Why do we offer safe fabrics?

3 10 2016

Why do we say we want to change the textile industry?  Why do we say we want to produce fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable?  What could be so bad about the fabrics we live with?

The textile industry is enormous, and because of its size its impacts are profound.  It uses a lot of three ingredients:

  • Water
  • Chemicals
  • Energy

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, corporate interests are controlling water, and what is known as the global water justice movement is working hard to ensure the right to water as a basic human right.(1) 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. Our global water consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, and bleaching use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used before moving on to the next step.  The water is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater, which is returned to our streams, contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

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 – the 9 trillion liters of water used annually in textile processing is usually expelled into our rivers without treatment and is a major source of groundwater pollution.  Now that virtual or “embedded” water tracking is becoming necessary in evaluating products, people are beginning to understand 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.  Just Google “Greenpeace and the textile industry” to find out what Greenpeace is doing to make people aware of this issue.

Over 8,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, some so hazardous that OSHA requires textile scraps be handled as hazardous waste.   The final product is, by weight, about 23% synthetic chemicals – often the same chemicals that are outlawed in other products.  The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:

  • Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs), which are endocrine disruptors;
    • o Endocrine disruptors are a wide range of chemicals which interfere with the body’s endocrine system to produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife; exposure us suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in both males and females, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children.(2)
  • Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
    • o Long-term exposure to low levels can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. Studies in animals also suggest that the endocrine system and immune system can also be damaged following long-term exposure to low levels of pentachlorophenol. All of these effects get worse as the level of exposure increases.(3)
  • Toluene and other aromatic amines
    • carcinogens (4)
  • Dichloromethane (DCM)
    • Exposure leads to decreased motor activity, impaired memory and other neurobehavioral deficits; brain and liver cancer.(5)
  • Formaldehyde
    • The National Toxicology Program named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.(6)
  • Phthalates –
    • Associated with a range of effects from liver and kidney diseases to developmental and reproductive effects, reduced fetal weight.(7)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
    • A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.(8)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
    • To date, associations have been found between PFOS or PFOA levels in the general population and reduced female fertility and sperm quality, reduced birth weight, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.(9)
  • Heavy metals – cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
    • Lead is a neurotoxin (affects the brain and cognitive development) and affects the reproductive system; mercury is a neurotoxin and possibly carcinogenic; cadmium damages the kidneys, bones and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a human carcinogen; exposure to antimony can cause reproductive disorders and chromosome damage.

The textile industry uses huge quantities of fossil fuels  –  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.  For example, steam used in the textile manufacturing process is often generated in inefficient and polluting coal-fired boilers.  Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric, the estimated energy needed to produce that fabric boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal).  It takes 3886 MJ of energy to produce 25 yards of nylon fabric (about the amount needed to cover one sofa).  To put that into perspective, 1 gallon of gasoline equals 131 MJ of energy; driving a Lamborghini from New York to Washington D.C. uses approximately 2266 MJ of energy.(10)

Today’s textile industry is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet: in the USA alone, it accounts for 5% of the country’s CO2 production annually; China’s textile sector alone would rank as the 24th– largest country in the world.(11)

We succeeded in producing the world’s first collection of organic fabrics that were gorgeous and green – and safe.    In 2007, those fabrics won “Best Merchandise” at Decorex (www.decorex.com).    In 2008, our collection was named one of the Top Green Products of 2008 by BuiltGreen/Environmental Building News. As BuiltGreen/EBN takes no advertising dollars, their extensive research is prized by the green building industry (www.buildinggreen.com).

We are a tiny company with an oversized mission.  We are challenged to be a triple bottom line company, and we want to make an outsized difference through education for change  – so that a sufficiently large number of consumers will know which questions to ask that will force change in an industry.  We believe that a sufficiently large number of people will respond to our message to force profound positive change: by demanding safe fabric, produced safely, our environment and our health will be improved.

The issues that distinguish us from other fabric distributors, in addition to offering fabrics whose green pedigree is second to none:

    1. We manage each step of the production process from fiber to finished fabric, unlike other companies, which buy mill product and choose only the color palette of the production run.    Those production process steps include fiber preparation, spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and finishing; with many sub-steps such as sizing and de-sizing, bleaching, slashing, etc.
    2. We educate consumers and designers on the issues that are important to them – and to all of us. Our blog on the topic of sustainability in the textile industry has grown from about 2 hits a day to 2,000, and is our largest source of new customers.
    3. We are completely transparent in all aspects of our production and products.    We want our brand to be known not only as the “the greenest”, but for honesty and authenticity in all claims.  This alignment between our values, our claims and our products fuels our passion for the business.
    4. We are the only collection we know of which sells only “safe” fabrics.

We serve multiple communities, but we see ourselves as being especially important to two communities:  those who work to produce our fabric and those who use it, especially children and their parents.

