What You Don’t Know: Cotton

  • August 23, 2011 9:05 pm

Can you believe it’s back to school/work/life season already?  Ugh. As cooler temperatures and new wardrobes (for some people, anyway) are on the horizon, it’s time to pause for a moment and think about what clothes are made of and what it entails to manufacture them. I found and continue to find the following facts about conventionally grown cotton shocking. They’re enough to send anyone straight to vintage/consignment/thrift shops. Second hand clothes are obviously a great way to reduce/reuse/recycle, but you’ll also likely be surprised by the gems you can find.  It might take some digging, but you’ll be rewarded with unique items and you’ll save money, too.

When buying new clothing, organic cotton is solid choice. Here are a few motivating facts excerpted from Planet Home about the cotton industry:

Conventional cotton often comes from genetically modified seeds and has been sprayed with pesticides, which is bad for farmers and the environment.  According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides.  These pesticides used on cotton happen to be among the world’s worst: Five of the nine most commonly used have been identified as possible human carcinogens.  Others are known to damage the nervous system and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormonal system.

That said, organic isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to sustainable fashion–not by a long shot. I explain further in this article I wrote recently about sustainable denim for The New York Times.

Meanwhile I’m personally just avoiding this whole change-your-wardrobe moment. My daughter could use a few items for school as she’s growing up up up, so I’ll fill her wardrobe in with hand-me-downs and maybe a few new things. I prefer to hold on to summer by avoiding wearing long sleeves for as long as possible, and to “shop my closet” when the weather forces me to. Amazing how much I’ve bought over the years that can be resurrected!

Q&A: Stuffed Animals

  • July 28, 2011 9:42 am
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,
I was really interested in your post about buying safe toys for your daughter.  I found this extremely timely, as I’m expecting my first child momentarily (literally; due date is tomorrow!).  I’d love to know your philosophy on stuffed/plush animal toys– most all the ones we’ve received as gifts are made in China.  My husband and I are trying to avoid products made with harmful chemicals, sketchy manufacturing processes, etc. through product research and just buying LESS stuff (which dovetails nicely with our having no place to store it anyway).  Stuffed animals don’t (hopefully) contain lead paint, which I feel like is the concern I’ve read most about with toys made in China.  But are there other concerns with stuffed animals you’re aware of?
Best regards,
Carter
THE ANSWER:

Carter,
Get off your computer and enjoy your final moments of freedom! Kidding! Well, not really.
Still here?
Fine, I’ll answer. Great question–you’re right to wonder. Stuffed animals often contain questionable/unhealthy flame retardants and are filled with random plastic pellets–also potentially unhealthy. It’s difficult to impossible to know which contain what. The dyes are also of concern, especially as young children mouth everything.
When you introduce a “lovie” to your baby, start with one made from certified organic cotton. Usually a company that bothers to use  organic cotton on the exteriors of their plush toys is doing ok on the interiors as well as the dyes. But there is no guarantee here;  unfortunately there is no one standard/third party certification families can turn to to be sure. Ask questions about materials, interiors, flame retardants, and dyes as well as read the fine print when you shop. I also like to consult HealthyStuff.org.
As for the stuffed things you have already gotten as presents, use them for toys when your baby is a bit older. Or do as I did–exchange them! I spent hours with a sleeping girl strapped to me wandering around town in the delirious haze of early motherhood exchanging gifts for things we might be able to use. It was an amusing way to spend the time and stock up–we really hadn’t bought much of anything before she was born as I was convinced we needed nothing more than my breasts, love, some diapers, and a blanket. Plus we also have little room for stuff. Makes me laugh to think of it now. You could also always exchange a few stuffed items for glass bottles or other staples to donate to mothers in need.
Enjoy your babymoon. There’s nothing like it.
Best,
Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: What’s In Your Tampons Etc.

  • June 14, 2011 8:22 am

More than half of the population must use them monthly, but do most women think about how fem care (as the industry calls them) products impact the environment or even their bodies? Nope. Kind of a big oversight for something you’re so, um, intimately involved with. Think about it: conventionally produced tampons are made of cotton, which is one of the most highly sprayed crops on the planet. They can also contain plastic, rayon, and are often scented. Here is an excerpt from Planet Home about the risks associated with using them:

According to the National Research Center for Women and Families, approximately 43 million women in the United States use tampons.  And no one knows the cumulative health effect of using conventional feminine care products.  While the boxes on most drugstore shelves aren’t required to list ingredients, most tampons are cotton or a cotton-rayon blend with scent.  Fragrance can contain hormone-disrupting chemicals and can also be irritating to skin, especially in such a delicate area.

