While the "honourable merchant" has long been the role model for responsible participation in economic life, some textile industry associations now seem to have no inhibition about arbitrarily bending the truth in the interests of individual profiteers, despite better knowledge of the risks to society.
The pictures of the storming of the Capitol in Washington by a misguided mob during the last few days could hardly be surpassed in their shocking absurdity. It was frightening to see how many people in the world’s oldest democracy allowed themselves to be led astray by freely invented (and merely repeatedly convincingly presented) untruths in such a way that they were prepared to sacrifice their most precious asset by force – or were enabled to use this wave to pave the way for their fundamentalist convictions. These were certainly the thoughts of many of us.
But at the same time, it has demonstrated to us once again that even fictitious claims made by a leader have sufficient power to mislead large segments of our society. This applies just as much to lies intended to incite as many recipients of the message as possible to take a certain action as it does to misleading half-truths intended to prevent overdue change in society in order to preserve the status quo.
Actually, in today’s world, both types of behaviour can be debunked very quickly, as the facts from a sufficient number of credible sources in these cases diametrically contradict the claims, even if they are repeatedly made in a very bold manner. But unfortunately, we are all now so inundated with information that quite often, for reasons of efficiency, we do not take the time to do our own research and instead trust recognized authorities without carrying out a plausibility check ourselves. True to the motto «if these people say it, it must be true», given opinions are then adopted with confidence in the sincerity of those authorities.
Last week, however, it was not only the political events in the USA that shocked me but also a communication from the German «Industry Association for Finishing – Yarns – Fabrics – Technical Textiles (IVGT), which in its weekly communication advertised for a PR campaign of the «Textil+Fashion Association » titled «Textile Heroes in Danger». On this campaign, several member associations of the textile industry have collaborated and their website went online since December 18, 2020. With this initiative, the association wants to support member companies «against the background of the current and upcoming restriction proceedings on the use of fluorochemicals» by the European Commission.
On the home page, it then states right at the beginning:
«Textile heroes in danger:
The German textile industry is a world leader in the development of protective equipment for firefighters, police, rescue services, doctors and nursing staff. But whether the men and women working for the fire department, the police or in the healthcare sector can continue to be equipped with protective suits that provide them with optimum protection is questionable. This is because the EU Commission wants to ban textiles that are finished with fluorocarbon. Many heroes of our everyday life are in danger!»
This form of sweeping scaremongering is not only largely insubstantial, but in addition massively misleading when a little further down the line it is about textile sun protection textiles, among other things – or sports and outdoor clothing. Apparently, there is no inhibition in the associations to use the topic of protective gear to stir up sentiment against an EU initiative that in reality aims for the general protection of the population against the collateral damage of the fluorchemical industry, while at the same time offering shelter to a considerably broader range of products that profit from it.
Anyone who has already dealt with the issue of fluorochemicals and followed in recent months the process referred to under the leadership of the EU will have been relieved to see that, after many years, an attempt is finally being made to reverse the burden of proof of a chemical use that has become known and infamous under the name «eternal chemicals». This group (PFCs or PFAS) of nearly 5,000 different chemical substances is entirely man-made and so resilient that it will never dissipate in nature. Some of their compounds (which have also been used extensively in the past by the textile industry, both in the form of C8 coatings and in the manufacture of PTFE membranes) have long been shown to be hazardous to human health once released into the environment. Once they have entered the body, they can interfere with the hormonal system, affect the reproductive system and the immune system, and promote the development of certain types of cancer. In fact, research now suggests that some short-chain PFASs may double the risk of severe consequences of corona virus infection and may interfere with vaccine effectiveness.”
In the rare cases where this has been finally proven beyond doubt, a small number of the PFASs in question have since been banned following lengthy evidence procedures and have often been replaced by PFASs with a slightly modified chemical structure. However, the latter are no less persistent as a result, and neither the fact that there is not yet sufficient experience with their toxicity proves that they are less dangerous, nor a (scientifically unsubstantiated) designation of «PFCs without environmental concerns», as chosen by some members in our industry.
