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:

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New sustainable textile standard: NSF/ANSI 336

26 09 2011

Back in 2003, the Association for Contract Textiles (ACT), a trade organization for North American manufacturers of contract textiles consisting of many of the big textile companies (click here for members), identified the need for a universal standard to better serve suppliers, distributors and specifiers.  According to Petie Davis of NSF International, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, which provides standards development, product certification, education, and risk-management for public health and safety,   “Architects, designers, and specifiers have been demanding a uniform, transparent sustainability standard that would give them the assurance they need to specify sustainable product.”   The manufacturers saw the writing on the wall, and a cynical person might think they wanted to get a jump start on creating their own set of standards before something else was foisted on them.

In early 2004, the ACT Environmental Committee selected GreenBlue[1] to develop a standard suitable for textiles used in commercial interiors.  That fall, ACT and GreenBlue approached NSF International to provide American National Standards Institute (ANSI)[2]-certified credentials needed to build a standard, which became  NSF/ANSI 336.  They saw this new standard as being applicable on a national level and available as a model to other areas of the textile industry.  The standard was developed using a consensus-based process, which included textile mills, suppliers,  architects and designers, academics, trade associations, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as state agencies and non-governmental organizations.

As you might imagine, it took a long time to hammer out an agreement:   7 years of wrangling and compromise, suggestions and counter-suggestions, before everybody agreed on a standard that they could all live with.  The new NSF/ANSI Standard  336 was officially finalized in April, 2011, and debuted in June, 2011 at NeoCon.

So now it’s supposed to be a lot easier to specify a sustainable fabric.  But is this new standard the one that provides specifiers with the assurance that what they’re buying is indeed a sustainable product?

Environmental Building News (EBN) said that “this new standard represents significant progress for an industry with significant toxicity concerns due to fabric processing and finishes.”[3]  This time we do not agree with EBN, because we think the standard represents a roadblock to progress.

Let’s just consider how the standard deals with toxicity issues, which were highlighted by EBN.   When you do that, you find that the new NSF standard is anemic when compared to existing standards, such as Oeko Tex and GOTS, which
are both stunningly more strict than the new NSF/ANSI 336.  Even though 336 pertains to contract textiles, which are overwhelmingly made of synthetics,  the processing and finishes of these synthetics could follow the same parameters as are in place now with existing standards such as GOTS.   For example, see the limits for metals in dyes and pigments as listed in section 6.4.1 of NSF/ANSI 336 versus Oeko Tex and GOTS:

Metal

NSF/ANSI 336

OEKO TEX

GOTS

Limit for
dyes (ppm)
Limit for
pigments(ppm)

1: Baby in ppm

IV: interiors fabrics : in ppm

Antimony

50

250

30

30

prohibited

Arsenic

50

50

0.2

1

prohibited

Cadmium

20

50

0.1

0.1

prohibited

Chromium

100

100

1

2

prohibited

Lead

100

100

0.2

1

prohibited

Mercury

4

25

0.02

0.02

prohibited

Zinc

1500

1000

not listed

prohibited

Copper

250

unlimited

25

50

prohibited

Nickel

200

unlimited

1

4

prohibited

Tin

250

 unlimited

not listed

prohibited

Barium

100

100

prohibited

Cobalt

500

unlimited

1

4

prohibited

Iron

2500

unlimited

not listed

prohibited

Manganese

1000

unlimited

prohibited

Selenium

20

100

prohibited

Silver

100

unlimited

prohibited

Consider lead –  under the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008,  products designated for children must meet 100 ppm lead content by August, 2011.  Does this limit value of 100 ppm really represent progress when studies have shown that exposure to lead in any amount can be hazardous?  Sorry, this time we do not agree with Environmental Building News  – we think this new standard represents an obfuscation of the issues and is a roadblock to progress.

Next week we’ll show you how the standard is set up so as to allow the obfuscation of issues.


