Can you find out what’s in your fabric?

28 03 2013

I was one of those people who thought that manufacturers were not “allowed” to sell me any product that contained something that might harm me. As I quickly learned, that’s basically not true in the United States – especially with respect to fabrics. The EU is light years ahead of the US with their REACH program, designed to replace the most harmful chemicals with less toxic alternatives, but even that program focuses only on only the most high volume chemicals used in industry.
Let me just remind you why knowing what chemicals are used for processing your fabrics is important:
Because fabrics – all fabrics – are by weight about 25% finishing chemicals (i.e. dyes, finishes, softeners, etc.) And because the textile industry uses over 2000 chemicals routinely, how do we know the mix in the fabrics we’re living with are safe?
Well, you can ask the store where you’re buying the sheets or shirts – but they’ll probably look at you blankly.
You can demand information from the manufacturer. But often they don’t know the answers. To illustrate why this is, let’s take one example. Let’s pretend we’re a mill and we have just woven an organic cotton fabric, and we want to dye it. We can choose from many dyes, but settle on one called “Matisse Derivan” manufactured by Derivan Fabric Dye. Because dyes are made up of many chemicals, and because they’re proprietary, it’s next to impossible to find out what is in the particular dye you’re buying. So you might think the MSDS sheet would give us the information.
MSDS sheets are sometimes used to substantiate the “safety” of a chemical product by requiring the listing of chemical components by CAS number, which is a unique numeric identifier of a chemical substance which links to a wealth of information about that chemical. But the reality is that many of the chemicals used in industry (textile or otherwise) have never been evaluated for toxicity, and therefore in the toxicity evaluation there is no data to refer to. In addition, proprietary components do not need to be listed. So the sheets have inaccurate or missing information. According to a 2008 study, between 30 – 100% of products analyzed contained chemicals not declared on an MSDS.(1)
The MSDS sheet for Matisse Derivan (click here to see the sheet) for example, lists these substances in the composition of the dye:

SUBSTNACE                                   CAS NUMBER

  • Pigments                                             Various
  • water-based acrylic co-polymer      Proprietary
  • surfactants, dispersants, etc.           Various
  • ammonia                                             1336-21-6
  • water

In looking at an MSDS sheet, you might also find that any hazard classification or risk phase has “not been established” and “the toxicological properties of this product have not been thoroughly investigated”, or the hazard classification might be identified as “non hazardous” according to various codes, such as the TSCA. These codes are woefully inadequate as is now known (click here for more information) so to say that a chemical is non hazardous according to a code that dismisses all chemicals for which there is no data – well, you can see the problem.
There is also a lack of enforceable quality criteria, probably one of the reasons the sheets are of such poor quality.
Because testing has been done to establish wastewater criteria, some studies have shown what types of chemicals are found in textile wastewater from dyes, such as one which found benzidine, vinyl-p-base and 4-aminoazobenzene – all quite toxic.(2)
Once you get the information on the dyestuff used you’re one chemical component down  – and maybe 20 to go, because in most fabrics these functional areas also require chemical treatments:
Textile auxiliaries (such as complexing, wetting, sequestering, dispering agents; emulsifiers), textile chemicals (dyes, dye-protective, fixing, leveling agents; pH regulators, carriers, UV absorbers); finishes (stain, odor, wrinkle resistance).
And finally, even if you were able to find out which particular chemicals are used in a product, it’s possible that you won’t know what you’re looking at. For example, most everyone knows to avoid formaldehyde, but manufactures can legally use over 30 different trade names for formaldehyde, such as:
• Formalin
• Quaternium-15
• Methanal
• Methyl Aldehyde
• Methylene Oxide
• Oxymethylene
• Bfv
• Fannoform
• Formol
• Fyde
• Karsan
• Methaldehyde
• Formalith
• Methylene Glycol
• Ivalon
• Oxomethane


(2)  Rehorek, A and Plum, A; Characterization of sulfonated azo dyes and aromatic amines by pyrolysis gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; Analitical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, Aug 2007; 388(8): 1653-62.


Toxic Baby

13 06 2012

Since I’ve managed to figure out how to embed videos in the blog, I can’t seem to help showing you some of the most electrifying clips I’ve seen.  This is one of them – please watch it!

