Eco Seminar review

Eric -or Samira as we’ve taken to calling him (long story)- has written a review of the Eco fiber seminar presented at MAGIC. Without further ado:

The sustainability/ecology trend has become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is now cool to “save eagles”, as KF describes it (who’s interest in sustainability started with organizing weekly bake sales in elementary school to buy nesting area for the bald eagle). On the other, it is so cool that Madison Avenue marketing types have decided to adopt the language and icons and greenwash the images of their corporate clients.

I sat through a seminar sponsored by Cotton, Inc. called, “Sustainable Manufacturing – Decreasing the Environmental Impact of Cotton Textile Processing“. Kathleen told me to bail out if it looked bad, but I just couldn’t do it. For one thing, I’ve made public presentations myself, and I know just how nerve-racking it can be; having gone to the trouble of assembling a presentation, it would be nice if people would politely listen to what you had to say. For another, I almost always persevere in even the worst reading or listening assignments. On the notion that even a blind pig may find an acorn every now and then, and with the way they line these seminars up with multiple speakers, you really can’t bail out until you’ve heard at least the first 1/2 of the last speaker’s presentation, at which point you have already sat through 7/8 of the whole thing — why not stay another 7 minutes?

Here are the two points I would make based on that seminar: first, the most important thing is what they are not telling you. Second, they have a few good points to make, but you certainly can’t figure out how good they are while sitting in the seminar.

What they did tell us was that Cotton, Inc., has the world’s greatest cotton-related R&D facility, with 125,000 square feet of facility and an annual budget of $17 million. If that is so, thinks I, why do we need the Department of Agriculture to run another one? (Hint: how do you think both organizations came into being?) In any case, Cotton, Inc. says their job is to figure out how to “balance” environmental, social, and economic concerns, the so-called “triple bottom line.” I know what you’re thinking: “W-w-what?! How do the social and environmental concerns get into their picture?” Well, apparently, nobody wants waste products in their water or harmful chemicals on their clothing, but they do want durable clothing that looks and feels good. This means they provide research on better ways to raise, store, transport, spin, weave, bleach, dye, finish, cut, sew, sell, and recycle cotton.

The moderator, Lou Protonentis, Director, Product Initiatives, Cotton, Inc., turned the podium over to representatives of companies (Angelo Rizzardi, President, Innova International; Craig White, Marketing, Apparel, Huntsman International; and Ronald Schrell, President, Thies Textile Machinery Inc) who made pitches for various products and processes. They repeated the original concerns with environmental and social issues before proceeding. It was, all things considered, a tag-team marketing pitch. They told us which processes used the most water and energy and explained how their patented processes reduced the utilization of those resources. One presenter showed a chart, with arbitrary units, showing that most of the energy used in the lifetime of the product came at the hands of the customer in the care of the garment (see below).

As I said, what was most important here was what they weren’t telling us. Nobody told us how they arrived at their figures. Did they include the entire environmental costs (energy, fresh water usage, chemical waste, biological impact of mono-cropping and other practices) and social costs (subsidization, export policies) of the product from cradle to grave? I doubt it. The subject of Bt or Roundup-ready cotton was not raised once. The impact of American and European subsidies on African farmers did not come up. We did not learn of what happened to the waste products of the bleaching and dying processes. And obviously, at a forum chaired by Cotton, Inc., nobody broached the subject of alternative fibers, i.e. bamboo, wool, silk, hemp, recycled plastic, wood cellulose-based fibers, and so on.

As to my second point, they did have some good points to make, but it is hard to sort the wheat from the chaff — or should I say the lint from the trash? — during the seminar. Look, let’s face it: if you don’t make a profit, no matter how “green” you are, you are going to go out of business. Your business operation must be as sustainable as the fibers. For the most part, you are a price taker, not a price setter. That is, you can’t go and charge whatever you want, you have to go with the dictates of the market. Okay, so the only things you really control are quality and costs. And when one of these presenters comes along with a product that reduces your costs and improves your quality, you need to pay attention to that.

