I just came from showing our fabrics to a well-known interior design firm here in Seattle. We were told that the only criteria they use to pick fabrics is that it must be beautiful – and of the right color. Environmental and safety issues are just NOT part of the equation.
The visit was not completely a disaster because they did show interest in some of our fabrics – based solely on the beauty and coloration. But I’ve been thinking since then about the responsibility designers have to provide interiors for their clients which are not only beautiful, but which will not cause harm. I know people don’t really want to think that the cute baby blanket they’re eyeing will cause a genetic malformation in their little one – or that a chemical in that blanket will spark a cancer that only shows up 20 years from now. So it’s easy to ignore the problem.
On top of the goal of making their client’s interior spaces safe, there is the additional problem of what THEIR choices do me and MY family – because by choosing certain fabrics they’re ensuring that those fabrics will continue to be produced: those choices ensure that the textile effluent is still being poured into my groundwater, and the sludge is still sent to the landfill, where it leaches the chemicals into the soils and groundwater.
Designers can continue to ignore the misery their choices may cause – at least for now. But I think we should know what they’re doing, so I did a quick study to see what kind of effect fabric may have on us and the planet.
Let’s assume a designer orders fabric to cover one sofa, two chairs and enough fabric for drapery in a living room. We’ll assume the amount of fabric needed would be:
- 20 yards of upholstery fabric for the sofa, and 7 yards for each of the chairs: 34 yards of fabric which weighs18 oz per square yard and is 54” wide (total weight: 57.4 lbs);
- 40 yards of drapery weight fabric at 10 oz per square yard, 54” wide (total weight: 37.5 lbs).
It takes between 13 – 14 gallons of water to produce one pound of natural fiber fabric, and it takes between 6 – 8 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of polyester fabric.
If we use the 8 gallon figure which is at the top of the polyester range but low for natural fibers, the total amount of water used to produce this fabric would have been at least 759 gallons. To put that in perspective, there are about 300 gallons in a large hot tub.
Consider that it takes between 10% and 100% of the weight of the fabric IN CHEMICALS to produce that fabric – for detergents, bleaches, dyes, finishes, scours, optical brighteners, wetting agents, biocides – the list is at least 2,000 chemicals long. But to be a tad conservative, let’s say it takes just 50% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce the fabrics for our room. If the process water (from sizing, desizing, scouring, dyeing, printing and finishing) was returned to our ecosystem without treatment – that means that 47 pounds of chemicals will have been introduced into our ecosystem. Most of the process chemicals are not toxic to us, but remember the concept of reactive chemistry: many of the chemicals used, though benign themselves, will react with other chemicals to create a third substance which is toxic. This reaction can occur during the production of the fibers (in the case of synthetics), during the manufacturing process, or at end of life (i.e., burning at the landfill, decomposing or biodegrading).
But there are chemicals used in processing which are toxic – just as they are. Some of the chemicals expelled in the wastewater DO pose a threat to my health – and that list includes (but is not limited to):
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) , known to cause damage to the brains of newborns (among many other things); they’re persistent and bioaccumulative;
- Benzenes and benzidines: highly carcinogenic
- Phthalates: known to cause breast cancer and asthma
- Arsenic: carcinogen
- Lead: attacks the nervous system
- Mercury: attacks the immune system, alters genetic data and damages nervous system
- Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite): hormonal disruption, infertility and immune system suppression.
These chemicals are all dumped into our environment every day. Remember, as David Suzuki reminds us, we ARE the environment. What is “out there” inevitably is found inside us. That’s why PBDE’s (which are persistent in the environment – meaning they don’t break down into benign, less toxic components) are found in animals worldwide, from penguins in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the tropics – and levels have been doubling every 3 to 5 years for the past three decades. (you can read more about PBDE’s and the furniture in your homes here ). We are silently and progressively changing the chemistry of our bodies.
And lest you think you can ignore what unscrupulous mill practices are doing to our environment by discharging untreated effluent – remember that the fabric you bring into your home and live with intimately is also suffused with these chemicals. Everybody is concerned about “outgassing” – the media is full of information about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). But air quality is just one component of a healthy environment. Not all chemicals volatilize, so they do not “outgass” – but are certainly toxic nevertheless. Take lead, for example – a component of many dyestuffs, lead is not a gas at room temperature so it does not “outgass”. But microscopic particles of your fabric do abrade when you rub against them, and these particles settle into the dust in our homes, to be breathed in by crawling kids and pets.
And designers are hired, presumably, for their expertise. The designer should not be a mindless agent following a vision without regard to function or use. Theoretically, the designer has a body of knowledge that is deeper than the client’s, so an ethical burden is placed on the designer. The client can plead ignorance of the issues but the designer cannot. According to Daniel Yang, good design seeks to foster the client’s trust, then fulfills or exceeds her expectations. Designers should advocate for a better design while striving to make the best product they can for their clients. But how can a product be considered “good” if it compromises that clients health and well being? Daniel Yang points out that it’s hard to advocate for a product when the people that end up consuming the product will probably never come back to complain – as is the case with fabrics.
So I wish I could go back to those designers who look only at color and aesthetics and point out that their thoughtless choice are harming not only their clients, but me and my family – all of us. And that they should consider these questions if they want to save their professional souls – or to save their professional license, as many are suggesting that the law might soon mandate that designers consider the public welfare when specifying products.