Filmmaker Penelope Jagessar Chaffer was curious about the chemicals she was exposed to while pregnant: Could they affect her unborn child?

Ms.  Chaffer won her first British Academy Award Nomination for her BBC4 debut, Me and My Dad, followed by Shakespeare’s Stories for the BBC, for which she received a BAFTA nomination.

It was her question about the effects of chemicals on her unborn child which led to her production of the  documentary/surrealist film Toxic Baby.   Today she works to bring to light the issue of  environmental chemical pollution and its effect on babies and children.

In working on the film, she worked with scientist Tyrone Hayes, an expert on amphibians at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is a critic of atrazine (a herbicide used on corn), which he has found to interfere with the development of frog endocrine systems.

Onstage together at TEDWomen, Hayes and Chaffer tell their story.  It’s stunningly disturbing.

How to buy safe fabric

24 02 2012

Design decisions influence our health.  Our children start life with umbilical cords infused with chemicals that affect the essence of human life itself  –   the ability to learn, reason and reproduce.  Google’s project coordinator for real estate, Anthony Ravitz, said that Google is trying to use safe building materials because:

  • By focusing on the “health and vitality” of their employees, they can avoid illness
  • –  because healthcare is costly.

One of the presenters at last year’s Living Building Challenge, inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules,  shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products. 

These rules apply to all products, including fabrics, so I’ve just edited them a bit to be fabric specific:

  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
  • If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
  • Pay more, use less.
  • Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
  • If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (note: this is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or formaldehyde in the finish?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.

Global Recycle Standard

9 09 2011

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A  and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle.   Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise,  recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers.   So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.

We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here or here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics.  All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.  Even though the mantra has been “divert from the landfill”, what do they mean?  Divert to where?

But the reality is that polyester bottles exist,  and recycling some of them  into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.

Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips (sometimes called flakes).

PET resin chips

These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester,  and  and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.

Polyester yarn

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets  – we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from.  So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or  it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the  process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.  Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.

Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers.  Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester.  But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.

What does that mean?    It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things.  In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.

It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?  The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden.

And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case?

There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions.

And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow.  This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch.  There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives.  If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post-consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns,  such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important.  There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.  According to Ecotextile News, this is due (at least in part) to lack of import legislation for recycled goods.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  This would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring, all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap, so those manufacturer’s wouldn’t be expected to increase costs.

There are also private standards which have begun to pop up, in an effort to differentiate their brands.  One fiber supplier which has gone the private standard route is Unifi.   Repreve™ is the name of Unifi’s recycled polyester – the company produces recycled polyester yarns, and (at least for the filament yarns) they have Scientific Certification Systems certify that Repreve™ yarns are made with 100% recycled content.  Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain  to verify that if Repreve is in a product it’s present in the amounts claimed.  But there are still  many unanswered questions (because they’re  considered “proprietary information” by Unifi)  so the process is not transparent.

But now, Ecotextile News’s  suggestion has become a reality.   There is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange),  is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  •  There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system:

  • Gold standard –  products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;
  • Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;
  • Bronze standard –  products  have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice  when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.

New LEED Pilot Credits for chemical avoidance

16 03 2011

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been told:  “I’ve been an interior designer for (insert number of years here) and in all that time, not one person has ever asked for a “green” fabric!” Or the popular variation:  “my clients don’t care about “green”.   The implication, of course, is that I’m barking up the wrong tree in thinking anybody would ever consider “green” as a valid criteria when buying fabric.  Color – check.  Price – check.  Abrasion rating – check.  But “green”?

Well, if you can’t be altruistic about your purchase, then let’s simply look at what your fabric choices are doing to you and your family.  “Green” should really read as “safe”, because conventional fabrics are filled with process chemicals, many of which are outlawed in other products.  Right now the chemicals in your fabrics are contributing to changes that are taking place in your body.  You can’t see those changes, because they are subtle and insidious:  maybe headaches (especially when you draw the drapes at night); maybe sensitization to some new chemicals is giving you a runny nose.  Or maybe a cascading series of changes is taking place in your body and putting a more  dire outcome into play – cancerous tumors, or Parkinsons disease.  And studies are proving that these chemicals affect unborn babies and infants in much more egregious ways.

