Friday, 19 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 2 Hugo’s Materials

This is the second of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Hugo’s Materials 

The materials that Hugo’s jumper is made of are a little more complex and the main material is cotton (60%)… 

It’s not for nothing that cotton has been called ‘The Worlds Dirtiest Crop’ and the shear scale of the environmental, health and social impacts are hard to take in. To start with, think of the number of items in your home that are made from it; bedding, towels, curtains, clothing, tea towels, dishcloths, furniture coverings, cotton wool - the list goes on and on. In fact cotton farming covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land. Of course that’s not an even distribution – I don’t see much of it growing here in Britain, despite the fact that Europe accounts for 20% of global cotton consumption – instead 75% of world production is grown in the developing world by 99% of all cotton farmers.

So why is it is so dirty? Conventional cotton growth uses a lot of pesticides, 16% of the worlds total release in fact, and these are some of the most hazardous pesticides ever produced. In India, where a third of all global cotton is grown, cotton accounts for 5% of land cultivated, but uses 54% of all pesticides used in the country.  As is mentioned in the story, Aldicarb is so strong that one drop absorbed into the skin can kill a person, despite this in 2003 almost 1 million kilos were applied to cotton grown in the US alone and it is used in 25 other countries throughout the world. The US have now moved to ban it by 2018, but in other countries, where such regulatory framework does not exist, its use will almost certainly continue.

Because of the conditions in the countries it is grown in and the low prices paid for the cotton, farmer workers lack the appropriate equipment and protection to apply pesticides. At least 1 million farm workers require hospitalisation each year with pesticide poisoning, according to WHO. And it’s not just the farmers directly who suffer, as the poisons pollute the land, water, food and air of the local communities. Children are often the first to be affected, as homes are built close to the fields and pesticide containers left lying around or reused. Of course in many countries children are directly involved in the cotton production and help harvest the cotton or even work in the fields whilst spraying is happening.

Cottonseed, more or less a by-product of the cotton industry, is fed to animals and used to make oil, both of which can then contain levels of pesticides, and tests by a university in Poland found them in the cotton clothing itself.

But it is not just pesticides that go into cotton production; it also takes up to 130g of fertiliser to grow 450g of cotton in the US, the production of which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The run off from nitrogen-based fertilisers in particular causes problems with watercourses and wells etc, as it dramatically increases the growth of algae and other water borne plants.

Which brings us neatly on to water usage. It takes around 2,720 litres of water to produce enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s equivalent to what you or I might drink in 3 years. The Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former volume due cotton production, which is not surprising when you consider that Uzbek cotton farms alone consume over 20km3 of water every year. That is equivalent to the entire domestic usage of Britain (i.e. in homes) for nearly 6½ years. Access to clean water in Uzbekistan has actually fallen from 94% in 1990 to 82% in 2004 and of course a number of countries border the Aral Sea (I mention Kazakhstan in the story) and face similar problems.

Organic cotton is certainly better than conventional and obviously bans the use of pesticides and herbicides. Nonetheless the issues around water usage, monoculture (growing just one plant over a wide area), transportation and low wages remain. 

…30% of the jumper is Nylon… 

It is much harder to obtain concrete independent information on the impact of Nylon production than it is cotton, a point noted by Kate Fletcher in her book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Obviously the fact that it is a petro-chemical based material, that is non-biodegradable and that cannot be easily recycled means that it has quite a bit going against it from the outset. The process of manufacture is energy intensive when compared with other materials and also produces high levels of Nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas far more damaging than CO2. Although it is going back a bit, a single Nylon plant here in the UK in the 1990s was thought to have the global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire carbon dioxide emissions. 

Finally, like Mary’s, the jumper is also made of wool (10%)… 

The conditions at the giant ‘wool factories’ in Australia can be quite horrendous and no doubt many people who conscientiously buy free-range eggs and chickens would think again about high street jumpers if they knew the conditions under which the wool was produced. Until recently (June 2012) some sheep were kept in individual pens, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week for up to 5 years. No operator now produces wool under this system, but it is still not illegal and nonetheless many sheep raised for fine wool are housed in groups, indoors at all times and kept hungry, as sheep with a lower body condition produce better wool.

Because of the low welfare conditions and breeding priorities, some sheep are prone to fly strike, this leads farmers to perform an operation around the time of sheering called ‘Mulesing’. Essentially this is removing parts of the sheep’s skin and happens without pain relief. At the very least the industry should be working to get some form of anaesthetic approved, that can used during the procedure. The Australian government had promised to phase out Mulesing by 2010, but under pressure from the industry this pledge was abandoned.

When the wool is ready to be shorn, the speed at which this is done, on a piece payment basis, means that welfare can become second to getting the most sheep through in a day.

