CAN you Green your Textile Choices?

Choosing a natural, HEALTHY fabric for your upholstery project can be a challenging process. Fortunately, we have the work of Patty Grossman and Leigh Anne Van Dusen of Two Sisters Ecotextiles to give us the (science-based) facts about the fabrics we choose for our homes and businesses. Over the past two decades, in their quest to produce a line of truly green fabrics, they have done extensive research, which they share freely to help those of us looking to make smart fabric choices.

Patty Grossman & Leigh Anne Van Dusen of Two Sisters Ecotextiles

Patty (at left in photo above) presented an information-packed webinar tilted “Why and How to Green Your Textile Choices” to the members of the National Upholstery Association in April, 2020. The following is my synopsis of Patty’s talk, which focused on the TOOLS we have available to educate ourselves about safe fabrics, and the ACTIONS we can take to bring about the wider changes that are needed to ‘green’ the industry.

“You can have a profound effect on the environment, your family’s health, and your clients’ health through your fabric choices.”    – Patty Grossman, Two Sisters Ecotextiles

A Brief History of Two Sisters Ecotextiles

In 2007, following three years of intense research and development, the two sisters (Leigh Anne Van Dusen and Patty Grossman) garnered the unique distinction of having produced the first collection of Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified interiors fabrics in the world.

Their journey through this process formed the foundation of their mission to provide only fabrics that are safe to use. They are unusual among their industry peers in their ability to tell you the complete life story of each fabric, including every facet of production. (see links to the Two Sister Ecotextiles website and blog at the bottom of this page)

WHY Green your Textile Choices?

1. A Systemic Problem Effecting the World (of Upholstery Fabrics)

Fabric rolls stacked at mill

A personal perspective.

In my experience, most of the major fabric brands generalize about being “natural”, offering no specifics. In my 10+ years in the upholstery field, during which I have talked with many fabric reps – at my workshop, on the phone, at trade shows and in showrooms – I’ve been frustrated by a general lack of knowledge about the chemical content of the fabrics they are selling.

This translates to a lack of transparency by the company itself.

If they have good things to say about the chemical content of their products, they would be educating their reps, AND their customers about the benefits, wouldn’t they? So workrooms and designers are left to draw their own conclusions. For me, there’s a sense of hopelessness in this.

Luckily, we have some excellent resources with which to educate ourselves, including Patty & Leigh Anne’s blog.

A reassuring trend?

It’s perplexing to me that Two Sisters Ecotextiles appears to be the ONLY(?!) fabric house – selling luxurious upholstery-weight fabrics – that is able to set my fears to rest (with documentation if I request it) about the safety of their products. Their fabrics are third-party compliant or certified to meet either the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex Standard 100. (I’d love to hear if you know of others I can add to this very short list – just drop me a quick email here or leave a comment below)

Where is the ACCOUNTABILITY?

Let’s be clear. It’s not JUST the fabric companies’ fault. It’s the result of an entrenched system (we should all be familiar with that term today, in the age of COVID-19, Global Warming and the #Black Lives Matter movement, yes?). These things are all related – the chemicals in textiles, social justice, and environmental justice – to a cost equation that fails to take the growing costs to our HEALTH, CULTURE, and the ENVIRONMENT into account.

The all-encompassing, over-arching WHY of greening your textile choices includes ALL of these things.

US Capitol building

To further explore the WHY, let’s look at a few of the details that Patty brought up in her presentation:

2. Industry Practices

The practices of the textile industry can (and do) negatively impact our waters, our air and our health.

Steps in Textile Processing

Fabric production is “an amazing human engineering feat” – with SO many steps most of us would never consider – taking the raw fibers through yarn formation, fabric formation, wet processing (dyeing & finishing) to the finished goods.

Patty emphasizes that EACH STEP uses A LOT of three things:

1. Water

The textile industry is the #1 INDUSTRIAL polluter of water in the world (Agriculture is #1 overall). Water is used at EVERY stage in fabric manufacturing – to dissolve chemicals, to wash those chemicals out, and so on. The untreated water is usually returned to the local ecosystem – poisoning fish & frogs and compromising water quality for essential drinking, washing & irrigating purposes. Pollution problems that were once local are now regional or even global in scale, because:

“There is not a ‘no peeing’ part of the pool”  ― Gene Lisa

child in water

Facts about water used in textile production:

  • It takes about 20 GALLONS of water to produce ONE YARD of upholstery-weight fabric. So if there’s 20 yards in the average sofa, then it takes 400 GALLONS of water to produce a SINGLE SOFA.
  • The country of India ALONE uses 425,000,000 gallons of water DAILY, and that water is returned to the ecosystem largely untreated – filled with detergents, degreasers, bleaches, optical brighteners, de-sizers, dyes, plus many of the 8000 chemicals used routinely in textile production.