China exports fabric to the United States that would be outlawed in China – or in Japan or the European Union [1] – because of the chemicals contained in that fabric.  Americans don’t have a safety net protecting them from these chemical incursions.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found toxic chemicals in the bodies of virtually all Americans:  the most recent report on Americans exposure to environmental chemicals, July 2010 [2], listed 212 chemicals in people’s blood or urine – 75 of which have never before been been measured.   Some of these are linked to increases in prostate and breast cancers, diabetes, heart disease, lowered sperm counts, early puberty and other diseases and disorders – but the really scary thing is that we have no idea what most of the chemicals are doing to us because they’ve never been tested.

In the interest of fairness and letting you make up your own mind, I have seen some articles which refer to this concern about the many industrial chemicals which are seeping into our bodies as “chemophobia”.  “They” say that this so called “chemophobia” is both wrong and counterproductive (see but I think their arguments are the same old saw: “the amount of what is considered toxic is found in such minute quantities that it’s not doing anybody any harm”.   I challenge you to check the rates of increase of certain health issues – even the development of new ones, such as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) – and feel confident that we are entirely safe.   Or better yet,  take a look at what happened in Toms River, N.J. where the Ciba Geigy corporation dumped over 4,500 drums of contaminated waste into one farm (now a Superfund site) and, beginning in 1952, dumped effluent directly into the Toms River.  The children of Toms River developed statistically higher averages for cancers – particularly female children – than the rest of the nation.  The Dover Township landfill was declared a public health hazard.  But do the research yourself and see where you stand on the divide.  And if you’re REALLY interested, check out The Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir by Susanne Antonetta, who happened to grow up in this area (read a review here.)

But before I go entirely off subject onto a diatribe about our toxic ignorance, what I really want to write about are the new LEED pilot credits which reward precautionary action for chemical avoidance:

  • Pilot Credit 2 tries to reduce the use (and hence release) of persistent bioacumulative toxic chemicals, including the use of PVC, Neoprene, and all brominated or halogenated flame retardants, such as PBDEs.
  • Pilot Credit 11 tries to reduce the quantity of indoor contaminants that are “harmful to the comfort and well-being of installers and occupants”, including halogenated flame retardants and phthalates.

Bill Walsh, Executive Director of  the Healthy Building Network, wrote a review of these new pilot credits in January 2011.  His article, quoted below, might give some of the people, who don’t consider “green” and “safe” when buying fabric, something to think about:

Last year the USGBC introduced two new Pilot Credits that reward precautionary action, the avoidance of certain classes of chemicals in the face of mounting evidence that they present significant threats to human health.[3] Industry trade groups fought these measures as they fight all chemical regulation, with the argument that restrictions or disincentives against chemical use must be based upon “sound science” that proves the connection between a specific chemical and a specific health problem beyond a shadow of a doubt. But due to a catch-22 in current US law, the EPA must prove potential risk or widespread exposure before it can get the data it needs to determine the extent of hazard, exposure or risk.[4] If we want to make green buildings healthy buildings, merely following the law will lead us in circles.

To fully appreciate the importance of precautionary measures such as the LEED Pilot Credits, consider the failure of the chemical industry’s voluntary effort to provide EPA with information about High Production Volume (HPV) chemicals – chemicals produced or imported into the US at volumes in excess of 1 million pounds per year. In the early 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council found that 78% of the chemicals in highest-volume commercial use had not had even “minimal” toxicity testing.[5] Thirteen years later, a comprehensive report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found no significant improvement: “even the most basic toxicity testing results cannot be found in the public record for nearly 75% of the top-volume chemicals in commercial use.”[6]

In 1998, multiple studies by federal government agencies confirmed that the government lacked basic data needed to understand and characterize the potential hazards associated with HPV chemicals.[7] There are roughly 3,000 such chemicals. “Most Americans would assume that basic toxicity testing is available and that all chemicals in commerce today are safe… This is not a prudent assumption,” said one review. [8] An EPA review could find no safety information for more than half of them, and complete data for only 7 percent. Additionally, EDF reported, there are tens of thousands of non-HPV chemicals that remain to be addressed, which likely have even larger data gaps than were found for HPV chemicals.[9]

These findings prompted the EPA to swing into action – voluntary action. The High Production Volume Chemical Challenge of 1998 invited American industries to “sponsor” HPV chemicals and voluntarily provide health and safety data in lieu of regulatory action. More than 2,200 chemicals were eventually “sponsored,” but ten years later, in 2008, the EPA still had no data on more than half of them. Of the data sets it had received from industry, fewer than half were complete, according to EDF, an original sponsor of the program.

