Three reasons you should choose environmentally friendly skincare products

Last time, I blogged about the Pink Ribbon and how we should discuss hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic substances in personal care products more. To my mind, there are three key reasons why we should consider going green in the cosmetics department.

First, our own personal health. As I mentioned in the blog post, there are many examples of ingredients affecting our health negatively, for example UV-filter in sunscreen may disrupts hormones. Parabens and breast cancer. There are too many examples here too mention in one post but basically, do not suppose that brands with a green image are truly green. To the opposite, brands such as Clinique, Body Shop and Bare Minerals have been shown to include for example PFOS in products. PFOS is a similar compound to PFAS, if you remember my post about the Dupont case. PFOS is also the chemical 3M was sued for using in Scotchgard. You don’t want this on your skin or in your bathroom at all.

The second reason is because of the environment. I recently reread Johan Rockström and co’s Planetary Boundaries (2015) paper and they state in no uncertain terms that chemical pollution is one the nine key planetary boundaries we need to watch out for:

“The risks associated with the introduction of novel entities into the Earth system are exemplified by the release of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are very useful synthetic chemicals that were thought to be harmless but had unexpected, dramatic impacts on the stratospheric ozone layer. In effect, humanity is repeatedly running such global-scale experiments but not yet applying the insights from previous experience to new applications.”

They also discuss micro plastic pollution, again something commonly found in cosmetics and which I have written about before.  As another example, we know that sunscreen seeps into the water and affects corals reproduction. This is why they have forbidden certain sunscreens in Hawaii. In addition, many chemicals are made out of fossil fuels and thus a non-renewable source with effects on the climate. It is estimated that in 2030 the chemical industry will stand for 30% of the total oil production.

There is, to my mind, a naive belief sometimes among consumers that everything is thoroughly tried and tested before it can be used in products. To the opposite, in the paper the researchers write that we need better methods to find out if a substance is harmful before it becomes widely used.

The third reason to go green is social. There are many chemically sensitive individuals that cannot move freely in public spaces because we are constantly spreading chemicals they react to through our perfumes, fragrances and personal care products. Nail polish, hair spray and other evaporating products are, in fact, a form of significant air pollution, believe it or not. It’s called volatile organic compounds (VOC) and yes it’s in your cosmetics. That scent you smell is basically chemical pollution and for someone nearby it might trigger an asthma attack.

So how do you go green? Maybe the most environmentally friendly approach is DIY. These days there are web shops such as Organic Makers that provide all the basic safe ingredients you need. The Zero Waste Home book provides many basic tricks and recipes. But maybe you don’t want the fuss of making it yourself and maybe you like a nice packaging (although that’s less environmentally friendly). If so, there are tons of organic brands out there. I also use several of these, because sometimes that’s good enough.

The link between circular economy & sustainability- a case with H&M

This morning, I introduced the case we will be working on this autumn on my course at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH): managing business towards a circular economy and sustainability. The case is in partnership with H&M who is also a partner of the Ellen MacArthur circular economy initiative.

As I’ve written about before, I was not an early adopter of the circular economy. I do, however, teach circular economy as a trend in the sustainability area both at Örebro University and NHH. The more I reflect on the concept, the more of a convert I’ve become. So I thought I’d share some of my aha-moments about the circular economy and sustainability with you here.

First of all, what do we mean with sustainability? The established definition is from the UN Brundtland report (1987):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

As Kuhlman & Farrington (2010) (one of our key references in the NHH course) writes, this sustainability definition addresses the tension between mankind’s aspiration towards a better life on the one hand and the limitations imposed by nature on the other hand. This tension between social welfare and natural resources is more often than not ignored in the business debate on sustainability. We often pretend it does not exist. And of course, there are many win-win situations where environmental or social measures also bring down costs and/or increase income.  There are definitely low hanging fruit, efforts that are win-win or at least come at no cost.