[1] GreenBlue is a non-profit institute
that stimulates the creative redesign of industry by focusing the expertise of
professional communities to create practical solutions, resources, and
opportunities for implementing sustainability. GreenBlue is recognized for its
ability to convene stakeholders, establish ambitious objectives, and develop
practical design tools and resources. http://www.greenblue.org

[2] The American National Standards Institute
or ANSI is a private non-profit organization that oversees the development of
voluntary consensus standards for products, services, processes, systems, and
personnel in the United States. The organization also coordinates U.S.
standards with international standards so that American products can be used
worldwide.

ANSI accredits
standards that are developed by representatives of standards developing
organizations, government agencies, consumer groups, companies, and others.
These standards ensure that the characteristics and performance of products are
consistent, that people use the same definitions and terms, and that products
are tested the same way. http://www.ansi.org





SMART Sustainable Standards

17 08 2011

The SMART Sustainable Product Standards  is a group of standards, applicable to building materials, apparel, textiles and flooring. These products constitute 60% of the world’s products, according to the SMART website .  The SMART standards for these products are, again according to their website, “based on transparency, using consensus based metrics and life-cycle analysis.”  The term “consensus based metrics”  means that the standards they use have been pre-established, and are widely available, thereby “eliminating both redundancies and potential inconsistencies”.  Some of these include:

SMART contends that, by using these widely accepted standards, SMART  standards become transparent, i.e.,  nothing is hidden in their requirements or in their decision making.   They further contend that  their rules  prevent industry trade association dominance, allowing the SMART standard to move substantially beyond the status quo.

The SMART Standard confers multiple achievement levels – depending on the number of points a product accrues in the rating system, it can be certified either:

  • Sustainable
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum

This all sounds lovely, but in sieving through the SMART website, I found it extremely confusing.     It also seems to me the web site is designed for large companies with deep pockets – the first question in their INFO/FAQ tab on the website answers the question:  “Why are sustainable products more profitable than conventional products?”  The answer:

  1. The public prefers sustainable products and will pay somewhat more for them
  2. coupled with the assertion that  sustainable products have “cheaper raw materials”  (I can certainly dispute that in the field of natural fibers – organic cotton simply costs more to produce, sometimes considerably more, than conventional cotton), “less liability” and “fewer regulatory constraints”.

Also, becoming SMART certified is very expensive:  For all levels except Platinum, it costs $7500 for certification; Platinum is $10,000.   Maybe that’s why the web site for the SMART Sustainable Textile  lists only 10 products from three companies as being SMaRT certified.  (see http://mts.sustainableproducts.com/SMaRT_Certified.html )

Finally, the fact that the SMART standards are based on widely available, public standards, such as the Stockholm Toxic Chemicals List, means that the SMART standard is not trying to push any envelopes.  For example, the Stockholm Toxic Chemicals List (actually titled the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants) originally banned or restricted twelve chemicals because they accumulate in the tissues of living things and are all but indestructible once they’re released into the natural world.  They can spread across the globe with weather patterns and migrating animals.  They have all been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer and reproductive and developmental problems.  In 2010, nine more chemicals were added to the list, making a total of 21.  But today there are 80,000 chemicals in use by industry, most of which have not ever been tested, so we really don’t even know the extent of our exposure to toxins.  So it’s terrific that  SMART incorporates the Stockholm Convention list, but aren’t those chemicals banned by the Stockholm Convention already?   Also, why stop with just the Stockholm Convention list?  Toxic pollution is a problem without national boundaries.  Chemicals are an issue for international negotiation and have been so for decades.  To date, more than 50 regional and international agreements on chemicals and waste management have been adopted by governments.





How do I know a fabric is “green”?

13 07 2011

copyright Scott Adams, Inc. / Dist. by USF, Inc.

