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

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Wool

9 06 2010

When we talk about wool, we almost always mean the fiber from sheep, although the term “wool” can be applied to the hair of other mammals including cashmere and mohair from goats, vicuna, alpaca and camel from animals in the camel family and angora from rabbits.

As with many discoveries of early man, anthropologists believe the use of wool came out of the challenge to survive – Neolithic man used pelts from animals to keep warm.

Sheep (Ovis aries) were first domesticated 10 000 years ago.  The British sought to protect their own wool industry during the eighteenth century, and passed laws requiring native English wool be used – for example, judges, professors, and students were required to  wear robes made of English wool. Another law required that the dead be buried in native wool. When the American colonies began to compete with the motherland, the English passed a series of laws in an attempt to protect their “golden fleece.” One law even threatened the amputation of the hand of any colonist caught trying to improve the blood line of American sheep.

Today, wool is a global industry, with Australia, Argentina, the United States, and New Zealand serving as the major suppliers of raw wool – but wool is produced worldwide in about 100 countries on half a million farms.   Wool producers range from small farmers to large scale grazing operations.  While the United States is the largest consumer of wool fabric, Australia is the leading supplier. Australian wool accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world’s production.

The annual global output is now estimated at 2.2 billion pounds, yet wool represents less than 5 percent of the world consumption of fibers. Wool is an expensive fiber to produce and process.  Though cotton is the number one plant used for fabrics and the number one natural fiber overall, the number one source for animal fiber is still wool.

Two terms one often sees are Merino and worsted.  The main difference between them is that Merino pertains to the type of fiber while worsted pertains to the process the fibers go through:

Merino is a term used in the textile industry which has varied meanings:  originally it meant wool made from a specific breed of sheep:  the Merino.  Merino sheep are regarded as having some of the finest and softest wool of any sheep: it is finely crimped and soft, fibers are commonly 65 – 100 mm (2.5 – 4 inches) long and generally less than 24 microns in diameter.

But now the term has broader use and may pertain to an article which just contains some percentage of wool from Merino sheep – or even just a fine wool and cotton yarn!  The Australian Wool Testing Authority Ltd is trying to institute a definition for Merino wool, citing fiber diameter and comfort factors.

The essential feature of a worsted yarn is its long, straight fibers which lie parallel to each other, the result of having been both carded AND combed.

So yes, you can have Merino worsted wools!

THE FIBER:

In scientific terms, wool is considered to be a protein called keratin. Its length usually ranges from 1.5 to 15 inches (3.8 to 38 centimeters) depending on the breed of sheep. Fiber diameter ranges from 16 microns in superfine merino wool (similar to cashmere) to more than 40 microns in coarse hairy wools.  Wool has several qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: it is crimped (meaning it has waves),  it has a different texture or handle, it is  elastic, and it grows in staples (clusters).

Each wool fiber is made up of three essential components: the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla.

  • The cuticle is the outer layer. It is a protective layer of scales arranged like shingles or fish scales.   They are sometimes described as little “barbs” because it’s the points of the scales that give wool the reputation for being prickly.
    • When two fibers come in contact with each other, these scales tend to cling and stick to each other. It’s this physical clinging and sticking that allows wool fibers to be spun into thread so easily.  And it’s also what causes the fiber to interlock – or felt.   See below for more information on this.

    Scales on a wool fiber under electron microscope

  • The cortex is the inner structure made up of millions of cigar-shaped cortical cells. The arrangement of these cells is responsible for the natural crimp unique to wool fiber.  The amount of crimp corresponds to the fineness of the wool fibers.  A fine wool like Merino may have up to 100 crimps per inch, while the coarser wools may have as few as 1 to 2. Hair, by contrast, has little if any scales and no crimp, and little ability to bind into yarn.  Its wool’s scaling and crimp that make it easier to spin into yarn, because the individual fibers attach to each other, so they stay together.
  • Rarely found in fine wools, the medulla comprises a series of cells (similar to honeycombs) that provide air spaces, giving wool its thermal insulation value.

The Manufacturing Process

The major steps necessary to process wool from the sheep into yarns are:  shearing, cleaning and scouring, grading and sorting, carding.

SHEARING:

Sheep are usually sheared once a year—usually in the springtime. The fleece recovered from a sheep can weigh between 6 and 18 pounds (2.7 and 8.1 kilograms); as much as possible, the fleece is kept in one piece. While most sheep are still sheared by hand, new technologies have been developed that use computers and sensitive, robot-controlled arms to do the clipping.

GRADING AND SORTING:

Grading is the breaking up of the fleece based on overall quality. Wool fibers are judged not only on the basis of their strength but also by their fineness (diameter), length, crimp (waviness) and color.  In wool grading, high quality does not always mean high durability.

In sorting, the wool is broken up into sections of different quality fibers, from different parts of the body. The best quality of wool comes from the shoulders and sides of the sheep and is used for clothing; the lesser quality comes from the lower legs and is used to make rugs.

CLEANING AND SCOURING:

Scouring in the true sense of the word in the textile industry means simply removing any foreign material from the fabric; the term scour grew up around the washing of cottons and linens.

