April 3, 2007

It’s not easy, being green. Or Indigo for that matter…

So when I first meet someone and the inevitable question of what I “do” comes up in conversation. The answer is usually met with some sort of the following:

a) strange brow furrowing and nose twitching
b) blank stare
c) snicker
d) snicker followed by “So, like, what? Hemp?”

Ah, the joys of being an eco-fashion designer! What does all this mean? Do I have to wear hemp? Do I have to be vegan? What the hell is mud dye anyway? Being a fashion designer and being organic and sustainable used to be worlds apart. The reason? Because high quality organic and sustainable fashion fabrics were in short supply (if available at all.) Organic cotton? What for? Why? Sustainable and organic wool? What’s the difference? Why bother? What was available 10 years ago was natural hemp and linen. Not a whole lot else. That isn’t true anymore. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe you need to know WHY before we go anywhere else.

The fashion industry is one of the most pollutant causing industries in the world. From the farming of raw materials to washing of the final product, almost every step there is an opportunity for greening. Since I work in the denim industry I feel like I am most qualified to talk about the greening steps involved in one pair of simple jeans. This is a long article but I feel if you begin to understand what goes into something as simple as pants you can see the sum gain of the larger picture.

Jeans, and in specific cotton, is one of the most pollutant pieces of clothing that any one person can own. Unfortunately it takes 2/3 of a pound of pesticides to make one pair of jeans, and 1/3 of a pound to make a single T-shirt. A pair of jeans only weighs about a pound! That sort of ratio is unheard of in any other crop. While conventional cotton accounts for 2% of global agriculture it requires 10% of global pesticide use. The EPA says that conventional agriculture is responsible for 70% of all problems in U.S. rivers and streams.

When it comes to going organic in fashion there are certain criteria, just like food, that need to be followed. Organically grown cotton has been produced without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A field must be pesticide free for three years for the cotton to be certified organic. This insures that the land is free of any residual chemicals that could enter into the plants and cause contamination.

Why is contamination important? According to the EPA, five of the top nine pesticides used in cotton production in the US (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals. The EPA classifies all five pesticides as Category I and II, the most dangerous of chemicals. While these pesticides are washed out by the time the cotton gets ginned, farm workers suffer the most by being in direct contact with many of these chemicals. The World Health Organization estimates accidental pesticide poisoning causes 20,000 deaths and 3 million non-fatal poisonings every year, worldwide. Not only that – but this stuff gets in your foods! 60 percent of a cotton crop, by weight, enters the food chain in the form of cottonseed oil which is used widely in processed foods, and as cottonseed feed for cows. The pesticide residues from these cottonseeds concentrate in the tissues of these animals, and are passed on to consumers in meat and dairy products. This is a big deal because these chemicals were originally formulated as nerve gases for warfare, at least 107 pesticide active ingredients are carcinogenic. Pesticides have been responsible for birth defects, respiratory problems, behavioral changes, infertility, sterility, and hormonal imbalances. Imagine that next time you eat a bag of chips containing cottonseed oil.

Not only farm workers suffer but animals do too! In 1994, Australian beef was found to be contaminated with the cotton insecticide Helix® (chlorfluazuron), most likely because cattle had been fed contaminated cotton straw. One year later, farmers were alarmed to discover that newborn calves were also contaminated with Helix, apparently because it was passed through their mother's milk. In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields killed at least 240,000 fish in Alabama. Shortly after farmers had applied pesticides containing endosulfan and methyl parathion to cotton fields, heavy rains washed them into the water causing the deaths.

The next step in fabric to jean is the dye process. Lately this is where marketing departments are having a field day with you. Most of the debate circles around “Natural” indigo. “It’s so much better!” they tell you. “It’s not chemical dye!” they extol. The kicker is they are right… to a point. No matter what kind of indigo you use, synthetic or natural you need developer to bring out the blue. That developer is a cancer-causing agent Thiox. There isn’t a way (yet!) to develop indigo without it and just knowing that information can help you pick apart what people are selling you. Our jeans use indigo. Not using indigo won’t happen any time soon – but where we strive to cut down on harmful impact is in the wash and finishing process – the last stage in the making of your blue jeans.

