You need more than “the touch test” to find ethical clothing
This week I attended a workshop on microfibre pollution hosted by The Bus Store Bookshop at LifeSpin in London. The workshop was designed by the Synthetic Collective, a group from Western University, and presented by Kristy Robertson, who teaches there. I hadn’t planned to do another post on clothing for a while, as there are other subjects I want to cover. I’m really encouraged, though, by the amount of interest there is in this topic. It just keeps coming up, wherever I turn.
When I first got the notice I thought, “A workshop? Really? Can’t they just e-mail me the info?” But I made the trip anyway, and I’m glad I did, because you really did need to be there, to touch and see the fabrics. We started off by trying to find an article of clothing we could be sure wasn’t harmful to the environment. Predictably, we failed. The most common reason was the presence of microfibres, tiny synthetic particles found in most clothing that we buy. When clothing is washed, these particles are shed, and they are everywhere; in water, in the air, in the food chain, and yes, even in Black Swan Porter (my personal favourite). You can’t see them, but they’re there.
The bad news:
- Damage to environment: Microplastics are everywhere, making up 85% of manmade debris found on shorelines worldwide (I’m pretty sure you know this already). Microfibres are the smallest microplastic particles, and ride on the ocean, just under the surface, as floating goo.
- Remediation is difficult: Most sewage treatment plants can capture microplastics, but microfibres are too small. There are filters that can be added to a washload, but again, microfibres are too small for them.
- Harm for humans: We have no idea what this means for our health. The studies just aren’t there. This means that we can’t legislate against them.
The good news:
- Front-loading washers shed fewer microfibres
- Wool, silk and flax are best clothing choices, but watch out for dyes. Support knowledgeable clothing stores.
- Used clothing has already had many of the microfibres washed out, so if you must buy a synthetic, try a consignment store.
- Advocate for wastewater treatment reform
- Support regulation for washing machine retrofits
- Alter our washing machine use. No unnecessary washing, seek out better filters.
- Look for biodegradables when shopping (not just clothing: linens, curtains, mops, cleaning accessories)
All in all, it was a great trip, and I’m really impressed with the Synthetic Collective. They have this great idea of putting their materials together in a slideshow that will be made available for community groups to use on their own. Anybody interested in doing one here in Stratford?
A little while ago I wrote a post about Red Rose Tea. I was suspicious of the fact that their tea bags don’t degrade in my compost, and I e-mailed them about it. Well, the good news is that they wrote me back. Here’s what they said:
Thank you for contacting Red Rose.
The new Red Rose tea bag material is poly lactic acid, or PLA. The new tea bag is an organic polymer made from plants sources. The tea bags are composed of 100% renewable plant materials. The new Red Rose tea bag material is tested by independent laboratories and has been shown to be completely safe.
Sealing Red Rose like our previous Red Rose tea bags and other single chambered (or pillow) tea bags on the market, Red Rose uses a heat sealable material. However, unlike most other single chambered tea bags in the market Red Rose is now 100% compostable and made from 100% plant material.
We truly appreciate your loyalty to our brand and products. Should you have any questions in the future, please do not hesitate to contact us again.
Red Rose Consumer Services
I like Red Rose Tea, and I like getting polite letters like this. Unfortunately, I am also cynical, and I still haven’t forgotten what they did to those chimpanzees all those years ago. So I did some research on poly lactic acid.
I found out that Poly lactic acid (PLA) is a biodegradable polymer made out of renewable resources like sugar, corn starch or cassava. It’s used for 3D printing, short term packaging, and even for medical uses (implants, sutures, drug capsules), among other things, and is classed as an environmentally friendly material. It will break down, but takes a long time to degrade, which is why it haunts my compost.
So there you have it: not toxic or harmful to the environment. I still like the old bags better, because they made better compost, but I’m back to drinking Red Rose.
But just to be clear: no more chimp tea parties, OK?
Hat-clock. Antique Warehouse
When it comes to antiques, I’m not one for a lot of clutter. Personally, I think there are some things that just shouldn’t have been made in the first place. So my trip to the Stratford Antique Warehouse wasn’t completely successful. I think this mall-like store is of more interest to people who like to collect smaller things. However, it’s a lot of fun to wander around there; there’s a ton of fun things to look at, the prices didn’t seem too bad, the people are friendly, and from an environmental perspective, it’s keeping stuff out of the dump and preventing the manufacture of new things. I think this could be called an environmentally friendly business.