However, there are cases where tension between social well-fare and environmental sustainability undoubtedly exists. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example. The industry argues that it provides tremendous social benefit by saving lives (or at least reducing suffering) but the environmental pollution, especially chemical and water pollution, is high, both at production  and consumption sites. Why do such tensions between social well-fare and natural resources occur?

Operating in a closed system

Some of you might have heard about the Planetary Boundaries. Professor Johan Rockström and co-authors defined nine environmental boundaries we should stay within to ensure a stable living environment (see picture, borrowed from the 2015 article). What this figure tells businesses is that we are operating in a closed system. If we mismanage certain environmental resources, such as biodiversity and chemical pollution, we cannot compensate for these in other ways. If we cross these, there is no functional living environment we can operate within.

 

Why a linear business model does not work in a closed system

Now the problem with a linear business model (which most businesses have and what we often teach students) is that it treats input to businesses (and its outputs) according to the value chain- the business uses certain input and through a number of processes produces some outputs. These inputs, resources, the business uses appear to just exist. The environment is there for us to use and not affected by our use. Likewise, outputs and externalities from our production  just go somewhere. However, as the 1990 chapter on circular economy by Pearce and Turner states, eventually the waste we produce will affect the availability of new resources. And the accumulated waste affects our well-being too. The fact that business operates in a closed system has to be taken into account. Certainly for global businesses.

Now from the planetary boundaries perspective, the best would of course be to minimize consumption and for us to produce less in order to spare the environment and stay within the boundaries. This is in line with the minimalism and anti-consumerism movement. If we consume less, we do not need to produce so much. We can share, mend and repurpose etc. This is admirable and has a place, especially in societies with overconsumption. It is my approach to my own wardrobe situation. However, at this point in the debate, someone will throw in the argument that we cannot deny developing countries the same social benefits we have allowed ourselves. If we have been flying for decades, why shouldn’t they be able to?

Kate Raworth, with a background at Oxfam, illustrated this pedagogically in her ‘Doughnut Economics‘. It is a fact that there are large groups of people that are not getting their basic needs met. And to achieve progress on this point will in many cases require use of natural resources. Here, the tension between the social development and the availability of natural resources the Brundtland report sought to address is very clear.

Consequently, Raworth put those basic social needs into Rockström’s figure, in the middle, to illustrate that we want to maximize the social well-fare of people while at the same time staying within the planetary boundaries. We want to operate, she argues, within the green ‘doughnut’ formation in the figure.

Sustainability is getting the maximum social value while staying within the planetary boundaries

Working along the lines of minimizing and restricting consumption can, at least in some cases, thus deny us social value. Similarly, what many sustainability-minded businesses do is to try to minimize the waste and externalities from production. To reduce the ‘shadow’ of business, make them ‘tread lightly’ on the environment. There are many impressive initiatives with zero waste factories and water reduction regimes. These are all good, no doubt about it. We need these kinds of initiatives. However, the circular economy further adds that ‘waste’ should not simply be removed but could also become a resource for us to use. It’s a fact that we need some amount of production and that it uses resources and that there will be some amount of waste. What can we do with the remaining waste? How can we turn it into resources?

As this post is long enough, I will simply have to write about the challenges with making waste into circular resources in a follow up post. Still, I hope you see, like I do, why there is a case for circular business in a sustainable society. And I’m so excited about our case with H&M and what the students will come up with.

Why is it so hard to resist fashion?

And maybe even more so, the sales?

It’s three years this August since I gave up conventionally produced fashion. Three years ago I decided to only buy sustainably produced fashion. Many of the items I subsequently bought (Veja shoes, Serendipity organics sweater, my Palmgrens bag) are still wardrobe favorites. The only time I cheated was when buying a pair of Chloe pants at the sales that winter (that in the end didn’t fit me and ended up with my sister). One and a half years ago, I decided I actually didn’t need any new clothes at all. The same month I traveled to London during the sales and  found it really challenging to resist shopping. I decided to not even enter the big department stores to resist fashion shopping. Shopping abroad and the sales-  getting expensive fashion cheap- is somehow so very hard to resist.

