and lack of third-party monitoring;
- Limited progress in specific fields (as in the case of Bluesign, which focuses mainly on chemical management).
In particular, according to the report, ZDHC certification has a limitation in its approach to improvement, as it is not mandatory for members to show progress in MRSL compliance and advance between levels over time. The lack of transparency regarding assessment results and compliance levels hinders the use of these tools as a means of continuous improvement.
Regarding Bluesign, the report points out that certification does not limit the use of fast-fashion production or the release of microplastics into the water.
The fashion industry faces significant challenges in terms of sustainability, particularly with regard to the use of chemicals and the environmental impact of production processes.
To stand out in the market, companies can benefit from voluntary programmes such as Bluesign, which adopt stricter criteria and offer an opportunity to increase competitiveness. Joining such programmes allows companies to position themselves advantageously, demonstrating a concrete commitment to sustainability and responsible management of chemicals used in the textile production process.
However, it is important to recognise that chemical programmes and standards have certain limitations. Continued efforts must be made to strengthen these programmes in order to promote increasingly responsible textile production.
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