True Cost of Fast Fashion

29 08 2013

Summer has been beautiful in Seattle this year – and I’ve been taking advantage of it.  My month turned into almost two months – I just couldn’t bring myself back to the computer.  But now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

We’ve often had people question why organic sofas cost “so much” – and I’ll address that next week.  This week let’s talk about what has become known as “fast fashion” – the idea of moving the newest trends from the catwalk to the store quickly to capture the newest design trends.  And the consumers are responding:   A Cambridge University study[1] found that  people were buying a third more clothes in 2006 than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980.  And they get

rid of a similar amount.   oscar-wilde-FAST-FASHION-quotes

Fast fashion is all about having trendy, cutting-edge looks NOW  – and at bargain prices.  Brands began competing against each other for market share by introducing more lines per year at lower costs, culminating in a situation where “fashion houses now offer up to 18 collections a year’ and the low cost, so called ‘value end’ is ‘booming; doubling in size in just 5 years.”[2]

So who’s paying for this fast fashion?

Turns out we all are.

Elizabeth Cline,  author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion, once described buying a pair of shoes at Kmart:  “I remember that the shoes just smelled toxic, like there were fumes coming off of them. That made me wonder what the environmental impact of what I was doing was.”[3]

The same thing happens to me when I pick up a cute whatever and then quickly put it down when I catch its chemical-y smell. What is the fast fashion we love actually made of?

Some really bad stuff, it turns out.

Greenpeace released a report entitled Toxic Threads[4] about the chemicals found in apparel produced by major brands (such as Gap, Levis, Mango, Calvin Klein, Zara and H&M).  They tested 141 articles of clothing they bought in 29 different countries – and all the articles tested contained either phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) or azo dyes  –  and sometimes all three.  These chemicals are found in  clothing and are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin:

  • I think you know some of the health concerns regarding phthalates and hormone disruptors since there has been lots in the media about Bisphenol A (a synthetic estrogen) – surprisingly a component in textile processing.  A brand new study has linked phthalates to increased insulin resistance in teenagers, a condition that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.[5]
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of chemicals that mimic the human hormone estrogen.  NPEs are highly toxic to aquatic life, degrade into a long-lived chemical that builds up in the food chain, and may harm reproduction and development in humans.   Both the EU and Canada have passed laws regulating the use of NPEs.
  • And azo dyes can break down into amines which cause cancer – these too have been regulated in the EU and elsewhere around the world.

These chemicals were found in clothing we put on without a second thought, but they are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin – which is a permeable membrane.  Dermal contact is a major route of exposure for these chemicals.

On top of the effects to our personal health, the environment takes a beating too:  the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet, dumping untreated effluent (containing a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals) into our groundwater.  And we’re all downstream.

Garment Workers 02a (Reuters)     Most consumers still buy their clothes without thinking about the workers. Sadly, the price of cheap fashion today is slave labor and inhumane working conditions.

“Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.”[6]

A Sri Lankan factory owner interviewed by Oxfam demonstrates the pressure they are now under: “Last year the deadlines were about 90 days… [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45… They have drastically come down.”[7]

The Clean Clothes Campaign, which tries to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, describes similar instances with garment workers in China: “We have endless overtime in the peak season and we sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day.  It’s like this every day – we sew and sew without a break until our arms feel sore and stiff.”

The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in
Bangladesh in April, 2013 killed 1,129 people – and was the last in a long series of garment factory accidents that have killed over 2,000 garment workers since 2005[8].   Warnings not to use the building were ignored and workers were ordered to return or lose their jobs.  Even Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the factory:

“A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour.”

The increase in the amount of clothes people consume also has consequences for the environment. More clothing is shipped and flown from the Far East to Europe than ever before and the life cycle of these garments is decreasing.   National Geographic says that clothing represents 5% of total garbage in landfills [9]– and in North America, that’s about 68 lbs. of waste per household per year.  And if that clothing is made of synthetics, they’ll be around long, long after we’re gone, leaching their chemicals into our groundwater.  So one thing you can do to help the environment is to buy natural fibers.   Here’s a video produced by Icebreaker Merino, which shows what happens to a t-shirt made of Merino wool, after just 6 months:

The sad fact is that fast doesn’t mean free – and the costs are high.