At the end of what is considered to be the most productive period for wool, the animals are sold for meat. Clearly Australia doesn’t have sufficient demand for such a large number of animals and so many are sold abroad. It is really hard to find any independent, referenced information on the conditions under which this transportation takes place, most of the commentary comes from vegan websites and it would be nice to find a more independent source. But nonetheless, it is hard to image the live international transportation of animals, in both lorries and ships, happening in very hot countries without welfare issues occurring. One source suggested a death rate of 28%. If anyone does know of serious research or investigative pieces on this, please do get in touch.

The wool is then washed at a high-volume processing plant, using a range of processes to remove effluent, pesticide residues, fat and other waster material. A typical wool-scouring plant can produce as much effluent as a town of 50,000 people and contaminated sludge from global wool production exceeds 930,000 tons annually. Some wool is then treated using a chlorine process to make it smoother and even machine washable. However, this process is so toxic that it is banned in the US, the waste products being deadly at levels below 1 part in a trillion. Nonetheless this processing does take place around the world, on products then imported into the countries that have banned it on their own soil. 

All these materials were then transported from around the world to Bangladesh for spinning together and dying… 

I don’t want to cover transportation too much here, as I would like to do a separate blog exploring localism. For now let us just recognise that these disparate materials need to come together from around the world and be transported to Bangladesh for spinning and dying.

A review of the local press in Bangladesh gives a confusing picture; certainly the government seems to be taking some action on contamination of water by dying effluent, but still one gets the impression that, just as in the rest of the world, mere environmental concerns should never come in the way of economic development.  The Daily Star is buoyant on the possibilities for Bangladesh in its textile industries, but grimly notes at the end of the paragraph that these same factories are ‘are hugely blamed for surface water pollution’. Of course it’s not fair to pick on Bangladesh, The World Bank estimates that 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dying of textiles. Sadly much effort seems to be directed towards removing the colour from the waste water, but not necessarily the actual toxins or heavy metals, making it harder to tell when the water has been treated. Again the dying and processing of fabrics takes quantities of water, particularly soft knitwear like Hugo’s jumper.


 Of course I have chosen here the worse case scenario, although the actual materials and their quantities came from a jumper I picked almost at random from a high end high street retailer. I have not been to Australia, Uzbekistan or Bangladesh in researching this article. I have not witnessed first hand the issues I have written about and I am only presenting the research I have done, bringing it together in one place. Some of the research I would suggest is from very reliable sources, Compassion in World Farming for example, whilst others come from a much more ideological stand point, such as the vegan information on the shipping of livestock.

I am sure that in some places in Australia wool is produced on a large scale commercial basis on farms that that many people would find acceptable. Likewise it is highly probable that some cotton, particularly US and Australian Cotton, is no where near as socially and environmentally damaging as plantations in developing countries. The problem is that often we just don’t know the conditions that a piece of clothing was produced under; it’s hidden behind a façade of glitzy marketing and almost impossible to untangle.

However, for the most part I think the evidence is really the process itself and for me I don’t need further evidence of abuse within the process. To give an example; nylon cannot be sustainable because it’s a plastic made from a finite resource, oil, that cannot easily be recycled. And although it’s important to raise the awareness of incidents of pollution arising from accidents or deliberate toxin release, I don’t need them to know that Nylon is not a good thing. Likewise with transport; you could have the most natural and organic wool farm in Australia, with fabulous welfare conditions, but whilst it’s there and the consumer is in Britain, that’s not a sustainable way of producing clothing. It’s the process itself that is unsustainable, besides any social or environmental abuse within it.

Of course much also rests on what our own view of what is acceptable. I am a vegetarian and so the idea of animals being slaughtered after a long journey is something that concerns me, but a meat eater may say that this is a sensible use of the animal after its useful wool producing life and that to simply kill it on site and not eat it would be a waste.

The other striking point is just how much danger and pollution the west outsources to developing nations. Can you imagine the uproar if the sort of industrial pollution took place in our rivers that dying yarn for our jumpers causes in Bangladesh? Likewise we ask countries to use products and processes that we ban in our own countries, because we deem the effects are too dangerous for our own people.

Just thinking about these issues makes us more sensitive to them and I know from my own experience that quite often once the genie is out of the bottle, once we understand the impact of clothing manufacturing for example, you cannot put it back and it becomes very hard to knowingly support companies that are causing so many global problems.

This has turned into a much longer post than I had anticipated (well done if you are still reading!) and I am aware it’s rather negative. The second half of this, which I have decided to post as a separate blog post perhaps after the weekend, is much more positive and explores Mary’s approach and all the exciting materials we can, and should be, exploring for a more sustainable future.

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