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





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.