It’s been almost two years since we talked about certifications (click here to read our earlier post), so I think it’s time for a refresher, because, as one pundit said, “our product is green” is joining “the check’s in the mail”  as one of the most frequent fibs in our modern times.  According to TerraChoice, there were 73% more  “green” products on the market in 2010 than in 2009 – and over 95% of those claims are false or misleading.[1]  Greenwashing – the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly – is the order of the day.  One corporation after another has jumped on the “green-your-corporation-for-a-better-public-image” bandwagon,  doing things such as starting partnerships with legitimate green groups, which is good, while continuing business as usual, which is bad.   Manipulating public perception is the name of the game.   This is so ubiquitous that Steven Colbert, for one, can’t resist:  he says that they now have a “Green Colbert Report”  –  they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon.

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?  Doesn’t really hurt anybody does it?

Actually, it does hurt us all.  As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather puts it in a new report, greenwash is actually “an extremely serious matter…it is insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.” In other words, it’s very hard for customers to know what choices make a difference when some marketers are muddying the waters for all. When buyers throw up their hands in confusion, we all lose.[2]  And it results in consumer and regulator complacency – if one corporation in a particular industry gets away with greenwashing, then other corporations will follow suit, leading to an industry-wide illusion of sustainability, rather than sustainability itself.

This year, Cone Inc.’s Trend Tracker found that nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product if they feel misled by environmental claims – and more than a third will go so far as to boycott a company’s products.[3]

With textiles specifically, we see environmental claims that are just as outrageous as the new “Natural Energy Snack on the Go” from Del Monte – individually wrapped bananas. [4]

Packaged bananas from Del Monte

The problem is that the issues involved in evaluating a claim are often complex, and they vary greatly by product.   In addition, there is a raging debate about what constitutes green practices – for example, recycled polyester is considered a “green” choice in textiles,  yet what yardstick is being used to make that claim?  We have done numerous blog posts on why any kind of synthetic has a much greater environmental impact  than any naturally raised fiber (click here to read the first of these posts).  If we compare synthetics to organically raised fibers, do we also include the benefits of supporting organic agriculture, or is that a benefit that gets lost in the equation?

Even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for environmental claims, these guidelines are not law, and are only enforceable if a complaint is lodged to the FTC and there is enough evidence to get a court order forcing the company to remove the claim.  But what if people simply don’t have enough knowledge to lodge a complaint?

I’ve spent years reading about the issues involved in textile production (one of the most complex supply systems in all manufacturing) but don’t feel capable of evaluating other products.   That’s where transparency on the part of manufacturers comes in:  Consumers have to understand that there are no green products – every product uses resources and creates waste.  And there are tradeoffs.  But beyond that understanding, third party certifications give us all certain measurable standards by which we can compare products, and are a useful tool.

But even certifications need some kind of knowledge base on the part of the consumer in order to be valuable.  (What’s being measured?  Who’s doing the measuring? Which environmental claims are relevant, and what are subterfuge?)

Certifications  (not to be confused with labels and standards) fall into three categories:  first, second and third party certifications:

  1. In first party certifications, a person or an organization says it meets certain claims; there is not usually an independent test to verify those claims.  These are usually a fairly simple claim, such as that the product will last for at least a year.  An example of this type of certification is that of  Kravet’s “Kravet Green” collection,  because Kravet itself is telling us that their fabrics are green.   There is no mention of any other certification bodies corroborating their statements.
  2.  In second party certification, an association or group provides the assurance that a product meets certain criteria.  This type of certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest.   Under new FTC guidelines, companies that are members of the trade organization or group that certifies their product must disclose that relationship to the consumer.  An example of second party certification can be considered that of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program, which has developed a set of standards and which awards use of their logo if companies comply with these standards.
  3. Third party certifications are issued by independent testing companies based on impartial evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources with reference to a publicly available set of standards.  Third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve.  A third party certification is represented by the Global Organic Textile Standard,  which has a public set of standards and which is administered by independent testing labs around the world.  In other words, you can’t pay these labs to misrepresent their findings, since their business is testing and certification only (such as Peterson Control Union or Oeko Tex).

Like green claims, there is also an abundance of seals and labels that assure environmental worthiness, experts say.