It also seems that fashion is more difficult to abstain from than other kinds of shopping. I recently finished the book ‘Not buying it’ by Judith Levine. Levine and her husband decide to only buy the very necessary goods (basically groceries) during a year. The book is a personal reflection on this experiment. They obviously save lots of money but also find certain types of socializing tricky. Interestingly, the only times Levine does cheat is in the fashion department. One time she cannot resist a second hand store when on vacation. She cheats a second time at the sales of her favorite fashion brand. Thus of all the kinds of consumption she has to abstain from- restaurants, books, interior design- fashion turns out to be the most difficult. And particularly when traveling and at the sales.

Funnily enough, Levine uses some grey area shopping strategies, just like me. In the book, friends buy her cinema tickets and give her presents, things she isn’t allowed to buy herself, since she has the shopping-ban. Similarly, I’m getting a year’s supply of Swedish Stockings nylon stockings for my birthday (so excited to try them!). These days when family wonders what I would like for my birthday, I tend to want something very specific in the wardrobe area. Is this cheating? It’s at least a grey area. And a way for family members to give me something I very much need as a gift.

Levine’s ‘Not buying it’ initiative was partly motivated by financial reasons but also has a political undertone. Unlike her, I don’t see anything wrong in paying someone for a service or a good as long as you can afford it and its production and consumption is environmentally and socially sustainable. My own shopping-ban is a way to stop my own overconsumption of fashion. To use what I own and get a manageable size wardrobe.

The general problem is really that so much of our consumption is not environmentally and socially sustainable. If we fix this, change production and end-of-life processes so that they are sustainable or even circular, I don’t see any reason to limit consumption.

If you are not politically against financial transactions and/or markets, there is nothing wrong with paying someone for providing you with a sustainable service or good.

A second year of no-shopping?

At the end of a year of no clothes shopping, I concluded that I would not be able to continue another year. Despite ending the year with ca 540 items in my wardrobe, I saw ‘needs’ that meant that I would have to resume shopping this year.

Five months into 2018 and it turns out I was wrong. There have not been any urgent needs that I have had to address. Sure, I am running low on nylon stockings (but still I’ve managed 1,5 year using only my stash!). The boots are getting worn but they are still fine with a bit of leather balm. Clearly, I overestimate how much I wear items. In this part of the world, seasons change so fast so clothes/shoes are used only a few times before the weather is too warm/cold and the items get stored away again. The wardrobe gets worn oh so gently.

A friend asked how much time I spend mending. Yes, mending takes time. In fact, I’ve kept track of how much time I’ve spent mending the last four months. As a general pattern, I mend more when I have time to do so and less when I’m too busy. Only natural. What happens when I’m busy is that I get professional help with the mending and I’ve kept track on that too this year. So far it looks like this:

February: 32 min mending, no professional help

March: 15 min mending, professional help SEK 1600 (including mending,  dry cleaning & shoes repair)

April: 10 min mending, professional help SEK 2600 (including dry cleaning & sewing)

May: 1,5 h mending, no professional help

So I don’t spend a lot of time mending, but when I do I get a lot done (17 mends overall). I had five occasions of professional mending/sewing to a totalt cost of SEK2500. Two instances of shoes repair to a total of SEK 500.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense to mend things yourself. It’s fast and cheap. However, in very busy times, it might make sense to get help and save the stress of possibly not having the clothes ready for when you need them. I get help with mending and sewing from my dry cleaner and yes the cost adds up. Above all, less dry cleaning would save both the environment and my wallet. In once instance, I successfully avoided the dry cleaner by washing outerwear in the washing machine, after realising that it was mostly cotton and thus supposedly washable despite the label saying dry cleaning. Shoes repair I’m happy to leave to the professionals at all times.

I’m also happy to report that almost half way through 2018, my wardrobe is  minus 2 items. I went plus 8 when I inherited some clothes, mostly outerwear, from my great-aunt. In addition, since January, I’ve worn out 10 items (mostly basics). Since I don’t expect to suddenly inherit more clothes (fingers crossed!) and if I successfully keep other temptations at bay, I hope the wardrobe content will decrease even more. I am, as we speak, selling a pair of hardly worn Converse All Stars on auction site Tradera. That’s another minus one.