2. Chemicals

Two stunning facts about chemicals used in textile production:

  1. By weight, about 1/4 of the weight of a fabric is residual chemicals. Example: if you buy a cotton fabric, it consists of about 75% cotton fibers, and 25% residual synthetic chemicals (according to a study done by Sweden’s environmental protection agency).
  2. It takes 10-100% of a fabric’s weight in chemicals to produce it. Example: if a sofa requires 25 lbs of fabric to upholster, it could take between 2.5 lbs and 25 lbs of chemicals to produce it.

Why should we be concerned about chemicals?

Patty named this small sampling of chemicals used in textile production, stressing that there are many more (about 400 in total), that should be avoided: cadmium, formaldehyde, arsenic, benzene, lead, phthalates, PBDE’s, organochlorines and PVC.

Phthalates – used in the vast majority of textile inks – are so toxic, with so many human health concerns that they have been banned in the EU since 2005.

green chemical + test tubes

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was meant to protect human health, but it lacks effectiveness due to the fact the burden of proof rests on REGULATORS, who MUST PROVE THAT A CHEMICAL IS HARMFUL before it can be removed from the market. Most chemicals (62,000+) were grandfathered in under that law, meaning they were not subject to regulation unless harm was proven.

Only five chemicals have been regulated since 1976. Four more are pending. That’s a total of nine out of tens of thousands of chemicals still going out into the market, into our homes, and into our bodies. Meanwhile, diseases like cancer, autism, and Alzheimer’s continue to rise at unprecedented rates.

3. Energy

The embodied energy in a product is measured at every stage: from resource extraction to transportation to manufacturing facilities, where assembly & packaging takes place, then transportation to the end user.

Two Sisters Ecotextiles researched the embodied energy in a sofa. Here’s an excerpt from the documentation (click the image to read a related blog post)

Two Sisters Ecotextiles graph showing carbon footprint of a sofa

“People often disregard the effect that fabric has in the carbon footprint of a sofa, but fabric figures prominently. In fact, if the fabric in a sofa is made of a synthetic fiber, the carbon footprint of the fabric is greater than the cushioning and the wood components of the sofa combined! Your fabric choice can have a bigger carbon footprint impact than any other component part.”

Take special note of the embodied energy of natural fibers compared with synthetics, and that of organic cotton compared with conventionally grown cotton. For this, we can thank the soil-preserving practices of organic farming, which is highly beneficial for carbon sequestration.

3. Environmental & Health Effects of Conventional Upholstery Fabrics

Synthetic fibers = PLASTIC.

Facts to consider:

  • Plastic does not biodegrade – it remains a polymer forever
  • Micro plastics are about the size of a grain of rice.
  • Nano plastics are thousands of times smaller than micro plastics.
  • Nano plastics are found in our food chain (and thus end up in our bodies). Examples of foods we eat that have been shown to contain plastics: shellfish, sea salt, honey, beer, tap water, bottled water, and even the air we breathe.
  • Nano plastics are found in virtually all of the bodies of water on the planet.
  • A study done on sand samples around the world revealed that ALL beach sand contains micro plastic. A sample from Hawaii contained 90% plastic(!!!). 80% of the micro plastic found in the test samples was fibrous: polyester, acrylic, polyamides (nylon) – indicating high likelihood that those plastics come from fabric.
  • Because plastics are highly flammable due to their petroleum content, they are often treated with flame retardants.
  • Recycled plastics are still plastics.
upholstery fabric label

The polyester fiber content, the ‘Kiss Coat Backing’ and ‘California Bulletin 117’ flammability standard on this fabric sample are likely indicators that unhealthy chemicals make up a hefty percentage of the fabric’s total weight.

Fade-resistant Fabrics.

How do fabrics fade? UV light catalyzes a reaction between the water present in all fabrics and oxygen in the air to create hydrogen peroxide, which is a bleaching agent.

Even though synthetic fibers have a reputation of being impervious to fading & degradation in sunlight (ex: Sunbrella), it’s important to note that these qualities are not a result of the inherent qualities of the plastics, they are imparted by added chemicals.