On January 5, 2011, the EPA finally took regulatory action. It will require testing of just “19 of the many hundreds of HPV chemicals on the market today for which even the most basic, ‘screening level’ hazard data are not publicly available.”[10]

The Dow Chemical Company calls the program “a tremendous success.”[11] An investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal deemed it “a failure.”[12] Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at EDF and one of the most knowledgeable independent experts on the program calls it “a perfect poster child for what’s wrong” with federal chemical regulations.[13]

Efforts to reform the major US law regulating chemical production, the Toxic Substances Control Act, are underway but are unlikely to make it through the Republican controlled House of Representatives. In the meantime, despite the data gaps, it is possible to make responsible, healthier choices based upon the best available evidence. The new LEED Pilot Credits help you make those choices and remove tons of toxic chemicals from our buildings, our bodies and our environment. Take your first step toward earning these credits with LEEDuser, and easily find products that qualify for the credits using the Pharos online system.

That will protect us at work – but there is still nothing to protect you at home.

[3] The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle summarizes the principle this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” The US Green Building Council Guiding Principle #4 states: The USGBC will be guided by the precautionary principle in utilizing technical and scientific data to protect, preserve and restore the health of the global environment, ecosystems.

[4] Richard Denison, Environmental Defense Fund. “A Near Sisyphusian Task; EPA Soldiers On to Require More Testing Under TSCA.” 1/5/11. sisyphusian-task-epa-soldiers-on-to-require-more-testing-under-tsca/

[5] Environmental Defense Fund. “Toxic Ignorance: The Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-Selling Chemicals in the United States.” 1997, p.11.

[6]Environmental Defense Fund. “Toxic Ignorance: The Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-Selling Chemicals in the United States.” 1997, p.11.

[7] Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust. “EPA fails to collect chemical safety data.” JS Online. 8/4/08.

[8] Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust. “EPA fails to collect chemical safety data.” JS Online. 8/4/08.

[9] Environmental Defense Fund. “High Hopes, Low Marks: A Final Report Card on the High Production Volume Chemical Challenge.” p.30. 2007.

[10] Denison, op. cit. Note that EPA has initiated another rulemaking targeting another 29 chemicals.

[12] Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust. “EPA fails to collect chemical safety data.” JS Online. 8/4/08.

[13] Denison, op. cit.

What to do about salt?

16 02 2011

Last week we talked about the use of salt in textile dyeing.  We always say the textile industry uses a LOT of three resources: water, chemicals and energy.  The use of salt (a chemical – benign, essential for life, but a chemical nevertheless) bumps up the other two considerably.   And though the salt itself is not expensive, using less salt delivers substantial benefits to the mill because the fabric requires less rinsing in hot water (and hence reductions in energy and water) as well as cost savings of up to 10% of the total process costs.[1] So we promised to look at options available to avoid salt.

To recap:

When fabrics made of cotton, linen, hemp or viscose are dyed,  they’re immersed in water which contains dyes which have been dissolved in the water.   These dye chemicals are usually reactive dyes which require  the addition of salt  to “push” the dyes out of solution and into the cloth.  The salt acts like a glue to hold the dye molecules in place.  But the percentage of dye that moves from the dye bath into the fiber, and permanently bonds with the fiber (called the fixation rate) is very low.  For conventional reactive dyes, the fixation rate is often less than 80%, resulting in waste of dyestuff, and also the need to remove that 20% from the fabric.[2] But this is incredibly difficult when the “unreacted” dyes are still “glued” onto the fabric by salt.  So vast amounts of water are required  to simply dilute the salt concentrations to a point where it no longer acts as glue.