[6] “Trading Away Our Rights”, Oxfam,  2004;





Endocrine disruptors – in fabric?

11 04 2013

jeansThis post was published about two years ago, but it’s time to re-run it, because Greenpeace has published its expose of the endocrine disruptors (APEOs and NPEOs) they found in garments produced by major fashion brands (like Levis, Zara, Calvin Klein and others). Click here to read their report.
Many chemicals used in textile processing – and elsewhere in consumer products – have been identified as “endocrine disruptors”. I never paid too much attention to “endocrine disruptors” because it didn’t sound too dire to me – I preferred to worry about something like “carcinogens” because I knew those caused cancer. I knew that endocrine disruptors had something to do with hormones, but I didn’t think that interfering with acne or my teenager’s surliness was much of a concern. Boy was I wrong.
What is an “endocrine disruptor”?
The Environmental Protection Agency defines an endocrine disruptor as an external agent that interferes in some way with the role of natural hormones in the body. (Hmm. Still doesn’t sound too bad.)
The endocrine system includes the glands (e.g., thyroid, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, or testes) and their secretions (i.e., hormones), that are released directly into the body’s circulatory system. The endocrine system controls blood sugar levels, blood pressure, metabolic rates, growth, development, aging, and reproduction. “Endocrine disruptor” is a much broader concept than the terms reproductive toxin, carcinogen, neurotoxin, or teratogen. Scientists use one or more of these terms to describe the types of effects these chemicals have on us.
How do they work? This is from The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC):

Humans and wildlife must regulate how their bodies function to remain healthy in an ever-changing environment. They do this through a complicated exchange between their nervous and endocrine systems. The endocrine systems in humans and wildlife are similar in that they are made up of internal glands that manufacture and secrete hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that move internally, start or stop various functions, and are important in determining sleep/wake cycles, stimulating or stopping growth, or regulating blood pressure. Some of the most familiar hormones in humans or wildlife are those that help determine male and female gender, as well as control the onset of puberty, maturation, and reproduction. An endocrine disruptor interferes with, or has adverse effects on, the production, distribution, or function of these same hormones. Clearly, interference with or damage of hormones could have major impacts on the health and reproductive system of humans and wildlife, although not all of the changes would necessarily be detrimental.

But why the fuss over endocrine disruptors — and why now? After all, scientists had known for over fifty years that DDT can affect the testes and secondary sex characteristics of young roosters[1]. And for almost as long, it has been well known that daughters born to women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, early in their pregnancies had a greatly increased risk of vaginal cancer. [2]
And it has been known for over 25 years that occupational exposures to pesticides could “diminish or destroy the fertility of workers.”[3]

It wasn’t until Theo Colborn, a rancher and mother of four who went back to school at age 51 to get her PhD in zoology, got a job at the Conservation Foundation and began to put the pieces together that the big picture emerged. Theo’s job was to review other scientists’ data, and she noticed that biologists investigating the effects of presumably carcinogenic chemicals on predators in and around the Great Lakes were reporting odd phenomena:

  • Whole communities of minks were failing to reproduce;
  • startling numbers of herring gulls were being born dead, their eyes missing, their bills misshapen;
  •  and the testicles of young male gulls were exhibiting female characteristics.

