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H&M Group’s position on safe-by-design chemicals definition to drive circular economy


H&M Group’s position on safe-by-design chemicals definition to drive circular economy

Published on 15 Apr 2021

H&M Group has the ambition to become 100% fair and equal, 100% circular and climate positive. Circular products mean products that are made to last, from safe, recycled and sustainably sourced input that can recirculate multiple times. Chemical management is an essential part of our circular ambition: our vision is to lead the change towards safe products and toxic-free fashion. H&M Group’s Chemical Roadmap is our major tool to reach our overarching goal: toxic-free fashion by 2030.

We support the European Commission’s holistic and coordinated approach to accelerate circular economy in the industry. The harmonisation and definition of one common legal and implementation scheme will allow the fashion industry to contribute to the Green Deal vision and transition to a circular and carbon neutrality by 2050. To put sustainability at the core of our industry is a big opportunity to accelerate the pace of change and drive for a Green Recovery.

In this context, H&M Group values the opportunity to contribute to the current debate on the definition of chemicals that are safe and sustainable-by-design under the EU Chemicals Strategy for sustainability – and to be taken into account under the Sustainable Product Initiative as well as under the EU Textile Strategy.

As a downstream user of chemicals, we experience a gap in how hazards are communicated in a clear, harmonised, and transparent way. This gap continuously poses a problem while working towards our vision of a toxic-free fashion future, for example in substitution of hazardous chemicals and our aim of promoting best available chemicals. At H&M Group, we therefore see a need to establish an acknowledged and harmonised hazard assessment methodology to future-proof circular products.

While reading the EU Chemical Strategy, the European Commission’s first attempt at defining safe and sustainable- by-design chemicals caught our attention (EU Chemical Strategy, EC COM(2020) 667 final, p. 4, note 19).

We would like to seize the opportunity to further delve into the concept of safe. We agree with what we interpret as a definition in line with the “prevent, prioritize, remove hierarchy”, where minimising volumes and the environmental footprint of chemicals before they are placed on the market is important.

H&M Group’s chemical approach

At H&M Group, it is, and has long been, evident that we must avoid and restrict substances of concern (health and environment, including, but not limited to, Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) as defined in Articles 57-59 of the REACH Regulation (EC) No 1907/20069) in our products as well as in their manufacturing processes. Not only for the safety of our customers and the environment, but because it is our responsibility as a leading global fashion company to use our size and scale to create positive change. H&M Group Chemical Restrictions were among the first in our industry.

We are constantly monitoring progress of substances’ hazard evaluations, making sure that our Chemical Restrictions are up to date with recent research. Where required, the precautionary principle is applied to phase out substances before consensus has been reached e.g., on specific hazard category.

We also apply class approaches to our restrictions, meaning that we restrict entire classes of substances, based on either structural or functional similarities. Combined, this has led us to stay ahead of chemical regulatory actions, such as the phase-out of all PFAS from our textile products, accessories, and footwear, already in 2013.

Review the criteria needed to determine safe-by-design

At this stage, where the circularity of our products is becoming essential to our business model, we see that the practice of restricting substances of various degrees of concern is not, in effect, sufficient to assure safe products. In a circular fashion economy, the lifetime and recirculation of each material is infinitely longer, and it is therefore not enough to secure products’ chemical content using only today’s knowledge base.

As such, there is an increasing demand for transparency of the contents of chemical products used in product’s manufacturing to choose best available chemicals from a hazard perspective. We would therefore urge the European Commission to revisit the definition of safe and what is required to ensure an easy and transparent hazard communication for downstream users, such as H&M Group and our customers.

We acknowledge the significance of Safety Data Sheets in accordance with REACH as well as classification of substances and mixtures according to CLP, or the global standard GHS. However, in our experience the requirement that only substances with harmonised classifications at amounts above 0.1% (or 0.01% if CMR) shall be disclosed is not enough to even assure legal compliance, let alone future-proofing products for the circular economy.

To succeed in this endeavour, we see that a comprehensive knowledge base on chemicals is necessary. This becomes abundantly clear when looking at the flora of products’ certifications and communications regarding chemicals ( E.g., bluesign, Öko-Tex, “free from” claims). For example, we may receive a SDS saying that a product is PFAS-free, but this is not sufficient to compare with other products and determine which alternative is the safest from a hazard perspective.

H&M Group’s experiences from substitution projects (PFAS; dimethylformamide etc.) has led us to the conclusion that a harmonised methodology to assess, compare and communicate hazards is essential to determine safe and for successful substitution. It’s paramount for a future circular fashion economy, where safe inputs will be key.

Essential parameters to assess hazards of chemical substances and formulations are:

  • Confidential Full Formulation Disclosure of all intentional ingredients at any concentration, including contaminants and non-intentionally added substances at levels ≥100 ppm, to avoid regrettable substitution by enabling correct choices of safer alternatives. The content of the formulation could also be verified by chemical analysis. This goes beyond SDS as information carriers on chemical products and its properties.

Cross-industry standard – recognised hazard-based assessment methodology e.g., Screened Chemistry that includes the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals methodology for substances and mixtures (including dyes and pigment), polymers as well as how to address data gaps. Results are presented in a user-friendly way, which is important in a global and complex supply chain, including stakeholders with less understanding of toxicological parameters.

Independent third-party assessment (like Scivera and Tox Services). enabling transparent and trustworthy communication about safer alternatives, avoiding green washing and ensuring full material disclosure of assessed formulations.

Protects the Intellectual Property of the chemical supplier while allowing for downstream users, such as the fashion industry, to choose safer alternatives from a hazard perspective. Acknowledgement of Screened Chemistry and similar methodologies would allow innovation of best available chemicals from a hazard perspective and create drive towards circular economy, while reducing the need for risk management and creating a safer every day for consumers and workers. It would also level the playing field, one method that everyone can use to communicate chemical hazards beyond SDS. If such a hazard assessment methodology would be acknowledged in the European definition of safe and sustainable by design, the EU chemical industry and its downstream users could act as frontrunners for safe products and chemicals in a global context. This would enable the fashion industry to make informed decisions, avoid regrettable substitution and secure safe chemical input to enable a circular economy.

Ylva Weissbach
Contact person for H&M Global Sustainability

Pascale Moreau
Contact person for H&M EU Sustainability