There are a few things that mill owners can do:  simple process optimization can easily reduce salt concentrations in dyebaths by 10 to 15%.  Another simple method is to reduce liquor ratios (which is simply the ratio of water to fabric in a dyeing process).  It’s easy to see that using 10 gallons of 100 oz/gal of salt uses less salt than using 5 gallons of 100 oz/gal of salt.

There are also some “low salt” dyes that have appeared on the market.  These dyestuffs  require less “glue” to fix to the fibers.  Ciba Specialty Chemicals, a Swiss manufacturer of textile dyes (now part of BASF) produces a dyestuff which requires less salt.  As the company brochure puts it:  “ Textile companies using the new dyes are able toreduce their costs for salt by up to 2 percent of revenues, a significant drop in an industry withrazor-thin profit margins.”  However,  we’re told they’re not used because of uncompetetitive pricing.  (Remember, it’s all about the cost!).

Another alternative is to recycle the salt.  The effluent can be cleaned and the salt recovered through an energy intensive process to evaporate the water.  But the carbon footprint takes a beating.

We’re back to square one: to use less salt.

And that usually means we have to look to the dyeing machines.  There are low-liquor-ratio (LLR) jet dyeing mcahines that are based on the principle of accelerating water through a nozzle to transport fabrics through the machine.  They are designed to operate efficiently and at high quality with a very low ratio of water to material.  Although these types of machines have been used for over 40 years, recent technological advances have reduced water requirements so that liquor ratios of 8:1 and even 4:1 are possible, with average water consumption of less than 50 liters per kilogram of knit fabric.  Yet there is still salt infused effluent which must be treated.  And these new ultra low liquor ratio machines are very expensive.

What about using no salt at all?

There are two ways to dye fabrics without salt:  “continuous dyeing” and “cold pad batch dyeing”.  Continuous dyeing means that the dye is applied with alkali to activate the dye fixation; the fabric is then steamed for a few minutes to completely fix the dyestuff.  Cold pad batch dyeing applies the dyestuff with alkali and the fabric is simply left at room temperature for 24 hours to fix the dye.

Both of these methods don’t use salt, so the unfixed dye chemicals are easier to remove because there is no salt acting as the “glue” – and therefore less water is used.  And an additional benefit is having a lower salt content in the effluent.

So why don’t companies use this method?  Continuous dyeing requires investment in big, expensive machines that only make environmental sense if they can be filled with large orders – because they use lots of energy even during downtime.

Cold pad batch machines are relatively inexpensive to buy and run, they are highly productive and can be used for a wide range of fabrics.  Yet only 3% of knitted cotton fabric is dyed in Asia using cold pad batch machines.

Why on earth don’t these mills use cold pad batch dyeing?  I would love to hear from any mill owners who might let us know more about the economics of dyeing operations.

[1] “A Practical Guide For Responsible Sourcing”, The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), February 2010.

What do you get when you hire an interior designer?

3 11 2010

I just came from showing our fabrics to a well-known interior design firm here in Seattle.   We were told that the only criteria they use to pick fabrics is that it must be beautiful – and of the right color.    Environmental and safety issues are just NOT part of the equation.

The visit was not completely a disaster because they did show interest in some of our fabrics – based solely on the beauty and coloration.  But I’ve been thinking since then about the responsibility  designers have to provide interiors for their clients which are not only beautiful, but which will not cause harm.  I know people don’t really want to think that the cute baby blanket they’re eyeing will cause a genetic malformation in their little one – or that a chemical in that blanket  will spark a cancer that only shows up 20 years from now.  So it’s easy to ignore the problem.

On top of the goal of making their client’s interior spaces safe, there is the additional problem of what THEIR choices do me and MY family – because by choosing certain fabrics they’re  ensuring that those fabrics will continue to be produced:  those choices ensure that the textile effluent is still being poured into my groundwater, and the sludge is still sent to the landfill, where it leaches the chemicals into the soils and groundwater.

Designers can continue to ignore the misery their choices may cause – at least for now.  But I think we should know what they’re doing, so I did a quick study to see what kind of effect fabric may have on us and the planet.