Often, the offspring of creatures exposed to chemicals were worse off than the animals themselves. Colborn concluded that nearly all the symptoms could be traced to things going wrong in the endocrine system.
In 1991, Colborn called together a conference, whose participants included biologists, endocrinologists and toxicologists as well as psychiatrists and lawyers, at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. They produced what become known as the “Wingspread Statement,” the core document of the endocrine-disruption hypothesis, in which these researchers concluded that observed increases in deformities, evidence of declining human fertility and alleged increases in rates of breast, testicular and prostate cancers, as well as endometriosis are the result of “a large number of man-made chemicals that have been released into the environment”.[4]
Endocrine disruption—the mimicking or blocking or suppression of hormones by industrial or natural chemicals— appeared to be affecting adult reproductive systems and child development in ways that far surpassed cancer, the outcome most commonly looked for by researchers at the time. Potential problems included infertility, genital abnormalities, asthma, autoimmune dysfunction, even neurological disorders involving attention or cognition. In one early study that Colborn reviewed, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers ate fish out of the Great Lakes. The researchers found that the children “were born sooner, weighed less, and had smaller heads” than those whose mothers hadn’t eaten the fish. Moreover, the more endocrine-disrupting chemicals that were found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2.[5]
The endocrine disruptor hypothesis first came to widespread congressional attention in 1996, with the publication of the book Our Stolen Future – by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers.[6]
In the years since the Wingspread conference, many of its fears and predictions have been fleshed out by new technologies that give a far more precise picture of the damage that these chemicals can wreak on the human body – and especially on developing fetuses, which are exquisitely sensitive to both the natural hormone signals used to guide its development, and the unexpected chemical signals that reach it from the environment.[7]
Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development.
The endocrine disruption hypothesis has also unleashed a revolution in toxicity theory. The traditional belief that “the dose makes the poison” (the belief that as the dose increases, so does the effect; as the dose decreases, so does its impact) has proven inadequate in explaining the complex workings of the endocrine system, which involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops.
Experimental data now shows conclusively that some endocrine-disrupting contaminants can cause adverse effects at low levels that are different from those caused by high level exposures. For example, when rats are exposed in the womb to 100 parts per billion of DES, they become scrawny as adults. Yet exposure of just 1 part per billion causes grotesque obesity.[8] Old school toxicology has always assumed that high dose experiments can be used to predict low-dose results. With ‘dose makes the poison’ thinking, traditional toxicologists didn’t pursue the possibility that there might be effects at levels far beneath those used in standard experiments. No health standards incorporated the possibility.
Jerry Heindel, who heads a branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) that funds studies of endocrine disruptors, said that a fetus might respond to a chemical at “one hundred-fold less concentration or more, yet when you take that chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life”. Infants may seem fine at birth, but might carry within them a trigger only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile – as is the case with DES, where exposure during fetal development doesn’t show up until maturity.
And not just the child’s life, but her children’s lives too. “Inside the fetus are germ cells that are developing that are going to be the sperm and oocytes for the next generation, so you’re actually exposing the mother, the baby, and the baby’s kids, possibly,” says Heindel.[9]
So it’s also the timing that contributes to the poison.
According to Our Stolen Future, “the weight of the evidence says we have a problem. Human impacts beyond isolated cases are already demonstrable. They involve impairments to reproduction, alterations in behavior, diminishment of intellectual capacity, and erosion in the ability to resist disease. The simple truth is that the way we allow chemicals to be used in society today means we are performing a vast experiment, not in the lab, but in the real world, not just on wildlife but on people.”
Now that I know what “endocrine disruptor” means, I’m not dismissing them any more as mere irritants.
[1] Burlington, F. & V.F. Lindeman, 1950. “Effect of DDT on testes and secondary sex
characteristics of white leghorn cockerels”. Proc. Society for Experimental Biology
and Medicine 74: 48–51.
[2] Herbst, A., H. Ulfelder, and D. Poskanzer. “Adenocarcinoma of the vagina: Association of maternal stilbestrol therapy with tumor appearance in young women,” New England Journal of Medicine, v. 284, (1971) p. 878-881.
[3] Moline, J.M., A.L. Golden, N. Bar-Chama, et al. 2000. “Exposure to hazardous substances
and male reproductive health: a research framework”. Environ. Health Perspect.
108: 1–20.
[4] Shulevitz,Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story. New York: Penguin. (1996) 316 p.
[9] Shulevitz,Judith, op. cit.