Plastic manufacturers add UV-blocking or UV-stabilizing chemicals to prevent this ‘photodegradation’. A common one is benzophenone, which is an endocrine disruptor. It’s also the ingredient in human sunscreen that is responsible for the bleaching of coral reefs.

A natural fiber is NOT automatically ‘green’ or safe.

Any natural fiber beats a synthetic fiber in terms of carbon footprint. HOWEVER:

  • Cotton, which has the highest water use of any natural fiber crop, is the fiber used in 80% of all the natural fiber fabrics produced.
  • Organic cotton is a good choice. Conventional cotton is not because it is one of the most chemically intensive crops grown. 25% of all the pesticides used in the world are put on cotton crops (GMO has brought this down, but not by much).

4. Greenwashing

Greenwashing is claiming that a product has green attributes when it’s not entirely true, OR the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly activities.

greenwash painting

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing

  1. Hidden Trade-off: product is labeled as environmentally friendly based on a small set of attributes when other attributes not addressed might make a bigger impact on the eco-friendliness of the product as a whole (ex. contains recycled content, BUT energy use, toxicity, and/or water use render it unsuitable as a product you would buy if you want to decrease your environmental footprint)
  2. No Proof: cannot be readily supported with accessible proof or reliable third party certification.
  3. Vagueness: A claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer (ex. ‘all-natural’ isn’t necessarily friendly. Arsenic, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, and also poisonous)
  4. Irrelevance: A claim that is true but unhelpful, unimportant and ultimately distracting from the issue at hand (ex: ‘CFC-free’ is irrelevant since CFCs have been banned since 1978)
  5. Lesser of two evils: A claim that is true within a product category but only made to divert the consumers’ attention from some greater impact.
  6. Fibbing: A claim that is flat-out false (ex. claiming to have reduced emissions when the opposite is true)
  7. Worshipping false labels: marketers create a false suggestion or certification-like image to mislead consumers into thinking that a product has been through a legitimate green certification process.

 

HOW to Green your Textile Choices

Five ways to help initiate change in the System:

  1. Use ONLY textiles made from natural fibers (preferably organic, third party certified)
  2. Insist on certifications (GOTS or OekoTex 100)
  3. Do not buy synthetics (= plastics) or blends containing synthetics (except closed-loop viscose)
  4. Remember that what you buy will get produced.
  5. Be curious. Keep learning. Educate about what you learn.

Best Practice

Because greenwashing is so prevalent, the best practice is to look for one of two fabric certifications (BOTH of which PROHIBIT a long list of chemicals)

  1. GOTS – regulates water treatment to drinking water standards, regulates worker safety standards. It does not address carbon footprint directly, but is the best choice nonetheless.
  2. OekoTex 100 – assures it’s safe to bring into a home with infants.

Know the difference.

Organic designation matters: Is it organic FIBER or organic FABRIC? Fabric is like applesauce – you can start with organic apples, but if you add all kinds of chemicals, it is not organic applesauce. It’s just made from organic apples.

Educate.

It’s easy to love natural fabrics: Upholstery and design professionals can educate clients about the downsides of performance fabrics, and tout the beauty of natural fabrics. For instance, there is a luminosity inherent in a linen lawn fabric – it becomes more beautiful with time, it’s washable, and it acquires a beautiful patina over time… not to mention the health benefits.

Two Sisters Ecotextiles sells GOTS & OekoTex 100 upholstery fabrics.

At the end of the webinar, Patty was questioned about why the larger fabric distributors do not carry their fabrics. She noted that they sold through fabric houses for 10 years, and ultimately were not able to convince them to LEARN & SELL their GREEN STORY.

They now sell through their own website, but are open to again selling through fabric houses. This is where upholstery & design professionals can help – by requesting the Two Sisters product line from their suppliers. Upholstery customers can request these fabrics when ordering through an upholstery shop.

delphinium fabric & flowers

Two Sisters Ecotextiles Winthrop fabric in delphinium

In closing, Patty reiterated that education is key, because only a change in consumer demand can change how textiles are produced. It’s not just about human health and our home environments. It’s also about saving the polar bears, saving the orcas (the northern resident orca population is down to 73 individuals as of Jan, 2020), and so much more.

Links:

The National Upholstery Association is working to improve education, opportunities, and build awareness, initiate change, sustainability initiatives for greener upholstery choices. You can join or sign up for their mailing list here. If you’re a member you can watch Patty’s webinar which has been summarized (with some omissions) in this post.

Two Sisters Ecotextiles website & blog

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