Wool taken directly from the sheep is called “raw” or “greasy”  wool.  It contains a substantial amount of natural contaminants, such as  sand, dirt, grease, and dried sweat (called suint) as well as pesticide residues from the treatment of sheep to prevent disease; the weight of contaminants accounts for about 30 to 70%  of the total weight of the fleece.

To clean the wool, the fiber is washed in a series of alkaline baths containing water, soap, and soda ash or a similar alkali. The scouring effluent contains these impurities, which has high levels of COD (chemical oxygen demand) and BOD (biochemical oxygen demand), suspended solids, organic matter and sheep dip chemicals.  These levels represent a significant pollution load:   the organic effluent from a typical wool-scouring plant is approximately equal to the sewage from a town of 50,000 people.[1]

The effluent is separated into three categories:

  1. grease – when refined, this is known as lanolin, which is saved and sold for a variety of consumer products.
  2. liquor (water) – discharged to sewage works or open waters
  3. sludge – this needs to be disposed of too:   The sludge contains high levels of organic materials such as the potentially toxic sheep dip pesticides (such as organochlorines, organophosphates and synthetic prethroids).   In the EU, landfills will now only accept non-recoverable and inert waste.  Since the global production of wool sludge is over 930,000 tons, research is being done on the feasibility of disposing of scouring waste by composting, incineration and other methods.

The processing stages to this point cause the natural fiber alignment of the scales (or “barbs” as mentioned above) to be completely disrupted; the scales no longer line up “tip to base” as they would in the fleece. Those scales make raw wool itchy and also cause the fiber to shrink when wet.

In order to prevent this shrinkage (also called felting), and to make the wool more comfortable when worn next to the skin, many producers use chlorine to “burn” off the scales…this doesn’t entirely remove them, but it does lessen their profile, and then the fibers are coated with a synthetic polymer resin, which essentially glues down the scales. This allows the wool to be machine washed without felting, and gets rid of the shrinkage of the fabric associated with felting.  This is the chemistry behind Superwash wool.  The tradeoff, of course, is that this chlorination process is highly toxic.

See our blog post on Organic Wool to read about the environmental effects of wool scouring and chlorination.  It’s not pretty.

CARDING:

Next, the fibers are passed through a series of metal teeth.  The teeth untangle the fibers and arrange them into a flat sheet called a web. The web is then formed into narrow ropes known as silvers.   Carding  is one of the processes that untangles the wool fibers and lays them straight; it also removes residual dirt and other matter left in the fibers.  Combing is the next process, which removes shorter length fibers and helps to further straighten the fibers and lay them parallel.  Combing also helps to clean more debris from the fibers.

  • Carding only produces woolenyarn.   Woolen yarns:
    • Have a short staple (1-4 inch long fibers).
    • Are carded ONLY
    • Have a slack twist
    • Are weaker, softer and bulkier than worsted
  • Carding and Combing produces worsted yarn.Worsted yarns:
    • Have a long staple (4 inch and longer)
    • Have a tight twist in spinning
    • Are stronger, finer, smoother and harder than woolen yarns.

CHARACTERISTICS of WOOL:

Wool is highly regarded as one of the most lavish natural fibers in the world.  Lightweight, versatile, resistant to dirt and considered somewhat water repellant, non wrinkling, and durable, wool:

  • Can absorb almost 30% of its own weight in water – and it can also release it.  This makes it breathable and extremely comfortable next to the skin.  It can absorb sweat and release it as vapor, keeping you cool and dry.  It prevents the clammy, cold feeling you may experience when wearing some types of synthetic clothing and sweating.
  • Is resistant to static electricity,  because the moisture retained within the fabric conducts electricity. This is why wool garments are much less likely to spark or cling to the body. The use of wool car seat covers or carpets reduces the risk of a shock when a person touches a grounded object.
  • fabrics have a greater bulk than other textiles because of the crimp, and retain air, which is a great insulation.  It keeps you warm when you’re cold, but insulation also works both ways – Bedouins and Tuaregs use wool clothes to keep the heat out.  And it does not cling to the skin, allowing for air circulation next to the skin.
  • fibers can be bent 20,000 times without breaking (compared to cotton, which breaks after 3,000 bends or rayon, which can be bent only 75 times without breaking), and have the power to elongate (it can be stretched 25 – 30% before breaking), stretch and recover. This natural elasticity and memory  returns to its natural shape
  • doesn’t readily catch fire – its ignition point is higher than cotton and some synthetics.  Even if it does burn, it burns slowly (not melting or dripping as in synthetics) and self-extinguishes when the source of the flame is removed.  It contributes less to toxic gases and smoke than synthetics, and is therefore often specified for high safety environments such as trains and aircraft.
  • has a naturally high UV protection, which is much higher than most synthetics and cotton.
  • is considered by the medical profession to be hypoallergenic.
  • is hydrophilic—it has a strong affinity for water—and therefore is easily dyed.

[1] Christoe, Jock; The treatment of wool scouring effluents in Australia, China and India”,  project # AS1/1997/069; http://aciar.gov.au/system/files/node/9074/AS%2003-04%20AS1-1997-069.pdf