Let’s assume a designer orders fabric to cover one sofa, two chairs and enough fabric for drapery in a living room.  We’ll assume the amount of fabric needed would be:

  • 20 yards of upholstery fabric for the sofa, and 7 yards for each of the chairs:  34 yards of  fabric which weighs18 oz per square yard and is 54” wide (total weight: 57.4 lbs);
  • 40 yards of drapery weight fabric at 10 oz per square yard, 54” wide (total weight: 37.5 lbs).

It takes between 13 – 14 gallons of water to produce one pound of natural fiber fabric, and it takes between 6 – 8 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of polyester fabric.

If we use the 8 gallon figure which is at the top of the polyester range but low for natural fibers, the total amount of water used to produce this fabric would have been at least 759 gallons.  To put that in perspective, there are about 300 gallons in a large hot tub.

Consider that it takes between 10% and 100% of the weight of the fabric  IN CHEMICALS to produce that fabric – for detergents, bleaches, dyes, finishes, scours, optical brighteners, wetting agents, biocides – the list is at least 2,000 chemicals long.   But to be a tad conservative,  let’s say it takes just 50% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce the fabrics for our room.   If the process water (from sizing, desizing, scouring, dyeing, printing and finishing)  was returned to our ecosystem without treatment – that means that 47 pounds of chemicals will have been introduced into our ecosystem.  Most of the process chemicals are not toxic to us, but remember the concept of reactive chemistry:  many of the chemicals used, though benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which is toxic.  This reaction can occur during the production of the fibers (in the case of synthetics), during the manufacturing process, or at end of life (i.e., burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading).

But there are chemicals used in processing which are toxic – just as they are.  Some of the chemicals expelled in the wastewater DO pose a threat to my health – and that list includes (but is not limited to):

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) , known to cause damage to the brains of newborns (among many other things); they’re persistent and bioaccumulative;
  • Benzenes and benzidines:  highly carcinogenic
  • Phthalates:          known to cause breast  cancer and asthma
  • Arsenic:                carcinogen
  • Lead:                     attacks the nervous system
  • Mercury:             attacks the immune system, alters genetic data and damages nervous system
  • Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite):                  hormonal disruption, infertility and immune system suppression.

These chemicals are all dumped into our environment every day.   Remember, as David Suzuki reminds us, we ARE the environment.  What is “out there” inevitably is found inside us.  That’s why PBDE’s (which are persistent in the environment – meaning they don’t break down into benign, less toxic components)  are found in animals worldwide, from penguins in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the tropics – and levels have been doubling every 3 to 5 years for the past three decades.   (you can read more about PBDE’s and the furniture in your homes here ).  We are silently and progressively changing the chemistry of our bodies.

And lest you think you can ignore what unscrupulous mill practices are doing to our environment by discharging untreated effluent – remember that the fabric you bring into your home and live with intimately  is also suffused with these chemicals.  Everybody is concerned about “outgassing” – the media is full of information about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  But air quality is just one component of a healthy environment.  Not all chemicals volatilize, so they do not “outgass” – but are certainly toxic nevertheless.  Take lead, for example – a component of many dyestuffs, lead is not a gas at room temperature so it does not “outgass”.  But microscopic particles of your fabric do abrade when you rub against them, and these particles settle into the dust in our homes, to be breathed in by crawling kids and pets.

And designers are hired, presumably, for their expertise.   The designer should not be a mindless  agent following a vision without regard to function or use.  Theoretically, the designer has a body of knowledge that is deeper than the client’s, so an ethical burden is placed on the designer.  The client can plead ignorance of the issues but the designer cannot.  According to Daniel Yang,  good design seeks to foster the client’s trust, then fulfills or exceeds her expectations.  Designers should advocate for a better design while striving to make the best product they can for their clients.  But how can a product be considered “good” if it compromises that clients health and well being?  Daniel Yang points out that it’s hard to advocate for a product when the people that end up consuming the product will probably never come back to complain – as is the case with fabrics.

So I wish I could go back to those designers who look only at color and aesthetics and point out that their thoughtless choice are harming not only their clients, but me and my family – all of us.  And that they should consider these questions if they want to save their professional souls –  or to save their professional license,  as many are suggesting that the law might  soon mandate that designers consider the public welfare when specifying products.