“About once a week, I have a client that will bring up a new certification I’ve never even heard of and I’m in this industry,” said Kevin Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Washington-based company that helps businesses plan green marketing strategies. “It’s kind of a Wild West, anybody can claim themselves to be green.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the plethora of labels made it difficult for businesses and consumers to know which labels they should pay attention to. “There’s no way for the average consumer or even for a C.E.O. to know which ones to go for or what they should get,” he said. [5]

Okay, which certifications apply to textiles and what do they tell us?  Tune in next week.


[1] “The Sins of Greenwashing”, Terra Choice, October 26, 2010, http://blog.terrachoice.com/2010/11/08/the-2010-sins-of-greenwashing-study-is-here/

[2] Winston, Andrew, “Avoiding Greenwash and Its Dangers”, Harvard Business Review, April 15, 2010. http://blogs.hbr.org/winston/2010/04/avoiding-greenwash-and-its-dan.html

[4] According to James Harvey, Del Monte’s UK managing director, “Del Monte’s new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill. The packaging is also recyclable.”

[5] Vega, Tanzina, “Agency Seeks to Tighten Rules for ‘Green’ Labeling”, New York Times, October 6, 2010.





What is greenwashing?

29 09 2010

In the past few weeks we’ve been looking at very large corporations which are introducing new products with an environmental spin.  The charge of “greenwashing” could be leveled against these companies, so I thought we’d take a look at how to spot greenwashing.

Wikipedia defines greenwashing as a term describing the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products are environmentally friendly. The term green sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

Just the fact that we’re exploring this concept means that there is a recognition that the planet is in trouble, and many of us have some kind of intention to do something about it, even though what we do might be very small.  Companies want to show consumers that their products are “green” so the consumers  can buy their stuff as usual while still feeling like they’re helping the Earth.  “Green cons­umerism” is an oxymoron, like “organic cigarettes”.  Buying stuff is simply bad for the environment –  all this stuff has to be manufactured from other stuff we take from the Earth one way or another.  Manufacturing requires energy.  Shipping the products requires energy.

TreeHugger (and Planet Greener) Lloyd Alter said it best:  “We just use too much of everything – too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money…the key to sustainability is to simply use less.”

So the argument really begins and ends with us.  We – consumers – should really step up to the plate and make some sacrifices rather than shifting the burden entirely onto companies to produce green products so we can feel good about buying them.

On the other hand, it’s not reasonable to think that people will stop buying stuff, or that companies would not continue to make stuff.  So  as Jeff Hollander of Seventh Generation says, “We should absolutely not support green products from companies that use them to distract us from their larger negative environmental and social impacts. We need systemically green companies to address the challenges we face, not business-as-usual companies that hold up one green hand while hiding another toxic, CO2-emitting, waste-producing one behind their backs.”

But how do we know what is greenwash?

Following the Earth Summit in 1992, Greenpeace came up with criteria which it uses to define “greenwash”, defined as the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.   The following is from the Greenpeace web site:

While accepting that there will never be a perfect litmus test for “greenwash”, and in the hope of encouraging greater public debate on the issue, Greenpeace offers the following 4 Point “CARE” check list. “CARE” stands for Core business; Advertising record; Research & development funding; and Environmental lobbying. A corporation which fails on any of the four tests below is probably in the “greenwash” business.

1. Core Business

If a company’s core (or main) business is based primarily on an activity which has been identified as significantly contributing to environmental pollution or destruction, there is a strong presumption that any assertions that it supports environmentally sustainable development are greenwash.

For example, oil and coal companies, whose products have been determined by UN scientists to be the largest source of man-made greenhouse gases, are by definition engaged in an environmentally unsustainable business. Scientists tell us that each ton of coal or barrel of oil burned adds to the risk of dangerous climate change, which over 160 countries have pledged to prevent in an international treaty. In short, there is a fundamental contradiction between the environmental (and legal) requirement to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2), and the production and sale of increasing quantities of coal and oil, the main sources of CO2.