So to sum up, I’ve now managed 1,5 years without wardrobe shopping and, since the start, reduced my wardrobe with six items. It’s safe to say that I will never have a minimalist wardrobe. And that’s not the issues here either. I love my clothes. I just need to wear them instead of getting new ones all the time.

Another sustainable wardrobe challenge: Me made May 18

April ended with Fashion Revolution week, a yearly event that commemorates the Rana Plaza disaster (and which I’ve blogged about before).  This year marked its five year anniversary and brands such as Danish Serendipity Organics and Swedish Asket answered the challenge and showed their customers how their products are made. Fashion Revolution week thus clearly has an impact on companies and encourages another level of traceability in the supply chain. It’s not enough to know where things are made, but also by whom, how and by what materials. I’m already looking forward to next year, new companies accepting the challenge and seeing where this movement will lead.

As a very appropriate follow-up, May starts with the social media event ‘Me made May‘. The initiative involves wearing garments where your own hands have been involved in its making. As Fashion Revolution originator, Orsola de Castro, says: the less we know about how our fashion is made, the less we connect with it. It’s much more difficult to throw away a garment you’ve put lots of effort into making yourself than something you’ve bought cheaply at the store. Consequently, making clothes yourself is often an eyeopener and makes us realise how the cheap prices of fast fashion should be impossible. Learning about seams and finishes, we learn to recognise the difference between high and low quality garments. There are thus many good reasons to at least try to mend, alter or even sew clothes yourself.

Me made May was started nine years ago by blogger Zoe Edwards in order to make the home-sewing community connect with the items they’ve made. I join the challenge this year since I finally came up with a doable challenge for myself. I will wear, each day of May, at least one garment which I’ve either sewn, altered or mended myself. After one year and four moths without shopping I’ve  mended a lot of my wardrobe, so this should be doable. I also expect my few homemade garments to get some extra wear this month. You can follow my progress on Instagram. You can also sign up for this year’s #MMMay18 here.

Sustainability & fish farming: working with a real case

Aquaculture, such as fish farming, is a key industry to ensure  sustainable food production in the future. Foods deriving from the seas face many challenges such overfishing and water pollution. At the same time, sea food has many benefits such as low climate impact and high nutritional value.

It is quite clear today that wild fish supply is not sufficient and that aquaculture is necessary in some form in order to supply current populations with sea food. However, fish farming has been criticized for unsustainable practices through the years and the industry still struggles with some of them like sea lice, escapes and sustainable feed sources.

In the course I teach at NHH ‘Measuring sustainability’ we each year work with  a real case on how to measure sustainability. Last autumn, we collaborated with Norwegian Responsible Investment association Norsif on how we can measure and evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture companies. One of the things I love about these cases is the creativity the students show when coming up with new ideas and solutions. I truly believe this kind of creativity, combined with academic thinking and facts, is one of the most important skills we can teach students.

One of the learning points from working with the aquaculture case is how important national regulation is for sustainable fish farming. One of the drastic differences is the use of antibiotics. Aquaculture uses significant amounts of antibiotics, which is a critical issue considering antibiotic resistance, but the industry also shows that it can do without it when it has to, such as in Norway.

Another difficult issue is that fish farming in Europe is mostly done with omnivorous fish such as salmon. It is less efficient to raise fish that partly eats other fish than fish that only feeds on algea. Instead of feeding the salmon other fish, we could eat this fish directly and thus skip the step of raising the salmon. The fish in the feed can also lead to further overfishing. Of course we can feed salmon a vegetarian diet but salmon that are fed on vegetable rather than animal proteins may be lacking in Omega-3, which is one of the main reasons salmon are so healthy for a human diet. A better solution would be to instead farm a fish that naturally feeds on for example algea.

Another key issue for sustainability, the students discovered, is future orientation of the companies and investment in research to find sustainable solutions to issues we have not yet solved. During the course, we we’re visited by the head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, Wenche Gronbrekk, who explained how the company works to address sustainability issues. Wenche has answered a few of my questions below and also describes their investment in future solutions: iFarm.

Sabina: The Norwegian aquaculture industry has made quite some progress in terms of addressing its sustainability challenges. What are, in your opinion, some of the main achievements? 
Wenche: We have made great progress in lifting the industry standard the past years through collaboration –  through dialogue and knowledge sharing between government, research and industry. Also, in the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), addressing key issues such as standardization, feed ingredients and biosecurity. Vaccine development has also been key to advancing sustainability to the level we see today.

Sabina: Still, as we have learnt when working with this case, challenges remain. What’s on top of your to-do-list in terms of sustainability?
Wenche: Sustainability requires continuous effort, and we work every day to be better than just complying with minimum standards. Developing new solutions that address key problems is also a priority – such as our iFarm concept. It may solve many of the key challenges today through individualized treatment of each fish, increasing animal health and welfare, optimizing feeding and any need for treatment, which may in turn reduce the environmental footprint of our activities.

Sabina: Sustainability is, according to its definition, about the long term perspective, future generations even. Still most organisations operate with a shorter time perspective in their day-to-day business. How are you able to take the long term perspective into account?
Wenche: Salmon farming is largely dependent on taking a long term view – we operate in the sea and biological risks do not respect financial quarters. To have a business over time, our operations need to be sustainable in all aspects: environmentally, socially and economically. 

Sabina: Many who work as sustainability officers or even head of sustainability find that change management is crucial in order to conduct their work. Is this your experience as well?
Wenche: As a sustainability officer you need to work across the organization, break silos and in many ways be a change agent. Integrating sustainability in business strategy also means that many companies need to innovate their business model – and it is my experience that sustainability professionals often play a central part in this transformation.

A big thank you to Wenche and Cermaq for sharing your experiences with us and also to Norsif and Norsif member Folketrygdfondet and Tine Fossland who attended the students presentations and provided feedback on their evaluation models. We could not have done this without you!

Why young women going vegetarian for the climate is not necessarily a good thing

Last year one in five of Swedish young women became vegetarian because of climate change. Some might think that this is excellent news. We hear a lot that we should all eat less meat, ideally become vegetarians. The complex problem of food and sustainability has been reduced to the simple statement that vegetables are all good and meat overall bad. Unsurprisingly, such black and white statements are oversimplifications. One of the simplifications is the issue of methane and whether or not it is part of the carbon cycle, as I’ve previously written about here.

Another simplification is how the climate impact of food is calculated. Many calculations are based on how much CO2 is released  per kilogram of the food. This, however, has been criticized by research that shows that calculating CO2 per volume, calorie or even nutrient will give different results. The researchers conclude that “the sustainability of alternative diets, matched for energy and nutrient adequacy, can only be made on the basis of calories and nutrient contents and not per gram of weight”. Surprisingly, if you calculate climate impact per calorie, lettuce appears worse than bacon. Basically, how we calculate the climate impact of food makes a big difference. Like, Gunnar Rundgren I believe that there’s a point in calculating emission per nutrient density.

Taking nutrients into account when calculating climate impact is important because, as Rockström has pointed out, food is both a key factor in the health epidemic as well as the climate. Half of Swedish female adolescents have iron deficiency, one in three women in general. It is well known that iron from meat type of sources is absorbed more easily (25%) than from vegetable sources (5-10%). Research on diets and climate change acknowledges that reduced meat in diets is especially problematic for young women for this reason.

If we encourage women with iron deficiency to become vegetarians, we’d better be sure it is beneficial for the climate.

I am not so sure it is and I’ll use the following example with two high impact foods to illustrate why. Lamb is generally viewed as the meat with the highest climate impact. Rice, because of methane emissions, is among the highest climate impact grains. A Swedish lamb provides a carbon footprint of 16 kg CO2-equivalent per slaughtered kg lamb. A kilo of Thai rice provides between 1.34- 3.57 CO2-e per kg. Let’s say 2.4 kg CO2-e/kg.

Calculating emissions according to weight, yes lamb (16/kg) is much worse for the climate than rice (2.4/kg). You can eat six times as much rice and still release less CO2.

However, we have all heard about empty calories. What’s important is not only how much we eat but the nutrients the food provides us with. And we have to consider a woman’s recommended daily intake of iron, around 15 mg (9 mg for men). So here’s the issue. You would have to eat 3.2 kg rice a day to get the daily iron allowance. And considering the sort of iron and its lower absorption, it is even more. If you instead eat lamb, maybe even liver, 300g/day is enough. Of course, in reality no one would rely on a single food to provide all the necessary iron but the figure shows how efficient liver would be in doing so.

So to get your recommended daily intake of iron, what is the climate impact? For Thai rice the climate impact is at least 7,68 kg CO2-e. For Swedish lamb liver it’s 4,8 kg CO2-e.

Now, you might say, young Swedish women know about empty calories and would go for broccoli rather than rice. Still lamb liver is more efficient than broccoli in delivering iron per kg CO2-e. You would have to eat more than 2,3 kg broccoli to get the recommended daily intake. In climate impact that’s (using the example of UK broccoli) ca 5,3 kg CO2-e.

My message is really this. We have to consider nutrient content and absorption instead of climate impact per weight or calorie. When we consider nutrient content and absorption, we may find that going vegetarian is not a good idea. Instead, eating small amounts of nutrient dense food, like lamb liver, helps young women to maintain their health.

It is more climate friendly to eat small amounts of nutrient dense foods than eating large quantities of empty calories.

The nutrient argument was highlighted by researchers with connections to the Swedish dairy industry in 2010. While we of course have to be wary of industry motives, I still believe the overall idea of considering nutrients in relation to climate impact is a sound idea. And the general lesson here is that how we calculate affects the results we get.

On the picture: grazing sheep on the west coast of Norway, are they really that bad for the climate? It depends on how you calculate.

The wardrobe audit: 2017 in review

Despite a year of not shopping any clothing my wardrobe is still full. Very few things got worn out last year. And, miraculously, things we’re added to the wardrobe without shopping. Consequently, I was quite curious to know if I expanded or reduced my closet last year. Basically, did I go plus or minus wardrobe-wise.

So I counted all my clothes the other day. I even put them in an excel sheet. If you google ‘count your clothes’, you’ll see that I’m far from the first person on earth to do so. It seems that an average, non-minimalist, wardrobe contains between 200- 500 items. Needless to say, I’m in the upper range, ca 540, including outerwear, swimwear, formal wear i.e. basically all form of clothing but no accessories or shoes. I might include these too in the future though.

To my defense, I haven’t given away clothes to charity shops the last couple of years because of sustainability reasons. As Karen Templer defined slow fashion, it’s about “wearing each item (whatever it is, wherever it came from) for as long as it lasts, extending the lives of things through care and mending, and re-homing anything that doesn’t work for you.” I think the last term ‘re-homing’ is important, making sure the item gets a new home, which isn’t the case of charity shops these days.

Reviewing last year’s wardrobe outflows, I re-homed a silk shirt and tank top to family members. I threw away some underwear, socks, and nylon stockings (after already mending them several times, thrown in the trash). Two t-shirts torn beyond mending  became rags to clean with (I remember my mom saving worn out clothes for rags when we were kids, when did we quit this habit?). A pair of jeans with broken zipper is stored away to use for second life sewing  somehow, i.e. practically they’re no longer in the wardrobe (anyone knows how to mend such zippers?). In total, I parted with ca 10 items.

On the inflow side, I sewed a scout tee from silk scraps in my fabric stash. I knitted a dark blue wool sweater (a knitting project my mom started but had abandoned). I found a 70/80s Austrian wool jacket and skirt at my parents that joined my wardrobe as well as mom’s old 80s salt and pepper wool coat. My sister trusted me with a torn Marella blouse that I mended and made sleeveless (on the picture). Thus six items joined the wardrobe. 

