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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IKEA’s “We Love Wood” campaign

17 07 2012

Don’t you just love the fact that you can buy a sofa from IKEA and pay only about $800 – while at the same time bask in self righteous pride that you have acted to support your belief  that you really shouldn’t trash our planet just for a piece of furniture?  At least, you can try to convince yourself that most of  IKEAs claims are true, even though you know they use cheap polyurethane foam in the cushions, the fabric is not organic and probably contains lots of chemicals which might harm you, despite their claim that all products comply with REACH legislation (naturally, because it’s the law in Europe).  REACH, though light years ahead of anything in the US,  still just mandates the substitution for those chemicals which have been identified as being the most dangerous – leaving plenty that still score in the danger category.

Ikea has a new campaign, “We Love Wood” to highlight its claim that they use wood sourced in an environmentally and socially responsible way.   As they say:

We don’t accept illegally felled wood, or wood harvested from intact natural forests. We’re working with suppliers to improve their ability to trace the origin of the wood they use – a requirement for all suppliers of products containing solid wood and board materials. Our long-term goal is to source all wood for IKEA products from forests certified as responsibly managed. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is so far the only forest certification standard that meets IKEA requirements in this respect.

They are promoting it like crazy – here’s just one YouTube video I found:

So what’s my gripe?

The Global Forestry Coalition (GFC), an alliance of NGOs from more than 40 countries (including Friends of the Earth Sweden), alleged in September 2011 that Ikea’s subsidiary, Swedwood, has been clear-cutting forests, including very old trees, in Russia. Yet NEPCon (a Danish registered non-profit organization which ” works to encourage sustainable use of natural resources worldwide” has certified those operations  to be FSC compliant. GFC has called this logging under the FSC banner “a scandal”.[1]

Naturally NEPCon rushed to defend their certification.  (Click here to read their rebuttal.)

Their response includes the statement that Russian FSC standards do not exclude logging in primeval forest, but rather requires that certified operations take an approach that “preserves the most valuable parts of such areas”.

From the rebuttal:  “Another difference is that the Swedwood  concession area mainly covers forest ecosystems that are naturally influenced by forest fires. Such ecosystems are generally more resilient to clear-cutting than less fire-prone forest ecosystems, such as the native forests of Germany. Fires in the certified concession area happen every 50-300 years, and old trees in the concerned areas show clear marks of forest fire. At clear-cut #3 in compartment 203 of Voinitskoje forest district of Kalevalskoje Lesnichestvo, fires are known to have happened three times during the last 450 years (this is one of the sites mentioned in the complaints).”

Hmmm.  Does anybody have any more information about this?


[1] Environmental Leader,  “IKEA accused of logging old-growth forests”, May 30, 2012, http://www.environmentalleader.com/2012/05/30/ikea-accused-of-logging-old-growth-forests/