The recent notification from the European Commission, requiring clothing manufacturers and importers to identify, quantify and record the chemicals used in their products. These regulations came into force last June. But companies only had until 1 December to complete the pre-registration process and there are concerns that omissions will lead to delayed shipments and reduced productivity.

Concerns have been raised that some chemicals of importance to the clothing and textile industry might not have been pre-registered by the 1st December deadline of the European Union's REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) chemical control programme. Omissions could damage manufacturers' business, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has warned.

"Failure to meet this deadline means that a company cannot continue manufacturing or importing the substance until they have submitted a full registration dossier and paid the registration fee", an expensive and time consuming task. If a company's chemical supply-including dyes and scented chemicals- has not been pre-registered, then it is high time "to remind their manufacturers and importers," said ECHA in a warning note that contained this web link. To assist, ECHA had on 1 October released a list of 37, 768 chemical substances already pre-registered to help downstream users check that their supplies have been notified. The pre-registration process involves the agency being given basic information about the product which will be registered, such as a definition of the substance, how much is produced or imported (roughly), and some contact details. Pre-registered chemicals still have to be listed, but the process is relatively leisurely. This would follow adequate risk assessments, with applications due by three deadlines, according to the amount of these chemicals that a company uses. These deadlines are 30 November 2010, 31 May 2013, and 13 May2018.

Onus on chemical importers and textile manufacturers

A spokesperson for the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI) spelt out the risk with clarity: "Although the onus is on the manufacturers it is also on the first company who brings that chemical into the European Union. For those who import the chemicals, REACH could have a devastating impact on their business if they haven't pre-registered the chemicals."

The British Apparel & Textile Confederation is also concerned that a clothing and textile manufacturer might fall foul of REACH if it "decides to use a chemical product outside the intended use defined by the supplier" in its pre-registration note. If it does, "then the downstream user will have to pre-register and then produce a chemical safety portfolio, including risk exposure scenarios for both health and safety and the environment." The Confederation warned: "This registration process is ... expensive. It is, therefore in the interests of the individual processors to continue to use dyes and chemicals only in the way defined by the supplier."

Complex law

A significant problem is that REACH is very complex and comprehensive probably the most complex law devised by the EU, which is not known for its legislative simplicity and simply, a lot of companies do not fully understand its demands and duties.

The ASBCI has created a special REACH forum to help its members (from brand owners, to retailers, dye and chemical manufacturers) get a handle on the system. The forum will also try to agree an industry standard approach in dealing with REACH. ASBCI Company Secretary Stephanie Ingham said her organisation was "very aware of the extremely variable degree of understanding of REACH within its membership" and that concerns about the programme's impact have been "raised by several ASBCI members". The organisation's spokesman outlined one such area of confusion: "Items such as fabrics containing perfumes." The odours are intended to be released otherwise the item does not fulfill the intended function, but the supply chain will need to be able to demonstrate that the chemicals used to create the perfume are safe," he stressed.

Another example of difficulties was highlighted by Peter Watson, Business Support Officer for Britain's East Midlands Textiles Association. He related: "We had an enquiry from a non-member who was importing babies' hats from Bali, who was concerned about whether he needed to have the garment tested."We mentioned the REACH legislation regarding chemicals and he wasn't aware of it. This I feel may be the case with many importers, all we can do is to keep promoting knowledge of its implications to our members."


Chemicals knowledge

EU textile association Euratex has also issued practical guidance to its members. "You need to know all chemical substances your company manufactures, imports and/or uses," it advises. It says companies should use a web-based Navigator tool and REACH documents available on the official guidance website. They should then methodically create an inventory of chemicals they make, use or buy: categorising them into substances, preparations and chemicals released from items; as well as by volume and source.

Looking ahead, ECHA is preparing to embark on a tougher REACH 'authorisation' procedure for chemicals posing particular environmental health risks: termed SVHC's (substances of very high concern), and has started collating draft lists of these chemicals. It released the names of 15 candidates for these controls in October. The ASBCI spokesman said: "Many people do not yet understand what SVHC's are and the lists of these are still evolving." Thus we end up with potential scenarios where a chemical such as, for example, a brominated flame retardant may be classed as SVHC under REACH but there may be no alternatives available which are any safer at the present time or which are as effective at reducing flammability on specific types of fabric."

Originally published in The Stitch Times: December 2008