When ever people talk about “the wash” in regards to denim they aren’t talking about getting rid of dirt. “The Laundry” or “the wash” is where color gets applied to jeans, they get stonewashed, ground down, distressed etc. This is a battleground for greening. Most factories aren’t regulated in China. There are no official standards to follow when it comes to treatment of wash waters or irritants. There are no agencies to run checks and no one to care about where that water goes once it leaves the factories. There are no standards for worker safety either. Many times workers will be in rooms with sandblasting equipment inhaling particulate matter. That matter lodges in your lungs and causes cancer. Resins and distressing chemicals are applied with little protection. In the US, and most specifically in the factory that we work with in Texas, there are strict policies and standards in place with regards to this sorts of finishing.

When we set out to design a new wash we investigate and use some of the most green washes we can. We don’t use a chlorination processes in regards to bleaching down color. We prefer to instead use a hydrogenation process. This results in cleaner wash water when removing color. Hydrogen breaks down into water much better than chlorine and doesn’t have the same effect on water wildlife.

The wash water in the factory that does our work is welled from a private spring that lives under the factory (does this sound just a bit too idyllic? It did for me!) The water is treated so that it is almost as clean when it exits the factory, as it is when it enters. Why? Because this water is used to irrigate the alfalfa fields that surround the factory. This alfalfa is then sold as feed to family farms. The factory is working to close the loop. The pumice stones that are used in the stonewashing machines are not thrown into the trash or dumped in a river. They are further ground up and added to soil as an aeration device. Lastly, for our jeans we only have our people hand sand. With hand sanding there is no particulate matter and the people working on our denim are not at risk for disease or cancer.

That’s a lot isn’t it?

At the end of the day these are the things that you should look for when buying jeans. Organic Cotton. Hand work. Clean water standards. Made in the USA. With labor standards in LA and Texas being some of the highest in the country you can’t guarantee perfection, but you know you are working with people who care enough to pay a fair wage. You know that these people aren’t being exposed to the sorts of chemicals that workers in China endure.

I hope I haven’t bored you. I hope you feel you know a little more about why organic isn’t just for food anymore. I hope to tackle other issues and to tell you about who are working towards a greener fashion standard here and around the world! I’ve really enjoyed writing this and thank you for the time to let me vent!


Anonymous said...

Hey - that was really interesting and I know for me, the kind of indepth information I am looking for. I look forward to more!

cally said...

All you have said is the reason why I've only bought one pair of jeans since 1989!

My UK supplier of choice for organic clothes is (howies.co.uk) so I'll be checking the production of their organic items (not all organic) against your list.

Lisa B-K said...

This was excellent - thank you. It makes me glad to know I thrift almost all of my clothes.

With the current pet food recall in the US involving tainted wheat gluten from China, one can see why globalization is a win-lose proposition - win for the supplier and lose for the consumer, who is usually not well-informed enough to make a truly conscious choice.

joyflea said...

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking read. It was straight from the factory floor, so to speak. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

amisha said...

what a fascinating post. i really appreciate your writing about each step of this process... absolutely eye-opening.

Alicia A. said...

I had no idea...

Thank you for this!

Mama Urchin said...

Wow, those numbers are incredible. I didn't realize how bad cotton farming can be.

jill said...

hi! can you link some companies that sell organic jeans? i wouldn't even know where to begin!

Heather said...

Thanks so much for a terrific article. I am going to link something I wrote recently on my blog. to it.

Dutch Girl said...

Thanks so much everyone for the great comments! It makes me so proud to be working in the eco-field.

For those who are interested in some companies producing fair-labor organic jeans:

Small Companies who I love particularly.
Del Forte (Where I design and work! Women's only)
Loomstate (Women and Men, though I feel they do men's jeans MUCH better than women's)
Kuyichi (Women's)
Aoki (Women's)

Big Companies who have introduced organics into their style lines
Edun (Women and Men designed by Bono! ooooooh :P)
Nudie Jeans
Levi's Gobal Home (BAD labor standards)
7 for all Mankind (are you shaped like a stick? Buy these jeans)
Replay (UBER fancy organic)

This is just a SMATTERING of what's out there. I will talk more about all sorts of people in my next post! thanks!!!

tracy said...

wow. thanks for this. anyone doing kids jeans?

cariaso said...