So yes, they have a good point when they say they are reducing heat or water usage by 50-75% compared to what they were doing in the past. 15 years ago, they would have just said, “Our processes are more efficient.” Today, they are doing the exact same thing and saying, “Our processes are greener.” They’re re-packaging themselves; that’s okay. Maybe we should have recognized that it has almost always been the case that improving efficiency — defined as the ratio of outputs (product) to inputs (land, labor, capital, raw materials) — has been the goal of these industrial suppliers, and in some ways, that was greener. Sometimes they aimed too narrowly: they improved the efficiency of one part of the process at the expense of the whole; and they certainly didn’t pay attention to the external effects, like the effluent that ran down the sewer into the river. But that has sometimes been the problem of the rest of us: we wanted to improve that one part of the consumption process that affects us (manufacturing and/or retailing) without paying attention to the whole (how did the dyed goods get to me? what happens to the article when our customer wears it out?).

So when one presenter made a graph like this, I could see his point.

Yes, it does make sense in light of this information to say that a fabric finish which reduces the energy and water used by the customer would have the most impact on the resources used over the whole lifetime of the product. But to what extent was the chart self-serving? Much depends on the accuracy and thoroughness of those numbers, and on what is left out by them. I was recently reminded of Aaron Levenstein’s dictum that “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” This is also true for claims made about products advertised as green, sustainable, or organic.

For example, we talked to two DEs at the Eco show who waxed eloquently about Tencel being made from Eucalyptus trees. Tencel is the brand name of the lyocell made by Lenzing. As they say on their website, Tencel is “extracted from” eucalyptus trees. You don’t run a eucalyptus tree through a eucalyptus gin and end up with lyocell lint, though. As explained on this website, the process is a lot less cuddly and fuzzy:

The cellulosic raw materials for rayon are wood chips (usually from spruce or pine) or cotton linters. These are treated to produce sheets of purified cellulose containing 87-98% cellulose. They are then bleached with sodium hypochloride (NaOCl) to remove natural colour. These cellulose sheets are then soaked in 18% caustic soda for 1 to 2 hours producing sheets of alkali cellulose. Any excess alkali is pressed out. The substance is broken up into flakes or grains called cellulose crumbs, which are aged for two or three days under controlled temperature and humidity. Liquid carbon disulfide is added to the crumbs to change the cellulose into cellulose xanthate, a light orange substance that is still in crumb form. These crumbs are dissolved in a weak solution of caustic soda and transformed into a viscous solution called “viscose”, honey-like in colour and consistency.

To produce the rayon filament, the viscose solution is aged, filtered, then vacuum-treated to remove any air bubbles that could weaken the filament and cause it to break. It is then pumped through spinnerets into a bath of sulfuric acid, which coagulates the cellulose xanthate to form regenerated filaments of 100% cellulose. The many variations and different properties of viscose such as luster, strength, softness and affinity for dyes, are influenced here by varying the technique and by the addition of external materials.

One interesting bit of information that did come from the eco seminar was the mention of the Oeko-Tex 100 standard. This is a third party standard to certify products as being free of harmful substances (lead, mercury, etc.). It was initiated in Europe in 1992 and is gradually making its way to North America.

What other interpretations of “sustainable” and “eco” did we encounter? There was the group making socks from recycled cuttings. Their angle was that they weren’t re-dying the fabric. That’s basically saying, “Okay, we don’t know what goes into this, but at least we’re reducing the amount that’s thrown away.” Nice try, but now that scrap is a profit center – doesn’t that make it more likely that the company producing the scrap will continue operating wastefully? And what does it do to reduce their use of harmful dyes? Nothing. There was another group making shirts out of recycled bottles. That’s great – PET is being recycled into polyester. That means we are getting two or more uses from that resource rather than just one (followed by a trip to the landfill). Wellman, the maker of EcoSpun, is listed on the Oeko-Tex website, but Palmetto (whose recycled PET goes by NatureSpun) is not.

The most insulting type of “eco” or “sustainable” business is the people doing the same-old same-old, but their twist is that they give “a percentage of the profits [or their time] to charity.” Right. Not only do I find the claim dubious, but I would personally like to buy my clothes from someone making a high value clothing article, and my charitable services from someone providing high value charitable work. Judging by the quality of the t-shirts and hoodies (or in one case, the polyester plush animals made in China), I sure hope there aren’t any poor children or cancer patients pinning their hopes on Patchouli, the animal-eating do-gooder who just added a whole new marketing angle to his latest get-rich scheme.

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