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Chemicals are used at almost every stage of the manufacturing process for clothing and footwear, from the production of raw materials like growing cotton with pesticides and fabric dyeing, to the addition of protection benefits such as water repellency. Chemicals are part of our daily lives and can offer many benefits and qualities. But unsurprisingly, they can have a significant impact on the environment if they’re not managed responsibly and safely.

Did you know that M&S was the first major UK retailer to introduce a chemical compliance policy back in 1998? We banned the use of hazardous chemicals such as alkylphenol ethoxylates (known as APEOs), which pose a long-term threat to wildlife, particularly aquatic animals as they are easily soluble. We also stopped using certain heavy metals and gradually extended our policy to cover textile printers, finishing facilities, laundries and tanneries as well as dye houses. We were proud to pioneer a market-leading policy and set the bar high for other clothing brands to follow.

Today, we continue to evolve our policy and work hard to understand the chemicals that are used to make every single M&S product. Our number one priority is to ensure any chemicals we use don’t harm the environment and are safe for our customers and the workers in our supply chain.

But there’s still work to be done and we believe collaboration with our industry peers, suppliers and NGOs will help us gain more traction to reach our goals. That’s why, we signed up to Greenpeace’s Detox 2020 campaign in 2012, which aims to eliminate 11 groups of chemicals. We also joined the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) in 2012 – an industry initiative advancing towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile and footwear sector.

We’ve made great progress towards the commitments we made to Greenpeace, including banning the use of PFC chemical finishes (fluorocarbons) for imparting water and oil repellent finishes on products such as coats and schoolwear in 2016. PFCs are now known to have a detrimental impact on the environment, which is why we’ve transitioned to using safer alternatives that still provide the same great quality finishes for our customers.

Last month, I attended the ZDHC Annual Conference in Amsterdam, which focused on accelerating the use of key tools that ZDHC has developed to help suppliers, brands and retailers to manage chemicals responsibly. These tools and guidelines help our suppliers to produce clothes and footwear in a clean way and support dye houses and tanneries to use chemicals that comply with global standards.

ZDHC reflected on its milestones in 2018 at the conference, including over 14,000 chemical products uploaded by suppliers on ZDHC’s Chemical Gateway – an online platform which provides visibility and transparency of each product’s level of compliance. Meanwhile, a new initiative was launched to look at the chemicals used in the manufacturing of viscose. In 2019, the ZDHC will launch the Brand Leader Program to assess the performance of each brand and will provide clearer wastewater guidelines for leather and cellulosic fibre.

As a newly elected member of the ZDHC Board of Directors, I’m proud to play a role in the overall strategic direction of the organisation and run new opportunities by the Board – for example we recently secured ZDHC Board approval to support our investigative work into the issue of microfibre shedding during fabric manufacturing.

Greenpeace were keynote speakers at the ZDHC conference and they acknowledged the progress ZDHC and its signatories have made. Now there is a clear business case for responsible chemical management – something that has been recognised by a recent ZDHC commissioned report.

The ZDHC conference demonstrated that together with other brands, we have collaboratively made great strides in improving the responsible management of chemicals and product compliance. At M&S, we will continue to focus on ensuring we responsibly manage chemicals in our supply chain and collaborating with other ZDHC signatory brands in driving change across the textile and leather industry.