Nobody would deny that creating a safe, comfortable product is one of the most important responsibilities that a clothing company has. But is the corporatewear industry doing all it can to ensure that its products are completely free of undesirable substances?
Some are not so sure. Valerie Sollis, business development executive at testing house Bureau Veritas, a global testing operation with a long and storied history that stretches back some 179 years.
She said: "We test fashion and corporatewear garments, amongst other things, and one thing that I have noticed is that the retail industry is very, very conscientious about these issues.
"If you want to sell a product through a store such as Marks & Spencer, they will demand proof that the clothes have been fully tested, not just for banned elements such as azo dyes, but also elements that are not restricted but should be looked at, such as pH levels.
"But I do wonder whether the corporate clothing industry is as aware of these issues as retail."
A lack of scrutiny?
If there is a lack of knowledge in corporatewear, it may well be due to legal testing requirements.
While mid-to-high-end PPE must be tested against EC law for 'innocuousness' - that is, to ensure it contains no dangerous or undesirable components - less complex garments such as foul weather protection or careerwear do not.
Instead, they can be tested against British standards for workwear, but, Mark Dawes, senior auditor for PPE at SGS, the world's leading testing, inspection and verification company with 1,000 offices and labs worldwide, told director-e that this may not be enough.
"The British standards for workwear and careerwear are very generic and of course the requirements for a bank clerk's uniform are going to be different from the requirements for a police officer's uniform."
The standards also do not cover hazardous substances like the potentially cancer-causing amines in Azo dyes, some of which are banned under EU law. Mark elaborated: "It's possible that clothing containing restricted substances could go into the careerwear market without being detected because there's no mandatory scrutiny of what's there."
Following the paper trail
But it's not just dyes that can cause problems, as Valerie explained: "a lot of companies have nickel-free buttons as nickel can cause skin irritation although the EU has limited its use rather than banned it.
"There are also issues about the correct pH and formaldehyde levels of clothing, which are recommended but not required under EU law."
Obviously testing garments helps ensure that the final product is suitable for everyone, irrespective of legal requirements, but there is another way to check the suitability of your clothing.
Mark said: "The purchasers can look to their suppliers to ensure that the EU directives that cover banned substances are being adhered to. For example, if the dye manufacturers have informed you of the composition of the dyes and the dye house that is used has reasonable management systems in place, then this can also be used for a due diligent approach.
"Following that method is obviously a lot more work because you have to look through all stages in the supply chain and it's an long documentary procedure. Of course, if they can't come up with a certificate then you should get it tested. In fact, if a company only supplies a small amount of product or uses a variety of sources then it may be more cost effective to go for the full test option."
He added that testing the final garment could be useful to avoid some other component issues: "Degradation can be an issue. Some items are fine when they're manufactured, but six months later you'll find that some elements have broken down into banned substances.
"One example is leather products - there are restrictions on the amount of chromium six on leather because it's a carcinogen. Some tanners then used chromium three, but this degrades to chromium six by the time it's hit the UK market. So in cases like these, it's beneficial to check final products at a later stage."
The long arm of the law
Of course, since testing is not mandatory, some less scrupulous businesses might be tempted not to bother fully checking their supply chain or testing their products. But this is not only immoral, it can ultimately be very dangerous for the company as well as its customers.
As Valerie pointed out: "Even if there isn't a law saying that these products must be tested for, you can still be prosecuted for failing product safety standards.
!If you have a garment that's causing irritation or injury then you will end up being investigated and possibly prosecuted.
"If you can show the courts that you have a paper trail showing that as far as you were aware the items were safe, or proof that you'd had them tested, then that can help build a defence or cause the courts to be more lenient. If you have nothing then you'll be in real trouble."
So should mandatory checks be brought in for corporatewear, workwear and simple PPE? The issues are complex.
"It is possible that test houses would be inundated with testing queries if the checks were made mandatory," Mark said, "However, the industry may consider it to be unfair to introduce more bureaucracy and red tape.
"Also, it would mean putting money into maintaining a stronger paper trail and increasing the amount of testing to check every dye batch. It would cause huge issues in terms of tracing the production of items.
"If the market could stomach the increase in costs then there's maybe a case for it. But that's a big 'if'.”
So it seems unlikely that the market will have enforced testing requirements any time soon. But legal issues aside, it really is important for every self-respecting company to seriously consider testing their products as Valerie said: "Garments need to be fit for purpose for the rest of their working lives. How can you know that without testing?"
Author: James Wilkinson