All in all, my wardrobe went minus four items last year.

At this pace, it will take a 135 years to wear out my wardrobe. Seen like this, it looks like my shopping days are over.

There were also a few items that neither added or subtracted but simply changed categories. A red wool jumper left the ‘wool sweater’ category and joined the ‘wool cardigan’ group. This refashioning of a sweater into a cardigan following Worn values tutorial was a success, I have been wearing the ‘new’ cardigan a lot, I never wore it as a sweater. And instead of 27 wool sweaters I now ‘only’ have 26. The wool cardigan category went from 17 to 18 accordingly.

As a knitter, it becomes quite obvious here that one might not need more than 26 wool sweaters. I so very much enjoy knitting sweaters and cardigans but will I wear them? There are, in my climate, maybe six months of wearing wool sweaters and cardigans, ca 180 days. Assuming that you wear either a cardigan or a sweater, not both at the same time, it means that I can wear each sweater/cardigan four times during the season. Basically, it will take many years to wear out a sweater when it gets worn maximum four times a year. Consequently, I have to rethink my knitting habits. While I can finish knitting my current projects, there is now a ban on starting new sweater/cardigan projects for myself. To tell the truth, I did not suspect I had such an abundance of knitwear in my wardrobe before I counted it.

While I was doing my wardrobe audit Worn values posted a review of her slow fashion year 2017. Interestingly, she calculates not only how many items joined her wardrobe but also at what cost. Since I had a year of no-shopping, I paid nothing for new items last year, the only cost was shortening the hem of a skirt (because I was too lazy to do it myself) to the cost of approximately 200 SEK. I also put new soles on few pair of shoes. It would have been very interesting to compare this amount to what I used to spend on my wardrobe. Of course, I never calculated what I spent on my wardrobe before (a passionate shopper doesn’t want to know)  but I suspect I’m saving around 30 000 SEK a year.

During 2018, I would like to not only keep track of in- and outflows but also of how much mending I do.  Sometimes I feel like mending is all I do, so quantifying it would be a way to highlight the effort I put into my wardrobe.

Previous posts about my quest for a sustainable wardrobe: “Is owning less more sustainable“, “2017, the year without shopping“,  “A month without shopping“, “The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

Last year’s resolution of not shopping any clothes brought many benefits: saving money and the environment, reducing waste and getting a closer, more personal relationship to my closet. There is one aspect, though, that I have thought less about but that I was lately reminded of: reduced chemical exposure. It might even be one of the more important benefits of not shopping.

We all have hundreds of chemicals in our blood, many of which are hormone disrupting. And this is in Sweden and the EU where we at least have the REACH chemical regulation. The US has much less regulation, which is discussed in the documentary STINK (can really recommend this documentary, there is a lot of useful information in it).

New clothes are made, dyed and treated with chemicals and these chemicals can end up in our blood stream with serious effects. We were recently reminded of this fact by the H&M burning-clothes scandals (but it applied to numerous other brands too!). One of the reasons the companies are burning seemingly good clothes is because they contain harmful levels of chemicals and substances. Although it is in fact good that we are not sold these items, it is a reminder of the fact that such chemicals are in the clothes at some level. One could question why the companies do not simply remove these harmful chemicals from the production, as our minister for the environment did in the H&M reportage.

One way that chemicals, such as triclosan, gets into our bodies is thus through clothes. I remember buying a pair of jeans some years ago that smelled terribly, “I smell like a walking pool #toxicfashion” I tweeted. I washed the jeans and continued wearing them despite the lingering smell. If I had known what I know now, I would have understood that the smell could be chemicals that would end up in my body and do damage there. I would have returned the jeans to the store.

In the STINK documentary, the story starts similarly with a pair of smelling pyjamas. However, unlike me, the father in the movie realises not only that it’s a sign of chemicals but also that these might be really dangerous to his kids. His wife has recently died in cancer so he realises that some of these chemicals could even be carcinogenic (spoiler alert!- they are).

The obvious benefit with not shopping is that you are not introducing new items and their chemicals into your wardrobe and to your body. If you also consider more environmental friendly washing options (for example avoiding dry cleaning), this will reduce an overall chemical exposure. Shopping second hand, for example for your child, has similar benefits because the clothes have been washed already multiple times which should reduce the chemical content.

One aspect the STINK documentary does not discuss, and which thus is a weakness from a sustainability perspective, is where the chemicals used in production and that result from when we wash our clothes end up: in the environment and in our waters. But I guess you cannot tell all in one and a half hour.  This part of the story has also been brought up elsewhere, for example in the True Cost movie.

Can we really compare meat to fossil fuels?

Many sustainability proponents these days encourage us to become vegetarians. At least once a day there is some article along these lines in my Twitter feed. Unfortunately, there are many arguments circulating in this debate that are quite misleading. The worst error people make, in my opinion, is to equate emissions from cattle with emissions from fossil fuels.

This is simply misleading because these emissions have very different relationships to the carbon cycle. By burning fossil fuels we are adding carbon to the carbon cycle whereas emissions from cattle have a role within the carbon cycle, it naturally belongs there.

Let me explain. We all learnt about the carbon cycle in school and thus we should know that carbon circulates between the atmosphere, to plants, to animals and us humans and is yet again released into the air. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi etc. also play a role in this. It is how it should work in nature. Animals have a part to play in this cycle by both storing and releasing carbon in different forms.

Now whereas cattle is part of this normal carbon cycle fossil fuels are not. Fossil fuel is stored away carbon that is suddenly released into the atmosphere through human intervention. Because the natural carbon cycle cannot absorb all this added carbon, a larger portion of it remains in the atmosphere. The natural equivalent is a volcanic eruption. But these days we have constant man-made emissions of such stored away carbon. This way, we add carbon to the atmosphere that was not there before and would not have been released without us. This is indisputable and should really be our focus since we know this for certain.

Now some argue that because we hold cattle as part of our food chain we have affected the carbon cycle by raising more cows than what existed before human intervention, i.e. before animal husbandry. That there are more animals on earth today, and particularly ruminants, is a hypothesis that is difficult to prove. We don’t know exactly how many animals existed before our animal husbandry or how many of these were ruminants, so it is only estimates. Even if there are more ruminants living on earth today, it is not necessarily a problem because cattle also absorbs carbon. Just as us humans, their bodies are partly built of carbon that is released through breathing and when we die etc.

The problem with more ruminants on earth, according to the veggie proponents, is that ruminants release more methane than other animals. Thus we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane, they argue. However, the more we learn about methane, it is not really an isolated case of cows as such but methane producing bacteria that we find in all kinds of environments. Moreover, most of these emissions do belong to the natural carbon cycle that was there before us. It is possible that human behavior provide more beneficial environments for these methane bacteria, by raising more ruminants (who release methane) and rice agriculture. But then again, there might have been wild animals and natural swamps before and if so there has not been a significant change. We basically don’t know. There are estimates in both directions.

Acting on very incomplete information on how methane acts is in my opinion risky. Before we start to mess with the methane-producing bacteria in the cow’s stomach (which they are now starting to do), let’s learn more on how it actually operates. And when we do address methane, let’s include all man-made sources such as rice, landfills and wetlands too.

Thus we see that equating fossil fuel emissions to emissions from cattle is misleading. In the case of fossil fuels we know that we have added carbon to the carbon cycle and in these amounts it cannot be absorbed in the cycle (although the oceans have compensated a lot). In the case of cows, we don’t really know whether we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane because of animal husbandry. Moreover,  the case is not just about cows but methane producing bacteria that could be affected by many of our activities. We still need to learn much more. So until we do, let’s address the things we know for certain and that are urgent: our red meat habit is pretty stable whereas our flying habits have exploded the last decades.

There’s so much more to say on the subject of climate change and food but I find this to be one of the main points.

On the picture: cow at Lovö Prästgård in the Stockholm area.