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.

Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

Slow Fashion in memory of Rana Plaza

This week it’s four years since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh . 2500 workers were injured and 1129 killed when the eight-storey factory collapsed. This event is commemorated with the Fashion Revolution Week each year. Customers and consumers are encouraged to ask their brands ‘who made my clothes?’. Consequently, social media is buzzing with activity and many brands have shared pictures and stories about their production, for example Serendipity Organics and many more (to see the brands and their stories follow @fash_rev on Instagram). Even conventional fashion media, such as British Vogue, report on the activity.

Many of those active during Fashion Revolution Week are also all year round Slow Fashion proponents. Karen Templer of Slow Fashion October did a thoughtful  blog post defining ‘Slow Fashion’ as considering the human, environmental and monetary cost of clothing as well as taking full responsibility for what we own:

By take responsibility, I mean commit to 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.

Independent pattern maker ‘In the folds‘ organised an Instagram challenge to direct attention to the time and skill it takes to make clothing. Most clothes are still made by hand and it should be valued, whether we do it ourselves or someone does it for us, she argues.

Elisalex of ‘By Hand London‘ made tutorials for Fashion Revolution Week on how to embroider and sew on patches to cover wholes, imperfections or just to make items more fun. The purpose is to make our clothing more useful so that we use what we have instead of buying new or throwing things out. The workers put a lot of effort into making clothing for us, one way to value their work is to give the clothing a long life (find my strategies for doing so here)

It seems to me that the Slow Fashion movement is here to stay. It is starting to have a presence in social media all year round. Fashion Revolution Week keeps the memory of Rana Plaza alive and educates customers and consumers about social responsibility in fashion production. The question is if the brands are changing their ways as fast as their customers are learning about the issues.

The Rana Plaza disaster shouldn’t have happened but it did. Supporting better and safer business practices is one way to commemorate the events.

What we pay workers in developing countries

On Wednesday night, I was out talking about my research. Since the fashion industry had been on my mind lately, I decided to use it as an example of how we can measure companies’ sustainability. When I was about to speak I realised the audience was, apart from two women, only men. On average 50+. A crowd that might not be so concerned with fashion.

In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t adjust my examples to the audience.  I suspect 50+ men do not get preached to about environmental problems and working conditions in the fashion industry so often. They were surprisingly interested. I was asked about child labour, so there is some awareness in this crowd too.

This time, I used working conditions in the supply chain as one indicator of how ambitious a company is in regards to sustainability. These issues are of course not limited to the fashion industry. A recent Swedwatch report shows that the tobacco industry might be worse. Child labour in combination with hazardous argochemicals is a  very bad combination (smokers- choose organic and Fairtrade!). While wine production might not be equally bad, there’s still good reason to consider how certain wine stays so cheap.

There are many components to working conditions but one of the most important ones is wage. There are certain key terms or certifications that we can look for as they indicate what the company is paying the workers.

Many companies simply pay minimum wage. This is the legal minimum in a country and part of what lures companies to start production in a ‘new’ developing country. But these ‘new’ low wage countries come with problems, as HM recently learnt (again!) when it got out that they (again) had child labour in the supply chain earning less than the minimum wage. Getting labour in Myanmar as cheap as a third of the hourly rate in China must have been very tempting.

Paying the minimum wage is, in many cases, not sustainable as it is not necessarily enough for workers to support themselves. Consequently, the companies get trouble over time because workers have to work overtime to support themselves.

Recognising that they have to go beyond minimum wage, some companies then decide to pay a ‘fair wage’. It is sometimes unclear what this exactly entails, but it is should be more than minimum wage. Norwegian Varner (Dressman, Bik Bok, Cubus, Volt, Solo etc.) is in the process doing something in this area but we don’t know what they will eventually decide on.

A little more ambitious and well defined is the concept ‘living wage’. According to most, a living wage should at least be able to support the worker and a child or half a family. If you’ve seen documentaries where female workers send their children away because they cannot take care of them, then living wage sounds pretty good. HM has said that they will pay a living wage for ‘strategic’ suppliers from 2018. It’ll be interesting to see if they achieve this goal.

A decently ambitious standard that requires companies to pay living wage is SA8000, used by for example Aiayu.

Some companies go further and adopt some kind of Fairtrade certification. This generally means that the community of workers get paid a little extra in order to invest in the community. Two examples are  Patagonia (American Fairtrade) and Serendipity Organics (FLOCERT).

Even more ambitious are, from my point of view,  artisan collaborations. Rather than putting people in factories, when working with local artisan groups and communities companies support people in their existing traditional craft skills. This has a cultural value of its own. One fashion example in this category is People Tree. Within furniture there’s American West Elm. IKEA also has occasional collections in this category.

It is always important to check how big part of the production any of these initiatives apply to. Sometimes companies announce these initiatives so boldly that it seems as if it concerns the whole company when in fact it is only a pilot project.

A final note on poverty. Many chains argue that by placing orders in developing countries they help alleviate poverty in that country. It would be worse if they closed production (as if paying minimum wage or closing production are the only two options). However, if companies wanted to alleviate poverty there are many other ways to do so. Putting people in factories for long hours and paying minimum wage (and sometimes failing at that) is arguably not the best way. 

Another thing we often hear is that Western companies pay more than local companies. So Western companies are already doing something good by being slightly better than these companies. But that’s why our companies placed the production there, because its among the lowest wages in the world. How difficult is it to be ‘good’ when you are comparing yourself to producers acting at the bottom?