1. It seems that hand sanding would put the laborers much closer to the problem, and therefore more in harm's way. Surely the sanding can be done in a machine, and filters can keep most of the particulate contained until it has a chance to settle. How can hand sanding possibly do a better/safer job?

2. Dry cleaning is (usually) also a major polluter. Since clothing is only made once, but cleaned many times this might be a case where long term effects dwarf the short term ones.

3. "The EPA says that conventional agriculture is responsible for 70% of all problems in U.S. rivers and streams." I've always thought that animal waste was a massive component of our agricultural waste. I can't seem to find any numbers, but perhaps you'll know data on what is plant vs animal. If animal is a significant part of the problem, surely one less steak is healthier than one less pair of jeans (although both are a good idea).

For those of you who don't have a farm, but do have a lawn, here is some related info.
EPA lawn care

Dutch Girl said...


1. In terms of hand sanding it is actually a whole lot better and not putting them closer to the problem. The reason why is because the particulate matter that is small enough to be inhaled is normally caused by the power and bits of the sandblasting. The fluff that comes from hand sanding is big enough to be brushed away or caught in the respirators that the workers wear. While there are OSHA standards for filtration it is still not a foolproof option. Also those sorts of requirements aren't followed at all in China.

2. Dry cleaning is bad. That's why we don't reccommend it for our jeans. Everything we produced is preshrunk so you can hand wash in water and hang dry and maintain your stylish fit.

3. Animal waste is - but chemical pollutants are bigger. I would talk more about animal waste - but this is an article about fashion design, not vegitarianism.

Also - there is a movie coming out "China Blue"about the denim trade in China. VERY thought provoking and scary.

this single spark said...

Hi. Great post. I know you work in jeans, but perhaps you can answer this question. Where can you get organic cotton underwear that isn't u-g-l-y??? Because any that I've seen is either big like my grandma would wear or looks like I should put a hemp caftan over them. If you have the answer, eco-fahionista, please do share!

jenifer74 said...

i love being educated like this. thank you for sharing :)

shash said...

this is such an excellent post. thank you! great info and well put!

Dutch Girl said...

I'm a lingere snob! And I love this company to bits:

Enamore Lingere

Yes, UK based but the states are still trying to catch up to sexy eco undies!

Liz said...

Really excellent post!

I just saw China Blue on PBS the other night... very thought provoking. There are *so* many reasons to avoid Chinese-made clothing.

lisa s said...

amber - nothing boring about this at all... fantastic!! thank you so much for spelling out the process. i'm going to be a much more concienscious jeans buyer now....

bugheart said...

me too
i knew about the
evils of cotton...
but i had no idea
about the
rest of the process...
thanks for the

filambulle said...

Very interesting article.
Thank you

emily said...

Hi former CCA kid! this is Emily (friend of your new uber-intern, Amy) and eco designer to-be... this has become one of my favorite blogs on the web- it's even cooler now that someone i know is one of the bloggers! just wanted to say hi! and keep fighting the good fight!

erin scissorhands said...

wow, what an amazing post! don't worry, i didn't find it boring at all!!!

i knew that cotton farming isn't a good thing, but wow- i didn't know it was THIS bad.

thanks for the links, i'm checking them out right now.

shannon said...

thanks for all this info!

Do you know anything about origins of pumice (other than volcanoes :)
as in, is it mined?

Nice lingerie site, too bad the sizes are not larger on some of those things.

Anyhoo, this article deserves a permanent link somewhere, for referencial purposes!

Dai said...

re lingerie (for this single spark): there are companies that sell organic clothing that also sell lingerie so check the links dutch girl mentioned in her next article. Also, rawganique.com sells some underwear and clean undies is coming out with some more fashionable items in the future.

Anonymous said...

The Colours of Nature, a Auroville (India) based company has launched their new line of garments:

Go Indigo custom jeans, hand-woven and made from 100% eco-friendly denim. Completely organic, with a passion for 100% naturally processed indigo dye and continued with a dedication to producing quality hand-loomed jeans.

These custom-made jeans are produced with organic cotton and natural, chemical-free & non-polluting indigo dye, while providing fair wages, good employment and human respect for the workers.

More information:

Go Indigo Jeans from The Colours of Nature:

knitrat said...

check out this article about the environmental costs of 'fast fashion', cheap, low quality seasonal clothing: