Are organic sofas expensive?

25 10 2012

A current theme in the blogosphere is that organic sofas are expensive, so let’s see what that could mean.

We often hear that organic stuff costs more than conventional stuff, and that only the rich can take advantage of the benefits of organic products.  That is true of food prices – organic food typically costs from 20% to 100% more than conventionally produced equivalents. [1]  And I won’t go into what we seem to be getting in return for buying the cheaper, conventionally produced foods, but let’s just say it’s akin to a  Faustian bargain.

But look at the food companies which in the 1950s routinely produced laughably inaccurate adverts trumpeting the health benefits associated with their products. 

Those old school adverts, ridiculous as they look now, displayed an awareness that healthy food resonated with modern consumers, and heralded the start of a 60 year long transformation that has seen nutrition become the issue that arguably defines the way the food industry operates. It is entirely conceivable that the raft of new green marketing campaigns that have emerged in recent years mark the beginning of a similar journey with other product categories.

So enough about food – this is a blog about textile subjects.  And like food, organic fibers are also more expensive than non-organic.  There is no way to get around the fact that organic cotton items are anywhere from 10 to 45 percent more expensive than conventional cotton products.  But conventional cotton prices don’t take into account the impact that  production has on the planet and the many people involved in its manufacture, including sweatshops and global poverty. With organic cotton, you are paying more initially, but that cost is passed not only to the retailer, but to the weavers, seamstresses, pickers and growers who made that item’s production possible. In turn, you are also investing in your own health with a garment that will not off-gas (yup, just like toxic paints) chemicals or dyes that can impact all of your body’s basic systems.

Those prices – or costs, depending on what we choose to call them – are compounded and go up exponentially in an organic vs. conventional sofa because each input in an organic sofa is more expensive than its conventional counterpart:

  • Organic sofas often use FSC certified hardwoods – which means you’re supporting a resource which is managed so that the forest stays healthy.  Forests are critical to maintaining life on earth:  they  filter pollutants from the air, absorb CO2, purify the water we drink,  and provide habitat for both animals and some indigenous cultures.   Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products.  Conventional sofas, on the other hand, often use composite plywoods, medium density fiberboard  (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).    These products are glued together using formaldehyde resins.  And formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.  The hardwoods are more expensive than the other options, but  they don’t have the formaldehyde emissions.
  • Conventional sofas almost exclusively use polyurethane  foam – or that new marketing darling,  soy foam.  Polyurethane and soy foams are much cheaper than natural latex, but they  are made of methyloxirane and TDI, both of which have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California and are highly flammable, requiring flame retardant chemicals.  They also emit toluene, a known neurotoxin.  The foam oxidizes, sending these toxic particles into the air which we breathe in.  But they’re cheap.  Natural latex, on the other hand, does not impact human health in any way, and it lasts far longer than polyurethane or soy foams.
  • Organic sofas use fabrics that do not contain chemicals which can harm human health.   Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known.  Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer.[2]  Organic fabrics do not contain these dangerous chemicals, so you won’t be exposing yourself and your family to these chemicals.
  • Auxiliaries, such as glues and varnishes, have been evaluated to be safe in an organic sofa.

It just so happens that the web site Remodelista published a post on September 26 entitled “10 Easy Pieces:  The Perfect White Sofa” by Julie.[3]  (Click HERE to see that post.)  And it gives us the pricing!  Prices range from $399 for an IKEA sofa to $9500, and 10 sofas are priced (one in British Pound Sterling, which I converted into US dollars at 1.61 to the dollar).   The average price of the sofas listed is $4626 and of the 10 sofas with pricing, the median is $3612.  None of them mentions anything about being organic.  That means you’ll be paying good money for a sofa that most probably uses:

  • Polyurethane or soy-based foam  – which off gasses its toxic witch’s brew of synthetic chemicals and flame retardants.
  • Non FSC certified hardwood (if you’re lucky), or composite plywood, MDF or Glulam, which offgasses formaldehyde.
  • Conventionally produced fabrics that expose you and your children to chemicals that may be causing any number of health concerns, from headaches and allergies to changes in our DNA.
  • Glues, paints and/or varnishes which off gas volatile organic compounds.

As to price:  let’s  take a look at one sofa manufacturer with whom we work  closely, Ekla Home (full disclosure:  who uses our fabric exclusively) – the average price of Ekla Home’s sofa collection (assuming the most expensive fabric category) is $3290.  That’s $1,336 LESS than the average of the sofas in the Remodelista post, none of which are organic.

Admittedly, one of the sofas that you can buy costs $399 from IKEA.  Putting aside all the myriad health implications involved in this piece of furniture, there is still the issue of quality.  Carl Richards, a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and the director of investor education at BAM Advisor Services, had a piece in the New York Times recently, about frugality and what it really means.  Here is how he put it:

It’s tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from WalMart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time.

Here is the issue: when we settle for stuff that we don’t really want, and instead buy stuff that will be fine for a while, it often costs more in the long run.”

New York Times, Carl Richard

So I’m a bit flummoxed as to why people complain that  organic sofas are expensive.  Expensive compared to what?     If I was paranoid, I’d think there was some kind of subtle campaign being waged by Big Industry to plant that idea into our heads.


[1] The Fox News website (http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2012/03/11/10-reasons-organic-food-is-so-expensive/ ) had some interesting reasons as to why that’s true, some of which are listed below:

  1. Chemicals and synthetic pesticides reduce the cost of production by getting the job done faster and more efficiently. Without them, organic farmers have to hire more workers for tasks like hand-weeding, cleanup of polluted water, and the remediation of pesticide contamination.
  2. Demand overwhelms supply:  Americans claim they prefer to eat organic foods, yet organic farmland only accounts for 0.9% of total worldwide farmland.
  3. Animal manure and compost are more expensive to ship (this is their list, not mine!) and synthetic chemical equivalents are very cheap.
  4.  Instead of chemical weed killers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations to keep their soil healthy and prevent weed growth. After harvesting a crop, an organic farmer may use that area to grow “cover crops,” which add nitrogen to the soil to benefit succeeding crops.
  5. In order to avoid cross-contamination, organic produce must be separated from conventional produce after being harvested. Conventional crops are shipped in larger quantities since conventional farms are able to produce more.
  6.  Acquiring USDA organic certification is no easy — or cheap — task. In addition to the usual farming operations, farm facilities and production methods must comply with certain standards, which may require the modification of facilities. Employees must be hired to maintain strict daily record-keeping that must be available for inspection at any time. And organic farms must pay an annual inspection/certification fee, which starts at $400 to $2,000 a year, depending on the agency and the size of the operation.
  7. Last but not least – subsidies.  In 2008, farm subsidies were $7.5 billion, compared to organic and local food programs which received only $15 million.

Many  say that if Americans who profess to want to buy organic food would stop going to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and buying processed, packaged and pre-made foods, they could easily afford organic foods.

[2]

  • In 2007, The National Institutes of health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t. (Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
    Post
    , March 16, 2008.)
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths. (Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
    workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
    Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.)
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population. (Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
    10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321)
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller. Note: lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs. (Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
    Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.)
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The President’s Cancer Panel and fabric choices

6 10 2010

Ever wonder why you buy those organic foods that cost more?  It’s always a bit of sticker shock when you see the organic and conventional side by side.   The organic strawberries may taste better, but this economy means we have to pinch every penny.  As my husband says, an apple is an apple, so why pay more for one when you can get the other cheaper?  It’s not going to do anything to me – at least not today.

Turns out you might want to re-think those – and lots of other –  choices you make every day.  The President’s Cancer Panel issued a 240-page report in May, 2010, called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now” This year’s report is the first time the panel has emphasized the environmental causes of cancer. It warns of “grievous harm” from chemicals and other hazards, and “a growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer.” Children are especially vulnerable.

The report is based on testimony from a series of meetings held between September 08 and January 09 which  included 45 invited experts from academia, government, industry, the environmental and cancer advocacy communities, and the public. The report urged President Obama to “use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”  Because industrial chemicals are so ubiquitous and exposure to these potential environmental carcinogens so widespread, “the Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated,”

The report said previous estimates that environmental pollutants and occupational exposures cause 6% of all cancers are low and “woefully out of date.”  In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that environmental factors contribute to 75-80% of all cancers: from tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, radiation, obesity and certain viruses and sexually-transmitted diseases – in addition to environmental carcinogens. One excerpt reads, “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market. … many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are. … largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

The President’s Panel report clearly states that much work has to be done to better characterize environmental determinants of cancer—including better research methods, standardized measurements, and more realistic models that can help estimate the cumulative risks associated with multiple environmental toxins.  But scientists have been scrambling for decades for scarce funding  – and the work was given a low priority.  The fundamental problem is that research into environmental causes of cancer has little potential for yielding profits—at least in the short-term. In fact, it is more likely to cost industry through stronger regulation and removal of products from the market, litigation and the added expense of developing new products based on “green chemistry.” So it’s not a stretch to understand why the government and the pharmaceutical industry would rather spend billions of dollars promoting screening and developing profitable new cancer drugs.  Peter Montague, a long-time environmental advocate puts it this way: “To be blunt about it, there’s no money in prevention, and once you’ve got cancer you’ll pay anything to try to stay alive.”

Environmental toxins are rarely considered in health policy initiatives (except for tobacco and sunlight), despite the findings that people who live in polluted areas and work with toxic substances (most often the poor and minorities) have higher rates of cancer incidence.  The Cancer Panel  pointed out  “Cancer Alley“, the stretch along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as an example.  Louisiana ranked second in the nation for on-site toxic releases, and many studies exist which demonstrate the cancer rate is above the average for the rest of the United States.  In one small Louisiana town in Cancer Alley, 3 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma were reported in a 14 month period.  Rhabdomyosarcoma is an extremely rare and devastating childhood cancer, with a national average of one child in a million.  Five years ago a group of residents of Mossville, Louisiana, filed a human rights complaint against the US government, alleging it was not protecting their right to live in a healthy environment.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agreed this year to hear their complaint.

In a consensus statement,  the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, an international partnership of some 3,000 individuals and organizations, says that the net result of this inadequate funding is a body of research that is in danger of being irrelevant:

“The methods that have been used to attribute cancer risk to environmental exposures are outdated and flawed, and should no longer be used to determine policy or set research priorities.”

So it’s not just organic foods that we should be concerned about, but the whole phalanx of products which are made using harmful chemistry, and the manufacturers that don’t capture emissions or treat their waste products, thereby polluting our entire ecosystem.  That’s why O Ecotextiles has made a commitment to sell only fabrics which are safe for both you and the Earth.

I found it interesting that there is a new branch of science that is also studying how these environmental factors can influence us.  Called epigenetics, it is the study of changes in gene activity that don’t involve changes to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation.   These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.

One could think of the genome as a book of blueprints,  laying out a number of options in the form of genes. The epigenome is like the contractor who goes through the book, deciding which options to include in a house. Two different contractors can build radically different houses from the same book of blueprints, in the same way that two organisms with identical DNA can look very different.

This field of study, some believe, might hold the key to understanding how environmental toxins cause serious, and often life-threatening diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.  For quite some time scientists have been trying to determine how exposure to environmental toxins can result in serious disease years or even decades later. Epigenetics may provide the mechanism. An exposure to an environmental toxin at one point in a person’s life (and most critically during gestation) can trigger the epigenome to turn on or turn off a key gene. Years later, because of that epigenetic change, a disease may appear.

“We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked,” said Randy Jirtle,  Ph.D., a genetics researcher in Duke’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.”

Exposures to pesticides, toxins and synthetic compounds can give rise to a host of diseases – such as cancer and asthma — whose prevalence has soared in recent decades, says H. Kim Lyerly, M.D., director of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.  Pesticides encountered in utero might be dormant in the fetus, only to cause cancer ten, 20 or 50 years later, he said.

Even the lowest detectable limits of a chemical can have dire effects on a living organism, added William Schlesinger, Ph.D., Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke. Atrizine is a prime example. Less than one part per billion of this widely used corn herbicide de-masculinizes developing frogs or causes dual male-female genitalia. Yet often the Environmental Protection Agency’s instrumentation doesn’t record such minute levels of chemical exposure, he said.

What does the Cancer Panel suggest we do in the meantime?  Here is their list, with a few of additions of our own:

  • Remove your shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in toxic chemicals such as pesticides.
  • Filter tap water.
  • Use stainless steel, glass or BPA-free plastic water bottles.
  • Microwave in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.
  • Become aware of what you’re eating:  minimize consumption of food grown with pesticides, and meat raised with antibiotics and growth hormone.
  • Minimize consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Reduce radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.
  • Be aware of the products you use, especially those that come in contact with your skin, such as:  lotions, cosmetics, wipes, sheets, clothing, hair dyes.  Check ingredient labels, look for third party certifications where appropriate.
  • And finally:  use sunscreen, stop smoking and lose weight if necessary.