Similarly, forestry companies which log in ancient forests, the richest terrestrial reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet, make it almost impossible to implement the commitments made by 165 countries to protect species in 1992 international Convention of Biological Diversity. Currently, it is estimated that 50-100 species become extinct each day, and forest clearing is a major contributor. This is another example of how a core business can be in fundamental contradiction with a sustainable environment.

In some cases, companies with a highly destructive core business have launched or expanded initiatives for cleaner or less destructive processes and products. Oil companies moving into solar energy is an example. This trend is to be strongly encouraged. However, Greenpeace believes that such measures warrant the “greenwashing” tag unless the parent company publicly acknowledges the fundamental unsustainability of the core business, and makes a serious commitment to phasing out of those activities and towards the cleaner business within a near-term timeframe. (See also “Research and Development”, below).

2. Advertising Practice

Corporate advertising budgets can be huge and their effects on shaping consumer behaviour enormous. It is understood that at least ten corporations have annual advertising budgets of over US$ 1 billion each. Collectively, global advertising budgets run into many billions of dollars, significantly more than most governments and corporations spend on environmental improvement. This fact alone justifies continuous and detailed public scrutiny of the advertising practice and claims of industry.

With this power goes a responsibility that cannot be regulated alone by local advertising standards. Corporations must assume the responsibility for informing the public about the environmental impacts of buying and using their products. Many public opinion polls show that consumers would like to be given a wider choice in products, and are even prepared to pay more for “greener” products.

The “greenwash” tag applies to any corporations which use the media to make environmental claims about one or more of their cleaner products, while continuing “business as usual” practices which rely, for example, on large amounts of natural capital, are energy intensive or inefficient, or which involve production and release of toxic chemicals.

Use of the media by corporations for public debate about whether certain practices are more or less sustainable may represent a genuine attempt to inform and educate. However, where large advertising budgets and slick campaigns appear to justify maintenance of “business as usual” practices which have been widely questioned by environmental scientists, the “greenwash” tag might also be applicable. In other words – their green spin outweighs green R&D spending!

3. Research and Development (R&D)

Large corporations frequently have large funds set aside for R&D. These are used to identify and bring into production new products and manufacturing processes. Here, the “greenwash” test is to what extent these budgets are allocated to developing practices which are more sustainable, or are simply reinforcing old, unsustainable practices.

In view of the size and purpose of these funds, which can easily amount to many millions of dollars, and the fact that a high proportion of the world’s scientists now work for industry, there is a special opportunity for use of corporate R&D in the development of cleaner technologies.

For example, a paper manufacturing corporation which spends most or all of its R&D budget on developing a closed cycle production process which eliminates use of chlorine, minimises use of water and energy, and avoids use of old growth forest as feedstock is moving in the right direction.

By contrast, a coal power utility which spends its R&D on reducing pollutants such as sulphur, without addressing the fact that any combustion of coal creates harmful greenhouse gases and other pollutants, is not using its R&D for sustainable ends. In such a case, only a major commitment towards development of clean renewable energy forms would represent a real contribution towards a more sustainable planet.

4. Environmental Lobbying Record

Corporations which say one thing, and do another, do the entire business sector an injustice. For example, a corporation which presents itself as in favour of pollution reduction loses all credibility if, at the same time, it actively lobbies against measures which are designed to reduce pollution.

Politicians, journalists and NGOs have too often encountered examples of businesses claiming green credentials or aims, but which lobby (frequently through coalition or “front” groups) against increases in taxes or controls on polluting activities. Sometimes there have been threats or examples of closing plants and moving to countries with lower environmental standards. Such “double-speak” entitles any corporation caught in the act to the “greenwash” tag.

By contrast, a responsible corporation will use its name and experience to lobby in favour of policies and practices which reduce pollution. Greenpeace has applauded, and even worked with groups of businesses serious about developing better environmental standards, and urging their adoption by government or industry associations.