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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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.


[1] http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/well-dressed

[2] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[3] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[4]http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/Water%202012/ToxicThreads01.pdf

[5] http://www.livescience.com/38970-bpa-phthalates-teen-health.html

[6] “Trading Away Our Rights”, Oxfam,  2004; http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/rights.pdf

[7] http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/fast-fashion-cheap-fashion

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/20/world/asia/bangladesh-inside-garment-factory

[9] http://www.charterrecycling.com/recycling-facts





Environmental concerns, textiles and fast fashion

12 12 2012

I went to the stores this week, looking for presents (as it’s the season), and was bombarded with slogan after slogan of companies trying to make their product stand out from the crowd.   It made me think  about  the journey I’ve personally taken since founding O Ecotextiles – going from somebody who was totally clueless, to having an exquisitely sensitive slant to environmental concerns regarding textiles.  And now I talk every day to people who I realize are at the place I was seven years ago.  Bridging the gap between what Steven Bland says are those who are climbing the mountain, and those who haven’t even heard of the mountain is maybe the hardest part. As he says, “the reality is that the core messages and realities of sustainable development are often lost in a sea of ‘greenwash’ and climate-change frenzy”.  “We have a fully GOTS certified fabric for upholstery” I say, excitedly.  The response?  Blank faces (or silence over the phone), or “what’s GOTS?”  Explaining the concept behind GOTS (including my belief that the chemicals in the fabrics are subtly altering us), while staying positive, has been difficult.

So in this optimistic season, it’s important to remember to remain positive as we climb.  Here are some important concepts to remember as we go forward:

  1. Remember the importance of optimism. The catastrophic and  negative portrayals of the environmental movement have desensitized people to many environmental issues. The number of people who deny that human  activity causes climate change is growing, not diminishing. How do we  create a positive vision of the future, whilst convincing people of the  scale and urgency of the problem at hand?
  2.  Adopt systems  thinking.  Steven Bland, writing in Forum for the Future puts it this way:  “Are Christmas trees sustainable, I ask myself, as I wrap them in  plastic netting which I fear could end up in the stomach of some  unfortunate seabird.”   Truly  understanding the sustainability of the humble Christmas tree has less to  do with netting and more about the systems with which the tree interacted  and was a part. What effect did growing have on local ecological systems?  Were the people who trimmed them into shape paid a living wage? And how did this impact local societies?  The importance of systems thinking involves  seeing the forest, in spite of the trees. Creating a more just and  prosperous future will require us to change the way we think fundamentally.”[1]
  3. Remember to push on with those things that make business  sense in finding some responses to climate change:  responding to this constraint can drive  game-changing innovation.  Learn to win with sustainability.  As Zac Goldsmith says,  “We have to rewrite  the rules so that the market, which for so long has been an engine of  unsustainable, colossal destruction, becomes a force for good. The market  is the most powerful force for change, other than nature itself. And there  are so many signs that it can be transformed, so many examples: if you make  waste a liability, waste is minimized; if you put a value on something,  it’s valued. It’s really very simple: we free the market to do what it’s  best at, but change the parameters in which it operates…you simply need to take the best of today and turn  it into the norm of tomorrow. If you did that in every sector, we would be  there. Yes the problem is formidable, it’s huge, it’s off the scale. But  it’s not so big that we can’t deal with it.”[2]   A market-based, fee-and-dividend program for carbon emissions, for      example,  could have an impact by  charging polluters for emitting carbon into the atmosphere, yet it seems  unlikely that such measures will have the regulatory teeth they need. The  rapidly spreading method of fossil fuel extraction known as fracking, for  instance, is already exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory.

What are you wearing right now? No peeking at the label  –  do you know what it’s made of, who manufactured it and where? And how do you think your answers might be different in 15 years’ time?

Clothing is ripe for some futures thinking. There are thorny issues like water and pesticide use in cotton fields;  residual chemicals in the fabrics we live with and the water used to produce them; massive challenges over worker conditions (the recent fire in a Bangladesh factory made news in the West this time, unlike many others which didn’t) and wages in production; and lengthy supply chains that criss-cross the world and navigate tit-for-tat protectionism. And there’s the small matter of consumer power: a cool trillion dollars worldwide is spent on clothes by consumers, whose demands change faster than the models’ outfits on a catwalk.

Society’s fascination with ‘fast fashion’ is emerging as a hot topic. Critics argue that this high-turnover industry is fundamentally unsustainable: cheap and cheerful goods are worn one day and thrown away the next.  Fashion Futures is aiming to discover how behavioral changes or new technologies can create a different future.  Supported by Levi Strauss & Co, they’re exploring various possible worlds for the global apparel industry in 2025.  Here’s a YouTube video about Fashion Futures: