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 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)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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