Defining luxury

29 04 2014

The most recent issue of Ecotextile News had an article about “sustainable luxury”[1] and it got me thinking.  The article asked the question whether “luxury” and “sustainability” were opposing concepts.   One would think so.

Although luxury and sustainability both focus on rarity and beauty,  both have durability at the heart of the concept.  Just look at Louis Vuitton, which provides after sale service to any genuine product of theirs, wherever it was bought.   A product  seen as “luxurious” is one of lasting worth and timeless design, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum of the fashion and mass market industry where obsolescence is locked into a product at the design stage.

But I think the concept of luxury has an added dimension today – it is more about your state of mind than the size of your wallet. These days, people define luxury by such things as a long lunch with old friends,  the good health to run a 5K, or waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want all day long.

In the past luxury was often about things.  Today, we think it’s not so much about having as it is about being knowledgeable about what you’re buying – knowing that you’re buying the best and that it’s also good for the world.  It’s also about responsibility: it just doesn’t feel OK to buy unnecessary things when people are starving and the world is becoming overheated.  It’s about products being defined by how they make you feel –  “conscious consumption” – and giving you ways to find personal meaning and satisfaction.

Luxury today is more about the one perfectly plain organic lettuce salad from the farmers market near your home than a rich meal made of food from the other side of the globe. It’s about craftsmanship, art, intimacy, and service.

We want to eliminate the guilt of our throwaway culture. Things we buy should be produced in ways that, at the very least, do no harm, and that either biodegrade or are infinitely recyclable – or they should exhibit the timeless aesthetics and natural qualities that make them heirlooms to be passed down to future generations. This is exactly what we at O Ecotextiles have committed ourselves to providing.

Our designs are classic and therefore timeless, and our choice of natural fabrics respects a time-honored tradition.

By protecting our planet, and the flora and fauna it supports, we are assured of being able to live with linen sheets, silk velvet upholstery and pure hemp draperies – forever.  The fibers are eternal; how we choose to weave and color them varies by designer and is part of the colorful history of design.

We want to make sure the fibers endure.

 Once you start tinkering with the ecosystem it’s not possible to concentrate on one static facet, since we live in an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy. Everything has an intrinsic pattern which in turn is part of a greater pattern and all of it is in flux. To bring a sense of order out of this chaotic concept, let’s concentrate on water:

Water was not included in the 1947 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights because at the time it wasn’t perceived as having a human rights dimension. Yet today, water is becoming controlled by corporate interests, and what is known as the global water justice movement is working hard to ensure the right to water as a basic human right.[2] Our global supply of fresh water is diminishing – 2/3 of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN.

With no controls in place to speak of to date, there are now 405 dead zones in our oceans.  Drinking water even in industrialized countries, with treatment in place, nevertheless yields a list of toxins when tested – many of them with no toxicological roadmap.

The textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet. Now that virtual or “embedded” water tracking is becoming necessary in evaluating products, people are beginning to understand the concept when we say it takes 500 gallons of water to make the fabric to cover one sofa.  We want people to become aware that when they buy anything, and fabric especially, they reinforce the manufacturing processes used to produce it.

This is a complex subject and trying to map and analyze it often produces inconsistent and unreliable data. The only sure thing we know is that we have to change – the faster the better.

 We want our customers to depend on us to sell fabrics that do no harm… to them, their families or our world. Our company was founded on that bedrock – each and every fabric has met these standards.

Concurrently, we committed to showing our warts too – it’s complicated and difficult to follow these standards, so we would tell customers if and when we failed at any point and why. We want to empower consumers by providing as much information as they want to absorb.

Given a cursory glance, our fabrics may look like many others on the market. But like Antoine de Saint Exupery said in The Little Prince, “What is essential is often invisible to the eye”. One of our sales reps tells her clients to smell the fabrics! There is no synthetic smell – in fact some smell like new mown hay.  So although you can find other fabrics that may look like ours, when you buy  25 yards of fabric  from O Ecotextiles you’re also buying, at the very least, better health:   your body will not have had to deal with the many chemicals used in processing (which remain in the fabric) – chemicals which have been proven to cause harm (remember Erin Brokovich?).  If you choose a GOTS certified fabric, you also get:

  • Clean air and water:  approximately 500 gallons of chemically-infused effluent was prevented from entering your ecosystem and the troublesome chemicals which evaporate into the air in your homes and offices is eliminated ;
  • A better environment:  soils used to grow the fibers have been renewed rather than depleted, and in the growing of the fibers you’ve conserved water, mitigated climate change and ensured biodiversity.

And – most importantly –  you’re using your purchasing power to put these changes into place!

 

[1] Ravasio, Dr. Pamela, “Sustainable luxury: impossible paradox, or inherent synergy?”, Ecotextile News, February/March 2014

[2] Barlow, Maude, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming Battle for the Right to Water, October 2007

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Global Recycle Standard update

1 05 2012

Textile Exchange, which administers the new Global Recycle Standard, has introduced what it says is a “minor but important” change in GRS version 2.1, according to the April/May 2012 issue of Ecotextile News.  (If you’re wondering what the Global Recycle Standard is all about, please see our blog post on the subject:  click here .)

The new change removes the allowance for the use of pre-industrial waste.  The Version 2.1 will only recognize pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.  This change was made because the Textile Exchange has determined that pre-industrial waste does not meet the Federal Trade Commission requirement for recycled input – which is that in order to be considered a recycled input, it must have been diverted from the waste stream.  An example of such pre-industrial waste that does not meet the criteria for being diverted from the waste stream is that of short cotton fibers which fall out of cotton during the spinning process;  the fibers are scooped up and re-introduced into the spinning process.  In terms of polyester, an example would be that of a manufacturer collecting plastic pellets that have spilled onto the manufacturing floor, washing them and then feeding them directly back into the same manufacturing process without reprocessing.

Both of these examples are considered an efficient manufacturing procedure and standard industry practice, not recycling.

Interpreting these pre-consumer recycled content claims can get very specific and technical.  Underwriters Laboratory has published a handy White Paper entitled  “Interpreting Pre-Consumer Recycled Content Claims: Philosophy and Guidance on Environmental Claims for Pre-Consumer Recycled Materials”.(1)

The new GRS standard becomes effective June 1, 2012.  All companies being newly certified to the GRS will be required to use the new GRS v.2.1, while companies with existing GRS v2 certification will be able to maintain their current status until the end of the validity date of their certification.

Textile Exchange is currently working on Version 3 of the GRS, and they say it will be more stringent than the current version, with further refining of definitions for inputs that can be claimed as recycled input and additional requirements for chemical inputs.

(1)  http://greenerul.com/pdf/ULE_whitepaper_July2010.pdf





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”.