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Beware what you wear: How the fabrics you choose can affect your health

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Without knowing it, parents are exposing their children to toxic chemicals in clothing that could have serious consequences for their health. Sam Agars reports.

Our skin is our largest and fastest-growing organ and it is crucial in eliminating toxins, as well as absorbing substances both good and bad. Because of this, what we wear can have a massive impact on our health. Regulations around the clothing industry, especially in Asia, are often quite loose and sometimes non-existent, meaning it is hard for us to know exactly what is in what we and our families are wearing.

There is also the misconception that all synthetics are safe, where in fact some, particularly when used to make up a large portion of a garment, can be very harmful. In Hong Kong, there are no specific regulations and it is often very difficult to get a gauge on what a particular garment is made of due to poor labelling. Studies have shown that chemicals in clothing have the potential to cause any number of skin diseases, respiratory issues and even cancer.

If at all possible, it’s best to stay away from the following chemical-laden fabrics in lieu of more all-natural fabric options: acrylic, polyester, rayon, acetate, triacetate and anything labelled static-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, permanent-press, no-iron, stain-proof or moth-repellent.

Labels and certification

Clothing standards in Hong Kong are heavily reliant on the fact that clothing is regulated in the country of its manufacture and, while not everything is unsafe, it can be very difficult to find clear labelling that outlines what a garment contains.

“In Hong Kong you can buy goods where the label is very unclear and people can sell goods with labels that are not in English. They do not specify what is in the garment and you don’t know if the factory it came from is socially responsible,” says Around DB publisher Corinne Jedwood, director of newly formed DB-based company Eureka Socks. “People buy clothing and have no clue what is in it. Take school uniform socks in Hong Kong, for example – the label says cotton and spandex, but you don’t know if it’s 99% cotton or 1% cotton and you don’t know what else they put in.”

According to a spokesperson from the Hong Kong Accreditation Service, there are “no regulatory requirements for selling garments in Hong Kong” and the responsibility for ensuring that what comes into the city is safe falls on customs officers. “It’s not only that sometimes it is not safe, but that you don’t know what you are buying. Because of the lack of regulations around manufacturing in China, the Confidence in Textiles label was put in place,” says Corinne.

The Confidence in Textiles label is something that is displayed on garments that have been tested under the OEKO-TEX Standard 100. According to OEKO-TEX, this is “a worldwide consistent, independent testing and certification system for raw, semi-finished and finished textile products at all processing levels, as well as accessory materials used”. The OEKO-TEX Standard 100 has been in use since 1992 but has become more prevalent in China in the past two to three years.

When looking for a Eureka Socks’ manufacturer on the mainland, Corinne found that you still need to do due diligence. “I went to two factories that professed to follow the OEKO-TEX Standard 100,” she explains, “but I sent samples to an independent lab to be checked and I found that one of the factories was not telling me the truth. This means you can’t even trust the top brands. If they haven’t visited the factories, they will have no clear idea about their manufacturing partners. Their labelling may be misleading – it could say made of lyocell when actually, only 15% lyocell is included in the mix.”

The motivation behind Eureka Socks was firstly to raise awareness about the importance of wearing safe clothing, and also to ensure parents had a clearly labelled option when purchasing clothes for their children. Produced in a certified factory in Hunan, Eureka has decided to focus its attention on socks initially, with its products made of 80% bamboo,15% polyamide and 5% spandex and meeting the requirements of the OEKO-TEX Standard 100.

“Since your children’s feet are in their socks all day, they are the one clothing item that should be produced to exacting standards,” Corinne says.

Earth-friendly credentials

Eureka’s choice of bamboo as the base material for its socks reflects a worldwide trend to manufacture clothing that is safe to wear, naturally sourced and sustainable. Bamboo receives a lot of attention because it’s easy to grow without pesticides (or water) and is quick to replenish itself, but it’s not the only option for the eco-savvy shopper. Natural and eco-friendly (premiumpriced) fabrics, from organic cotton to alpaca, are now cropping up everywhere from Zara to Gap.

Hemp has been touted as the ultimate eco-friendly fabric because it requires no chemicals to grow. It’s also extremely versatile, and can be used to create both strong, sturdy fabrics and soft, comfortable delicates. Look out too for items made of lyocell, the generic name for the Tencel brand. It’s made from wood pulp, so it’s both biodegradable and recyclable. Silky soft soy fabric, made from the by-products of soy-oil processing, is another good option, as is true linen since it’s made from flax, a crop that requires very little pest-controlling chemicals.

At the luxury end, long-lasting cashmere, alpaca and silk are sound, all-natural fabric options requiring no chemical-based synthetic processing. While cashmere fibre comes from Kashmir goats and alpaca from Alpaca sheep, silk is made by silk worms.

When shopping for child- and earthfriendly garments, you need to be sure that you are buying something that is certified organic, sustainable and eco-friendly. Also check you aren’t getting a less-eco ‘blend’ that includes a high percentage of other fibres, like polyester, in the mix. To keep prices down, clothes are often treated with harmful chemicals, like formaldehyde, and dyed with carcinogenic dyes, so look for garments that are coloured using natural or vegetable-based dyes. To control your carbon footprint, choose garments that are made as close to home as possible.

The bottom line when buying clothing that’s supportive of the environment and your family’s health is to do your homework. Read the labels carefully and shop at a reputable, socially responsible supplier who will weigh the facts for you. Make sure you know where the clothing comes from, who makes it and what it’s processed with – this way you will know that every item you buy is as desirable as it looks.

Home-grown Eureka socks

Showcased recently through the Around DB Sock Design Competition 2016, Eureka Socks’ products are available online and at local school shops. “We are a community-based business,” says Corinne. “The products are brought to you from the community (our team is DB-based) and sold within the community. The socks are also directly relevant to the community, as they have inspiring, locally significant messages like Save the Dolphins and I love Lantau.”

Promoting the well being of DB kids (and their parents’ peace of mind), Eureka Socks also provides a way for the community to give back. “We take our social responsibility seriously,” says Corinne, “so for every purchase of socks, we will donate a pair of socks to someone who needs it. We are trying to get school kids involved in that process, so they will write messages to go with the socks being sent to children in need and homeless people.”

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