    • By insisting on the use of safe chemicals exclusively, we improve the working conditions for textile workers.  And by insisting on water treatment, we mitigate the effects of even benign chemicals on the environment – and the workers’ homes and agricultural land.  Even salt, used in copious amounts in textile processing, will ruin farmland and destroy local flora and fauna if not neutralized before being returned to the local waters.
    • For those who use our fabric, chemicals retained in the finished fibers do not add to our “body burden “, which is especially important for children, part of our second special community.  A finished fabric is, by weight, approximately 23% synthetic chemicals. Those chemicals are not benign.  Textile processing routinely uses chemicals with known toxic profiles such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene – and many other chemicals, many of which have never been tested for safety.

Another thing we’d like you to know about this business is the increasing number of people who contact us who have been harmed by fabric (of all things!) because we represent what they believe is an honest attempt at throwing light on the subject of fabric processing.   Many are individuals who suffer from what is now being called “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” or IEI (formerly called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), who are looking for safe fabrics.  We’ve also been contacted on behalf of groups, for example,   flight attendants, who were given new uniforms in 2011, which caused allergic reactions in a large number of union members.

These incidences of fabric-induced reactions are on the rise.   As we become more aware of the factors that influence our health, such as we’re seeing currently with increased awareness of the effects of interior air quality, designers and others will begin to see their way to specifying “safe” fabrics  just as their code of ethics demands.(12)  We feel certain that the trajectory for such an important consumer product as fabric, which surrounds us most of every hour of the day, will mimic that of organic food.

We say our fabrics are luxurious – because luxury has become 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.


(1) Barlow, Maude, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming Battle for the Right to Water, October 2007

(2)World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/

(3)Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry 2001, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=400&tid=70

(4)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 90-101; https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/90-101/

(5)Cooper GS, Scott CS, Bale AS. 2011. Insights from epidemiology into dichloromethane and cancer risk. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8:3380–3398.

(6)National Toxicology Program (June 2011). Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.

(7)Hauser, R and Calafat, AM, “Phthalates and Human Health”, Occup Environ Med 2005;62:806–818. doi: 10.1136/oem.2004.017590

(8)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/research/mothers-milk/health-risks-pbdes

(9)School of Environmental Health, University of British Columbia; http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Health_effects_PFCs_Oct_2010.pdf

(10) Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Mireille Faist, 2001, Stockholm University Dept of Systems Ecology, htp://organic.kysu.edu/EnergySmartFood(2009).pdf

(11)Based on China carbon emissions reporting for 2010 from Energy Information Administration (EIA); see U.S. Department of Energy, Carbon Emissions from Energy Generation by Country, http://www.eia.gov/ cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=44&aid=8 (accessed September 28, 2012). Estimate for China textile sector based on industrial emissions at 74% of total emissions, and textile industry
as 4.3% of total industrial emissions; see EIA, International Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Department of Energy.

(12)Nussbaumer, L.L, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Controversy and Relation to Interior Design”, Abstract, South Dakota State University

Textile chemicals – beginning with the one used the most

16 01 2013

saltLet’s begin our review of chemicals used in textile processing with the one chemical that is used most often and in far greater quantity than any other: salt. That’s right. Common table salt, the kind you probably use every day. But in the quantities used by this industry it becomes a monster – we’ll get to that in a minute.

Salt is used in the dye process. The way the dyestuff bonds to the fibers is very important – and the most permanent, colorfast dyes are the ones that are most tightly attached to the fiber molecules (called reactive dyes). Here’s how salt comes into the picture:

When fabrics made of cellulosic (i.e., cotton, linen, hemp or viscose) are dyed, they’re immersed in water which contains dyes which have been dissolved in the water. The surface of the fabric gets covered in negative ionic charges. The reactive dyes used most often to dye cellulosic fabrics also develop a negative charge, so the fibers actually repel the dye – like two magnets repelling each other. If we try to dye a cellulosic fabric without using salt, the dye molecules just roll off the surface of the fibers and the fabric does not show much color change. So these reactive dyes need the addition of salt to “push” the dyes out of solution and into the cloth by neutralizing the negative charge.

The salt acts like a glue to hold the dye molecules in place, and with the addition of alkali, a certain percentage of the dyestuff (called the “fixation rate”) will permanently grab hold of the fiber and become a part of the fiber molecule rather than remaining as an independent chemical entity. For conventional reactive dyes, the fixation rate is often less than 80%, resulting in waste of dyestuff, and also the need to remove that 20% (which is not fixed) from the fabric.(1) But this is incredibly difficult when the “unreacted” dyes are still “glued” onto the fabric by salt. So vast amounts of water are required to simply dilute the salt concentrations to a point where it no longer acts as glue.

That means the textile effluent contains both dyestuff and salt (lots of salt!) The concentrations of salt in the dye bath can be as high as 100 gm per liter. In the worst cases, equal weights of salt to fabric is used to apply reactive dye (i.e., if dyeing 10 lbs of fabric, you need 10 lbs of salt). Think of the billions of yards of fabric that’s produced each year: In Europe alone, 1 million tons of salt is discharged into waterways each year.(2) In areas where salt is discharged into the ecosystem, it takes a long, long time for affected areas to recover, especially in areas of sparse rainfall – such as Tirupur, India.

Tirupur is one of the world’s centers for clothing production , home of 765 dyeing and bleaching industries. These dyehouses had been dumping untreated effluent into the Noyyal River for years, rendering the water unsuitable or irrigation – or drinking. In 2005, the government shut down 571 dyehouses because of the effluent being discharged into the Noyyal. The mill owners said they simply couldn’t afford to put pollution measures into place. The industry is too important to India to keep the mills closed for long, so the government banned the discharge of salt and asked for an advance from the mills before allowing them to re-open. But … on February 4, 2011, the Madras high court ordered 700 dye plants to be shut down because of the damage the effluent was doing to the local environment. Sigh. (Read more about Tirupur here.)

Unfortunately, the salt in textile effluent is not made harmless by treatment plants and can pass straight through to our rivers even if it has been treated. The salt expelled into waterways (untreated) coupled with salt from roadway de-icing has led to the increase in salt in our waters in the United States – salt levels in Lake George have nearly tripled since 1980,(3) which mirrors many other parts of the U.S. Highest levels occur during the annual ice-out and snowmelt where high salt concentrations in streams flowing into Lake George have been linked to die offs of fish, and is known as “spring shock”. A study in Toronto found that half the wells tested exceeded the limit of 20mg of salt per liter of water, 20% exceeded 100mg/liter and 6% exceeded 250mg/liter. (4) It becomes a public health concern for people who drink this water, because it can exacerbate high blood pressure and hypertension in humans. This increase in our drinking water can also cause problems with water balance in the human body. Salt in water is also responsible for the release of mercury into the water system.

Recycling the salt used during the dye process is possible, and this has been used by many of the dyers in Tirupur, and elsewhere, who operate zero discharge facilities. The effluent is cleaned and then the salt is recovered using an energy intensive process to evaporate the water and leave the solid, re-useable salt. This sounds like a good idea – it reduces the pollution levels – but the carbon footprint goes through the roof, so salt recovery isn’t necessarily the best option. In fact, in some areas of the world where water is plentiful and the salt can be diluted in the rivers adequately, it may be better to simply discharge salt than to recover it.

There are some new “low salt” dyes that require only half the amount of “glue”: Ciba Specialty Chemicals, a Swiss manufacturer of textile dyes (now part of BASF) produces a dyestuff which requires less salt. As the company brochure puts it: “Textile companies using the new dyes are able to reduce their costs for salt by up to 2 percent of revenues, a significant drop in an industry with razor-thin profit margins” but these dyes are not widely used because they’re expensive – and manufacturers are following our lead in demanding ever cheaper costs. There are also new low-liquor-ratio (LLR) jet dyeing machines – but that doesn’t mean zero salt, so there is still salt infused effluent which must be treated. And these new ultra low liquor ratio machines are very expensive.

The best option is to avoid salt altogether. Though the salt itself is not expensive, using less salt delivers substantial benefits to the mill because the fabric requires less rinsing in hot water (and hence reductions in energy and water) as well as cost savings of up to 10% of the total process costs.(5) So what about using no salt at all?

There are two ways to dye fabrics without salt: “continuous dyeing” and “cold pad batch dyeing”. Continuous dyeing means that the dye is applied with alkali to activate the dye fixation; the fabric is then steamed for a few minutes to completely fix the dyestuff. Cold pad batch dyeing applies the dyestuff with alkali and the fabric is simply left at room temperature for 24 hours to fix the dye.

Both of these methods don’t use salt, so the unfixed dye chemicals are easier to remove because there is no salt acting as the “glue” – and therefore less water is used. An additional benefit is having a lower salt content in the effluent. So why don’t companies use this method? Continuous dyeing requires investment in big, expensive machines that only make environmental sense if they can be filled with large orders – because they use lots of energy even during downtime.

Cold pad batch machines are relatively inexpensive to buy and run, they are highly productive and can be used for a wide range of fabrics. Yet only 3% of knitted cotton fabric is dyed in Asia using cold pad batch machines.
Why on earth don’t these mills use cold pad batch dyeing? I would love to hear from any mill owners who might let us know more about the economics of dyeing operations.

(1) http://lifestylemonitor.cottoninc.com/Supply-Chain-Insights/Sustainable-Dyeing-Solutions-02-10/
(2) Dyeing for a change: Current Conventions and New Futures in the Textile Color Industry (2006, July) http://www.betterthinking.co.uk
(3) http://www.fundforlakegeorge.org/assets/pdf_files/Fact%20Sheet%2011%20Salt.pdf
(4) http://www.digitaltermpapers.com/a2206.htm
(5) “A Practical Guide For Responsible Sourcing”, The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), February 2010.

Cotton and China

24 03 2010

Chris Wood – an independent journalist living on Vancouver Island, Canada,  wrote an article in Miller-McCune about China’s cotton problem.   Most of the information here is taken from his article.  You can read the complete article here.

Clients often ask us where our fabrics and/or fibers come from because, they tell us,  they don’t want to buy something if it was made in China because they don’t want to support China’s horrible environmental reputation.

Well, first we’d like to say that China is a big place, and to say anything pertains to all of China is really stretching it.  And our experience has been quite the opposite – our contacts in China are among the most caring and environmentally sensitive, and now there’s evidence that the Chinese government is making efforts to support sustainability in this area also.  China’s Development Research Center (DRC) Deputy Director Long Guoqiang has said that  “sustainable trade means economic, social and environmental sustainabilities. In the past, China [judged] the former two more important than the latter one. In recent years the environmental target has become more and more important. We think the three targets are equally important to China at this stage.”

China,  cotton, and the United States  is a complicated threesome.  Not only does China provide the U.S.  more than $30 billion worth of textiles and clothing, China is the #1 foreign customer for American-grown cotton. And to further complicate this relationship, cotton is one of the world’s major agricultural commodities:  if we take into consideration all stages of  the cotton life cycle, cotton is the economic support for one-sixth of humanity.  It’s also implicated in a wide array of environmental issues, from falling aquifer levels in regions growing irrigated cotton to fertilizer runoff that nourishes fish-killing algae blooms in lakes and oceans and to pesticide contamination of groundwater.

In China, it costs money to treat textile effluent just as it does in other parts of the world.  It’s not costless.   The search for lower prices – an effort to stay profitable –  has led to cost cutting.   The Miller McCune story published the claim that almost one third of the dye effluent in China is discharged without any attempt to treat it – in some areas, the water is dangerously toxic to the touch.   This is one of the major factors in the unavailability of clean drinking water for large sections of Chinese society.  One official in China said that in 2006, the cumulative cost of environmental damage and pollution-related health care was effectively offsetting the country 10% annual economic growth.

And the Chinese government is not blind to this environmental degredation, nor to the scale of the pollution drag on the Chinese economy.  So the State Council directed its research arm, the Development Research Center (DRC), to seek advice on bringing the trade vital to China’s prosperity into balance with its ecological resources.  The DRC, in turn, commissioned a Canadian research center to oversee an international network of experts, to look into these problems and to help them envision a sustainable trade strategy.  The Chinese government was looking for pragmatic solutions.

But what it all boils down to is that despite China’s authoritarian government (which some say can get things done quickly once they’ve identified the path),  despite its efforts to bring the industries which are the engine for its prosperity into ecological balance, and despite the government’s efforts to identify the textile industry’s full-spectrum impact, cradle to grave, the bald truth is this:   textile products and clothing in particular are horribly undervalued.   The prices consumers are prepared to pay – or more accurately, the prices the high volume brands are willing to pay for product inputs – encourage producers to do simply what they can afford, rather than what is right.   The global cotton-textile value chain is “buyer driven”, dominated by a relatively small number of increasingly global participants.  In the U.S. market just two large discount chains – Wal-Mart and Kmart – account for 1/4 of all the clothing sold.  I wince every time I see Old Navy’s advertisements with their unbelieveably low prices for clothing – because I know what those prices mean to me in the long run.   “[I]f the true environmental costs can be included in the price of products and services,” the researchers argued, “the pricing system can give market signals that ensure the efficient allocation of environmental resource use.”

Taxes on such things as wastewater discharge, on cotton clothing to fund recycling, and tax incentives to motivate adoption of wastewater recycling have all be suggested.  But there is only so much the government can do.  Local authorities can’t afford for local businesses to close down –  and so we have a problem the the world can’t afford to ignore.

Another significant impediment, according to Chris Wood’s article,  to greater sustainability for China’s cotton trade lies in the difference between  “cotton production in the nominally communist state and its production in supposedly capitalist America. While U.S. production is dominated by heavily mechanized, industrial-scale farms, and China’s cotton is overwhelmingly grown on much smaller parcels tended by hand, it’s the large American cotton farms that are arguably the more socialized. China’s millions of small cotton farmers are highly exposed to the vagaries of the market; the United States subsidizes its growers by amounts that in some years exceed the harvested value of their crops. Such subsidies in the U.S. and countries in Europe and elsewhere (including China itself) depress the price of globally traded cotton, leaving small producers with little profit to invest in better growing techniques.”

But turn the American subsidies on it’s head, and look at the situation from another angle:  American taxpayers’ willingness to pick up much of the cost of its water- and chemical-intensive cotton crop keeps the price of U.S. cotton  irresistibly low to Chinese buyer, encouraging more of the same.  And American taxpayers will pay the piper when the water runs dry and the health concerns blossom into realities.

Textiles and water use

24 02 2010

Water.  Our lives depend on it.  It’s so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet – but freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed everywhere or to everyone.  The number of people on our planet is growing fast, and our water use is growing even faster.  About 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortage[1] – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe.[2] And the blues singers got it right: you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.

I just discovered that the word “rival” comes from the Latin (rivalis) meaning those who share a common stream.  The original meaning, apparently, was closer to our present word for companion, but as words have a way of doing, the meaning became skewed to mean competition between those seeking a common goal.

This concept – competition between those seeking a common goal – will soon turn again to water, since water, as they say, is becoming the “next oil”;  there’s also talk of “water futures” and “water footprints”  – and both governments and big business are looking at water (to either control it or profit from it).  Our global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.  The pressure is on.

Note: There are many websites and books which talk about the current water situation in the world, please see our bibliography which is at the bottom of this post.

What does all this have to do with fabrics you buy?

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step.  The water used is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater which is returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

When we say the textile industry uses a lot of water, just how much is a lot?  One example we found:  the Indian textile industry uses 425,000,000 gallons of water every day [3] to process the fabrics it produces.  Put another way, it takes about 20 gallons of water to produce one yard of upholstery weight fabric.  If we assume one sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, then the water necessary to produce the fabric to cover that one sofa is 500 gallons.  Those figures vary widely, however, and often the water footprint is deemed higher.  The graphic here is from the Wall Street Journal, which assigns 505 gallons to one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans [4]:

The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion.  What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem.  The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs,  phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated.  And we are all downstream.

The process chemicals used by the mills are used on organic fibers just as they’re used on polyesters and conventionally produced natural fibers.  Unless the manufacturer treats their wastewater – and if they do they will most assuredly let you know it, because it costs them money – then we have to assume the worst.  And the worst is plenty bad.  So just because you buy something made of “organic X”, there is no assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet.

You might hear from plastic manufacturers that polyester has virtually NO water footprint, because the manufacturing of the polyester polymer uses very little water – compared to the water needed to grow or produce any natural fiber.  That is correct.  However, we try to remind everyone that the production of a fabric involves two parts:

  • The production of the fiber
  • The weaving of the fiber into cloth

The weaving portion uses the same types of process chemicals – same dyestuffs, solubalisers and dispersents, leveling agents, soaping, and dyeing agents, the same finishing chemicals,  cationic and nonionic softeners, the same FR, soil and stain, anti wrinkling or other finishes – and the same amount of water and energy.  And recycled polyesters have specific issues:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades.  Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
  • Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process.  Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
  • Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.[5]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.

So water treatment of polyester manufacturing should be in place also.  In fact there is a new standard called the Global Recycle Standard, which was issued by Control Union Certifications.   The standard has strict environmental processing criteria in place in addition to percentage content of recycled  product – it includes wastewater treatment as well as chemical use that is based on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Oeko-Tex 100.

And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (see bibliography below) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust.  These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right?  If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state?  Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water a a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.


The World’s Water:  http://www.worldwater.org/

Water.org:    http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/facts/

Ground water and drinking water:  http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/faq/faq.html

New York Times series, Toxic Waters:  http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters

Barlow, Maude, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008

Water Footprint Network:  http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home

[1]Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation), David J. Tenenbaum, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.

[2] Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online

[3] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.

[4] Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to worry about: Water”, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009

[5] “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008

Air pollution and your cashmere sweater

4 11 2009

We’ll be at Greenbuild next week, booth 910, with our good friends from LIVE Textiles.  Please stop by to see us if you’re there.

We are introducing a new organic wool upholstery fabric at Greenbuild  (we’re hoping it will be GOTS certified, though it is touch and go as to whether the certificate will be in place by then – there are so many hoops!).    So for the past six months or so we’ve been learning lots about wool – and wool is a complicated subject!  It’s a gorgeous fiber, but it has, as we say, issues.  Not unsolvable, but like everything you have to know your suppliers and what questions are important to ask.  We talked about wool and animal husbandry in two previous posts (“What does organic wool mean?” 8.11.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings?” 8.4.09);  some of the issues surrounding wool are enumerated in those posts.

I’m always a sucker for soft and luxurious, so naturally when talking about wool I began hinting I’d like a cashmere fabric – or wool/cashmere blend.  But we looked into cashmere, and what we found is startling and unexpected: a story of how your cashmere sweater pollutes the air you breathe.    There is an improbable connection, according to Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune, “between cheap sweaters, Asia’s prairies and America’s air, (which) captures how the most ordinary shifts in the global economy are triggering extraordinary change.”  Please read Mr. Osnos’ article, “China’s Great Grab”, from which most of the information in this blog is taken.   He won the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for distinguished journalism for this series.

Cashmere has recently become ubiquitous –  cashmere sweaters, for example, once so very high priced that the very word “cashmere” became synonymous with luxury,  are suddenly “affordable”.  Coincidentally, Saks Fifth Avenue ran a full page ad in Sunday’s  New York Times touting their low priced cashmere goods – and telling you to “Shop Smart”.   We’ll help you to shop smart – please read this post!

What happened to bring down the price of cashmere?  Behind this new affordable price tag is something the consumer rarely sees or thinks about: the cascade of consequences around the world when the might of Chinese production and western consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.

Cashmere comes from the downy underhair of special goats, the majority of which live in the coldest regions of China and Mongolia.  In fact, the world’s best and most expensive cashmere comes from the Alashan Plateau, an area in China’s north straddling the Mongolian border,  boiling hot in summer and way below zero in winter.  This area is part of China’s mythic grasslands, where Genghis Khan and his horde rode the limitless horizon.  The fiber itself, known as “diamond fiber” in China,  sells for 6 times the cost of ordinary wool.

This rare and wonderful fiber is remarkably soft, silky and warm.  Side by side under a microscope a single cashmere strand makes a human hair look like a rope.  And it was also synonymous with high price.  European spinning mills have sourced the best cashmere yarns from this region for years.

The combination of demand and high prices led to China’s rapid increase in production to meet that demand,  and  conditions were in place to create an almost perfect storm – with money to be earned from “diamond fiber”, herders rapidly increased their goat populations and caused severe overgrazing.  In  Inner Mongolia, for example, the livestock population increased from 2 million in 1949 to 28.5 million in 2004.(1)

20080318-desertification Julie Chaol

The goats are eating the grasslands bare:  Goats consume over 10% of their body weight daily in roughage, eating not just the grass but also their roots and stripping bark from seedlings, preventing the regrowth of trees.  The land is so barren that herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to keep their animals alive.  Overgrazing is so severe that the health of the goats is at risk: their birthrate is sinking and even the cashmere has begun to suffer from these stressed goats, with shorter, coarser, less valuable fiber.

In addition to stripping the land of all vegetation, the feet of these goats have been compared to stiletto heels, vs. the big soft pads of camel’s feet, which have a far lesser impact on the ground.  These “stiletto heel” hooves  pierce the crust formed on the land, and the fine sand beneath it takes flight.  So the animals remove the vegetation, and the winds finish the job by blowing away the top soil, transforming the grasslands into desert.

In this perfect storm, the rapid increase in the number of goats has occurred at the same time the area is undergoing a severe drought due to climate change.  The goats require water, which also leads to overuse of that resource.  So many cashmere plants and other industries have opened in Alashan that authorities must ration water, forcing each factory to close for days at a time. (2)

And without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, the deserts in Alashan are expanding by nearly 400 square miles each year. The World Bank warned of grave consequences for the environment and for farmers.

Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages –  a migration on the scale of the Dust Bowl in the United States is taking place in China today. A study by the Asian Development Bank found 4,000 villages at risk of being swallowed by drifting sand (3)


But the environmental degredation doesn’t stop in Alashan.  Eroding grasslands means that silt is deposited into the headwaters of rivers that flow all across Asia: to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.  And the dust storms, which have been a fact of life in this area of the world since before Genghis Kahn, are becoming increasingly common:  in the 1950s, China suffered an average of five dust and sand storms per year; in the 1990s storms struck 23 times each year.  (4)  These storms do a lot of damage:  A storm in 2002 forced 1.8 million South Koreans to seek medical help and cost the country $7.8 billion in damage to industries such as airlines and semiconductors, said the state-run Korea Environment Institute. (5)

And added to the damage the storms cause in China, they also act as a high altitude conveyor belt for pollution.  Think of it like this:  the dust and sand generated in Alashan  is sent east by the winds, where China’s coal powered industry adds pollution.  Together the noxious brew reaches the U.S. within five days, where it can combine with local pollution to exceed the limits of healthy air, according to Rudolf Husar, an atmospheric chemist at Washington University in St. Louis.(6)

According to Eric Osnos’ article, “Of most concern are ultra tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. One storm that began in China and Mongolia in spring 1998 caused a spike in air pollution that prompted health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue warnings to the public.”

The situation has become so bad that herders are moving off the land to try their hand at trades in the cities, and the government is putting many new programs into place to help stem the damage which has been done (including banning grazing on some lands).  The price of cashmere has begun to climb.  But with ads such as the one from Saks, promoting yet another cheap product, these problems will continue to persist.

(1)  Osnos, Evan;  “China’s Great Grab: Your cheap sweather’s real cost”, The Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2006.

(2) Ibid.

(3) http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=389&catid=10&subcatid=66#07)

(4) Osnos, op cit.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

Textiles, organic agriculture and water use

20 10 2009

A new study focused on global water issues, commissioned by an  international network of  scientists,   found that people around the world view water issues as the planet’s top environmental problem –  greater than air pollution, depletion of natural resources, loss of habitat or climate change. (click here to read more on this study).  That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the alarming statistics we’ve been hearing recently:

From World Water Day:  “The world water crisis is one of the largest public health issues of our time. Nearly 1.1 billion people (roughly 20% of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water. Water is essential to the treatment of diseases, something especially critical for children.  This problem isn’t confined to a particular region of the world. A third of the Earth’s population lives in “water stressed” countries and that number is expected to rise dramatically over the next two decades.”

From Water.org:

  • 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease.
  • The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day

Given that the textile industry uses vast quantities of water – and is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on Earth – it is necessary that the industry at the very least institute water treatment at each and every mill so that the water returned to the ecosystem is safe and doesn’t cause harm.  Currently the industry is adopting voluntary certifications which demonstrate to consumers what they are doing to protect the environment.    Some certifications include standards for water treatment (such as GOTS, C2C, SMaRT) and some do not (such as Oeko-Tex, GreenGuard).  But these certifications are voluntary, and water treatment is expensive.  The market doesn’t yet know enough to demand safe fabrics, let alone better processing procedures.  The industry is not adopting these standards quickly nor is there much discussion about water treatment by American textile mills.  It is not enough.  We are calling for a government mandate for water treatment (pH, temperature and COD and BOD content) at each mill in the United States with standards that really have teeth.

We recognize that industrial water pollution is only part of the problem – that the consumer piece of the equation (laundering) is important also.  But the government cannot mandate how you launder your clothes  –  while it does have the power to change and monitor effluent levels from industry.

We  have a made a Faustian bargain:  we have exploited our natural resources and given up long term conservation for short term gain.  I know it’s easy to point fingers after the fact, and it would have been unusual for anybody (including myself) to point out the folly of using up our limited resources when the gains from doing so were so great.  But time is change, and we’re now facing different circumstances.  It is not really even a question of whether we should do this or not,  because our ability to act has been taken away – the water is simply disappearing.  It’s not being replaced.  We have to adapt to circumstances – and now the only question is “how”?  Let me tell you a story.

There are generally two images of the Great Plains that most Americans of my generation keep in their minds.  The first is that iconic black and white photograph by Arthur Rothstein of the 30’s Dust Bowl:


The second is of a swath of verdant farmland, ripe with wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans and cotton –   field after verdant field stretching to the horizon:

golden wheat

This startling change can be attributed to the Ogalala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifer systems in the world.  Total water storage in the aquifer is about equal to that of Lake Huron, and it is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water for residential, industrial and agricultural use.   It is this water that transformed the Great Plains from a region of subsistence farming into one of the richest agricultural areas of the world – $20 billion per year in food and fiber depends on this aquifer.   It stretches across all or portions of eight states and underlies 174,000 square miles.  It lies relatively near the land surface in most of this area, and could almost always be counted on to yield water to a well drilled into it.

In the 1930s, people began to realize the potential of the vast water supply that lay beneath them.  Irrigation of cropland began in earnest.   And very little water conservation technology was available:  lots of water was lost to evaporation and deep percolation; open, unlined ditches were used to transport the water to the fields; it wasn’t uncommon to have evaporation losses of 50%. Early settlers thought the water was inexhaustible.

Ogalala a

It was not.  And today we risk having the first image above superimposed again on the second.   That is because  the Ogalala Aquifer is being sucked dry.

Today, the Ogalala Aquifer  is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic metres a year – amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers.(1)  Although precipitation and river systems are recharging a few parts of the aquifer, in most places “nature cannot keep up with human demands.” (2)

According to a major study just completed by Camp Dresser & McKee, a Boston engineering firm, 5.1 million acres of irrigated land (an area the size of Massachusetts) in six Great Plains states will dry up by the year 2020 ( that’s 10 years!), and millions of acres of irrigated acres will be lost across a 5-state area.  Yet this drastic estimate, declares Herbert Grubb of the Texas department of water resources, is  “20% too optimistic.”(3)

Ship Bright is a blog concerned with fresh water issues, and the post on October 12, 2009 (read it here) features a great description of the current situation, including what they call the “planned bankruptcy”  caused by current water management strategies.

Farmers in the area are waking up to the fact that they will have to use less water – and this in the face of global warming predictions that the area served largely by the Ogalala Aquifer is predicted to be hotter and drier.(4)

One way to conserve water is to use more efficient irrigation systems, another way is to grow crops that require less water.    Then there is “going dryland” – meaning using no irrigation at all.  That requires using some techniques such as leaving stubble in the ground and planting a new crop in the residue.  This not only reduces soil erosion but also decreases evaporation and catches more blowing snow than bare ground.  It also reduces moisture loss by the equivalent of an inch or more of rainfall annually, and in an area that averages only 18 inches of rainfall per year that’s a lot.

These techniques have long been part of organic agriculture  – growing what is appropriate for an area, using what is available.  Many organic crops which do not use artificial fertilizers also have lower water requirements.  There is some research going on into the suitability of cotton as a replacement for corn in this area, because cotton crops use less water than corn.

In addition, some farmers are looking into converting their land back to grasslands, which would provide wildlife habitat, and grazing land for cattle or even buffalo.  (See our blog “Organic Agriculture and Climate Change” 7.29.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings”, 8.4.09).   And once a national carbon market is established, farmers could sell credits for storing carbon in grassland soil.  But the government doesn’t provide lucrative financial incentives for grassland conversion as it does for the production of corn or other commodities.

Once again, organic agriculture proves to be important, perhaps crucial, in our fight modify our water use and perhaps allow the Ogalala Aquifer to recharge.

(1)  Little, J.B., “Saving the Ogalala Aquifer”, Scientific American “Earth 3.0”, Vol 19, No. 1, 2009

(2) Ibid.

(3) Stengel, Woodbury, Allis, “Environment: Ebbing of the Ogalala”, Time, May 10, 1982

(4)Bock, J., Bowman, W., Bock, C, “Global Change in the High Plains of North America”, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Great Plains Research, Vol.1, No. 2

Our toxic drinking water and the Clean Water Act of 1972

15 09 2009


I had a blog post about genetically modified organisims (GMOs) all ready to go,  but then I got  Sunday’s New York Times (September 13, 2009) with a front page story about rising incidences of  violations of the Clean Water Act in the U.S.:  more than half a million violations in the last five years alone.  I had been keeping track of reports of various types of pollution which come to my attention – every week on average, sometimes daily,  there is at least one article in my local paper which gets my blood boiling. Today’s article is about the widespread feminization of fish in American waters, a situation experts see as a wider problem of endocrine disruptive chemicals in our environment.  A few weeks ago I was tempted to write about the 60 Minutes segment that appeared on August 27, 2009.  As 60 Minutes says,  “this is a story about recycling – about how your best intentions to be green can be channeled into an underground sewer that flows from the United States and into the wasteland.”   You can read the story here about a place in China “where you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead”.

But it was today’s article that pushed me over the edge, because we have been working so hard  to remind  people why treating the water used in textile processing is critically important!  People still think using “organic cotton” or “organic anything” results in an organic fabric, when the difference is as much as that between crude oil and silky microfiber.  The textile industry remains the number 1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet, and water is a precious resource that we’re having to spread among more and more people.  We can’t afford to keep discharging effluent filled with toxic chemicals that may cause grave damage to us years down the line.  The Clean Water Act regulates 100 pollutants and the Safe Drinking Water Act limits 91 chemicals in our tap water – that’s  191 chemicals in all.  Small potatoes when the list of chemicals used routinely by industry tops 100,000 – but it’s better than nothing.  Now we find even that protection may be illusory.

The article in question is part of a series that the New York Times is running called “Toxic Waters”, which examines the worsening pollution in American waters, and the response by regulators.  Today’s article, “Clean Water Laws Neglected, at a Cost”, by Charles Duhigg, is based on the hundreds of thousands of water pollution records which the Times obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and the national database of violations they compiled from that information.   This database is more comprehensive than those maintained by any state or the E.P.A.  Click here to see the entire report online (where you can also find any violations which may have occurred in your community).

They found:

  • that an estimated 1 in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet federal health benchmarks.
  • that 40% of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once during the past year – violations that ranged from failing to maintain paperwork to allowing carcinogens into tap water.
  • that more than 23 million people received drinking water that violated a health-based standard.
  • that the number of violations is growing significantly.
  • and that only 3% of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments.

Critics say that the E.P.A. and the states have dropped the ball.  “Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds – and that’s exactly what is apparently going on,” says Representative James L. Oberstar, from Minnesota.  But regulators say they’re overwhelmed, citing the increase in workloads and dwindling resources.

And there are those who say nothing will happen until there is some public outrage.  So please read the story and let’s have some outrage!

We need to take care of the scare resources we have.  We’re running out of water for everybody, and can’t afford to squander it.  Does anybody else get uneasy when you read something like this investor’s recommendation:   “A world that’s running out of clean, dependable supplies of water located where and when farmers need it makes irrigation one of the trends I’d like to invest in.”

water crisis

So when you read about the jeans factory in Lesotho which supplies denim to Levi’s and the Gap which is leaking untreated wastewater, dyed deep blue and polluted with chemicals, into the  local river – and when you read that most of the children living there have chest infections and skin irritations – don’t think it’s a world away and you’re safely protected by municipal water treatment facilities.  The New York Times findings give us scant reason to depend on our local water treatment facilities to protect us from these insults to our ecosystem.  That factory in Lesotho is spewing the effluent into your groundwater and it circulates in your water system.  Apparently that kind of egregious flaunting of the law is going on in West Virginia (and other states) too.

Note:  I live in Seattle, where the Seattle Times gets a feed from the New York Times; often a prominent story in the New York Times is displayed on the first page (or at least in the first section) of the  Seattle Times.  But this article was not carried by the Seattle Times in any section, let alone the front page.