In order to get an objective impression of the true reality in the underlying industry as a consumer yourself, it is highly recommended to watch the feature film «Dark Waters» by Todd Haynes starring Mark Ruffalo in the leading role of the lawyer Rob Bilott, which was made in Hollywood at the end of 2019 and exposes the scandal about the production of Teflon® (chemically «polytetrafluoroethylene» – also known in the outdoor industry as PTFE) by the company DuPont™. The film, which is now also offered by various streaming services, is not only based on real facts, but it simply leaves one speechless in view of the decades of unscrupulousness with which the fluorochemical industry has put its profit interests before obvious health hazards to the public. That it is precisely this industry that is now defended by associations as «heroes» is simply an indecent lack of taste.
In truth, the EU’s current thrust is merely to limit the permission for these chemicals only for so-called «essential applications» – i.e. precisely those products that are, on the one hand, vital and, on the other, «without alternative» in these applications because there are no substitute materials with comparable properties. This should apply both to volatile coatings and to industrial manufacturing processes for materials in which – such as PTFE – these substances are used and can be released into the environment in the process. So there can be no question of heroes being endangered at all because it is precisely these that should be exempt from the regulation. However, a whole series of other users now seem to want to jump on this bandwagon as free riders.
The widespread glorification of such an industry as a life-saver without an alternative is not only grotesque, but downright distasteful to all those who have become ill or will become ill in the future from the health consequences of fluorochemicals – because this chemical, once released in molecular form into the environment via water or air, never disappears again from our food chain, but in many cases continues to accumulate there. In Europe, it is Holland, among others, that has been polluted with excessive PFAS inputs in the soil over decades by the DuPont™ plant near Rotterdam. The fact that DuPont™ spun off this fluorochemical production unit in 2015 under the new name Chemours™, just in time for the PTFE scandal described in the feature film, speaks for itself.
The distortion of the truth by the association’s initiative is taken to the extreme in particular by the fact that this campaign is also intended to achieve exemptions for products that are by no means vital or for which there are sufficient alternatives. The suggestive representation that, for example, only fluorochemicals in outdoor sports «keep you dry, prevent frostbite and, in case of doubt, save lives,» as it says on the association’s website, is not only blatant in view of long-established alternatives that are sufficiently powerful for almost all applications but also distorts competition. Not only have bold pioneering brands like Vaude and Bleed been relying on fluorochemical-free membranes and PFC-free impregnations for years but now other renowned brands like Jack Wolfskin, Haglöfs and Mammut have embraced this strategy, to name just a few.
The initiative is crowned by public justifications such as the statement that fluorochemicals in outdoor clothing are essential to prevent possible stains from sunscreen on ski suits, as the sustainability officer of a renowned brand that sells PTFE membranes recently argued in the press (and it is also included in an internal position paper of the associations towards the EU). This is downright cynical in view of the potential dangers and unresolved consequences of fluorochemicals for future generations. Instead of transparently communicating to the consumer an objective choice between the advantages and disadvantages of our products and, in the case of non-essential applications or available alternatives, fulfilling our responsibility as an industry, there is one-sided glorification and, out of self-interest, no hesitation in crossing every boundary of decency.
It is time that we finally accept our responsibility as an industry and actively seek alternatives to reconcile consumer needs and environmental protection through truly sustainable clothing, instead of defending old bastions that have long since squandered their moral foundation in the past.
Our most urgent task, to transform the processes of using synthetic plastics as textile fibers so that they can be used again and again without harm in a circular economy, is challenging enough. We, therefore, should focus on at least saying goodbye to chemistry that has demonstrably already caused enough damage instead of unjustifiably glorifying it.
Paragraph 1 of the currently valid German Chamber of Industry and Commerce Act states: «(1) The Chambers of Industry and Commerce have to support and advise (…) as well as to work for the preservation of decency and morality of the honourable merchant.» It is about time that we demand this for associations as well because they are perceived by many as credible authorities.
Until this is respected, both for initiatives that serve our interests and for those that might contradict them, we will withdraw from the relevant associations. Because we will not support a trend whose most drastic effects we saw on television last week.