Dressers, Glen Manor Galleries
But today I was really out looking at more practical objects, so I decided to continue on to Shakespeare, where there’s a whole community of antique stores. I started off at Glen Manor Galleries, which has a number of breathtaking pieces. I asked Brian Campbell, the owner, if he thought his business is environmentally friendly.
Brian does not suffer fools gladly. It is obvious to him that fine furniture is much more ethical than Ikea particle board, and he told me as much. I then asked him if there were any problems with chemicals used in refinishing furniture, as when lead paint must be stripped off. His eyes bulged slightly. “Paint? On my furniture? I would never stock such a thing.”
Brian has pretty well convinced me that for the high end of the antiques market, there are few environmental concerns, and he’s also made me reflect on how we relate to the things in our lives. Many of the pieces in Brian’s store were made before he was born, and Brian is not a young man. The things in our life sometimes have more permanence than we do, and the careful selection of a fine piece of furniture that may outlast you could well be an act of anti-consumerism.
Barn Boards, Flip! Vintage Antiques
Helpful as Brian was, I still had unanswered questions, so I crossed the road to Flip! Vintage Antiques. It seemed to be a little more my style. The first thing that caught my eye was the wonderful barn boards, at five bucks a linear foot. The owner, Wayne Ross, also showed me a huge slab of walnut, about three inches thick. I was in heaven.
I was surprised to learn from Wayne that the great majority of his customers are local. I would have thought they’d be tourists, and this really changed the way I’ve been thinking about Stratford antiques businesses. They aren’t just bringing money into our community, they are providing a service for it.
Wayne also runs Land & Ross Antiques & Designs, across the road from Flip! He refinishes a lot of the items he sells, so he could help me with my environmental questions. He said he uses mostly Varsol and TSP, which he believes to be relatively harmless to the environment. He also reminded me that there are organic paint strippers. I’ve used these, and they do work, but I know they’re a lot more expensive than Varsol.
When lead paint must be stripped, Wayne keeps the waste in a barrel and disposes of it through a waste removal company. It is apparently burned, with a heavy use of scrubbers to clean the air. This news didn’t thrill me, but after researching this a bit, I don’t see how Wayne could deal with this waste in any other way. On the other hand, there is room for change, but I’ll talk about that in another post.
Wayne also had his own reflections on how we deal with the things in our lives. Sometimes a piece will stay with a family for years, always with the idea that it could be sold through a dealer. In a way, the relationship with the furniture is just temporary, and somehow gives the piece an independence, a life of its own.
Coat rack(?), Uptown Gallery
I finished my visit to Shakespeare at the Uptown Gallery. This store has a lot of midcentury modern items, and also one or two really cool old pieces, like this (coat rack?) made from barn utensils. I know mid-century modern is more appealing to the under-40 set, so I asked the owner if he thought younger people were as interested in antiques as the older generations.
He shook his head sadly. “The younger generation is a throw-away generation,” he said, “but that’s really a story for another article.”
So that was my antiques trip, a visit with the three wise men of Shakespeare. All in all, it was a positive one. After doing my research, I’ve still got a lot of reservations regarding refinished furniture. I think I’d have to insist on pieces that were stripped with organics (I am happy to pay extra), but I think I can continue to go antiquing with a clear conscience. It is the ultimate reuse and recycle experience.
I turned my compost today, and there, right at the bottom, just as I suspected, is a massive clump of Red Rose tea bags. Again. Everything else has rotted away, but these little bags are completely unfazed by the workings of Nature. They just don’t seem to decompose. After a year in the compost! What are these things made of?
Now, I love Red Rose tea, and up until now I believed it to be an environmentally sound product, but enough is enough. I have dragged out my brown betty teapot, and I’m doing it the old fashioned way, and not with Red Rose. I don’t want to wind up like Jacob Marley, dragging long chains of tea bags after me as I wail my way into eternity.
In the meantime, I have written to the Red Rose people (see below), to find out if their bags are part of a plan to carpet the world in Canadian tea. I’ll let you know what develops.
To Red Rose Customer Service
I am writing to ask why your tea bags do not decompose. Mine have been in the compost for nearly two years. I am beginning to suspect that I am drinking tea from bags made of plastic, so I am switching brands, and that’s a pity, because I love Red Rose tea.
I would be very happy to learn that Red Rose is an ecologically sound product, and that your company is concerned about our environment. Please contact me at the above address.