Conventional cotton often comes from genetically modified seeds and has been sprayed with pesticides, which is bad for farmers and the environment.  According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides.  These pesticides used on cotton happen to be among the world’s worst: Five of the nine most commonly used have been identified as possible human carcinogens.  Others are known to damage the nervous system and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormonal system.

Highly absorbent rayon is manufactured from wood pulp, a process that involves bleaching with chlorine-containing substances.  The eventual product may contain chlorinated hydrocarbons as well as dioxin residues.  Highly absorbent synthetic fibers can be a breeding ground for the bacteria that cause toxic shock syndrome.  Although some synthetics have been banned, the FDA still allows the use of viscose rayon in certain amounts in tampons.  Dr. Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Medical Center, and a leading expert on the health risks of tampons, says that rayon can still create a breeding ground for toxins.  All-cotton tampons present the lowest risk.

Luckily, there are alternatives!  And plenty of them.  Look to these companies for eco- and you-friendlier fem care:

7th Generation

Maxim

NatraCare

To avoid using an agricultural/disposable product, you can choose a reusable one. Glenny, my editorial assistant, swears by The Keeper. Here are some of her thoughts on it:

“I purchased my first and only Keeper back when I was a college sophomore, about seven years ago.  Short of waxing poetic about it, I will share my top five reasons for absolutely loving my Keeper:

1. It saves me money.  As a college student I only had to pay $18 for mine, but you can purchase yours today for only $37!  Compare that with the monthly expenditures on tampons and other menstrual products and you’re saving a bundle.

2. Its a small step toward a healthier planet.  Made of natural gum rubber it is a zero waste product.  No throwing out wrappings and used napkins, no toxic cottons to worry about.

3. I’ve had mine since 2004 and it is still in top-notch condition.  Life expectancy is 10 years!  Honestly, my relationship with my Keeper is the longest and healthiest I’ve ever had.

4. No toxic shock syndrome.  Enough said.

5. Portable!  Slip it in your purse for those days when you might start your cycle.  No need to lug liners and tampons around with you, and you’ll definitely never have to sneak out to the pharmacy for an emergency purchase.  The Keeper is small and discreet, and usually comes with a darling little bag to keep it in.

No matter which option you choose, make sure you’re thinking about your body and the environment.  You’ll be much happier because of it!”

What You Don’t Know: What My Editorial Assistant Didn’t Know

  • May 24, 2011 9:46 am

This week I asked my editorial assistant (sounds much better than intern, no?) Glenny Cameron if she’d mind sharing what she has learned/what she didn’t know before starting to work with me a month or so ago–if anything. Needless to say I’m extremely touched by what she wrote. She’s amazing. Seriously, this is an inspiring must-read. Thanks, Glenny. Have anything to add to her thoughts? So curious!

—-

Before working with Alexandra I considered myself a very environmentally aware person.  I buy organic, I shop locally, I reuse plastic bags and refuse to buy bottled water.  Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), there are loads and loads of things to learn about the sustainable lifestyle, and I thank Alexandra for engaging me in them.  There is always more that can be done, more of the world to save.  So, here are the top five things I’ve learned in the past few months, complete with excerpts from The Conscious Kitchen and Planet Home.  Some are small and silly, but we all have to start somewhere, right?

1. Bananas.

I love bananas.  They are now a guilty pleasure.  Enough said.

There are a number of items in your fruit bowl (and in your cabinets – see chapter seven) that might be certified organic but fall into the realm of still not being great to buy.  In this realm, no exotic is more widely available, or controversial, than the banana.  The ubiquitous yellow fruit is nature’s perfect answer to packaged goods – every parent’s nutrient-dense dream snack.  Yet, it’s a deeply flawed food.  Its pretty much the poster fruit for how confusing trying to eat consciously can be.  Bananas are grown very far away, are environmentally destructive, are often harvested under conditions unfair to laborers, and the variety we all eat will apparently be extinct in the not-so-distant future.  The greenest and most environmentally devoted eaters around don’t eat bananas, or refer to them as a guilty pleasure…Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined.  Food for thought.

2. Organic cotton.

This is a difficult topic because most of my clothes are not made with organic cotton.  The main reason is that organic cotton can be very expensive and I am at times, very poor.  Another reason is that most of my clothes shopping is done in secondhand or vintage stores, where you will rarely find organic goods.  [Note from Alexandra: Secondhand is better than newly manufactured organic cotton items. Go Glenny!] After learning that cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world (accounting for 25% of annual insecticide use globally!) I made a conscious decision to switch to organic cotton whenever possible.  This meant buying new sheets, towels, and looking into organic cotton alternatives for the clothes I buy new (socks, underwear, etc.).  Although I haven’t completely revamped my wardrobe, I now sleep soundly in my organic bed.  [Another note from Alexandra: Awesome!!] Check out ecochoices.com for more information on worldwide cotton production.

3. Plastic.

I know that all of the nasty chemicals that are found in plastics aren’t news to anyone reading this site.  They weren’t to me either, but I needed a push to start actively avoiding them in my life.

BPA – a hormone disrupter (it mimics estrogen) that has the FDA, Health Canada, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, among other entities, in a tizzy, and parents and hikers across the nation switching their baby and water bottles to BPA-free versions.  Manufacturers have taken consumer temperature and are busily marketing “safe” plastic products.  Unfortunately, some of the resulting BPA-free items contain other chemicals that are new to this arena and haven’t exactly stood the test of time.

Phthalates – this family of chemicals, which make plastic flexible (among many other things), are endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxicants.  The are currently being voluntarily removed or banned from everything from nail polish to neonatal tubing to toys.  They’re less ubiquitous in a kitchen than BPA but are likely found in certain plastics (like meat and cheese wrappings) as well as PVC (vinyl) flooring and even in cleaning-product fragrance.

Sure, I use (organic) cotton totes and only use my plastic bags for my garbage can, but I when I looked in my cupboards I was ashamed to realize how much food was stored in plastic containers.  My cereal and pastas were in plastic bags and my fridge was filled with leftovers in plastic tupperware!  What was I thinking?  So I threw it all out and bought loads of canning jars to use as storage instead.  I even moved my spices.  It was easy! [Yet another note from Alexandra: Nice! Love this!]

4. DIY cleaning.

I must confess, I have a fairly high tolerance for dirt and dust and have never lived in a sterile environment.  Perhaps it’s leftover from growing up in the country, in a house where the windows were always open and pets of all kinds were rampant.  I truly believe this is why my brother and I have incredible immune systems.

That said, most of my cleaning was done with minimal products, usually just water.  On the occasion when I was inspired enough to actually use some disinfectant, I turned to the all-natural brands like Seventh Generation or Ecover.  Fortunately, Alexandra’s tips on DIY cleaning have buffered my “do less” attitude toward cleaning while still keeping my apartment germ free.  I’ve even passed these tips on to my mother, who I can thank for fostering my housekeeping habits (or lack thereof).

DIY Cleaners

-Soap plus water equals mopping solution.

-Soap plus baking soda and a drop or two of water equals excellent mildly abrasive paste.  Extras to mix in include lemon, natural essential oils, or even hydrogen peroxide.

-Water plus vinegar equals glass cleaner.

5. Unplug.

Living alone and living simply means that I have few appliances.  I don’t own a coffee maker or a desktop computer.  My TV is rarely used.  But, for the gadgets I do use – lights, clocks, speakers – I never thought to unplug them when not in use.  I admit, my cell phone charger was usually plugged in until reading Planet Home.

Appliances use energy even when turned off.  Pull plugs out of the wall to stop energy draw.  Alternatively, plug them all into a power strip and turn the strip off when not in use, as well as overnight.

A very simple step towards greening your life.

Q&A: Sheets And Towels

  • May 19, 2011 9:39 am

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra,

Any home organic companies you recommend? Sheets and towels can be so expensive I’m hesitant to just buy them “blind” – I’ve purchased some Gaiam organic sheets and they are fairly cheap feeling and ill-fitting.

Thanks,

Lis

THE ANSWER

Dear Lis,

Thanks for the query. I hear you louder than I’d like. I bought several sets of organic sheets about 5 years ago and they’re currently worn so thin they’re tearing. I don’t remember my conventional sheets before then wearing out so soon. I don’t wash them overy often, and usually only in cold water. The dryers in my building are industrial so maybe that’s a factor. Then I purchased another organic brand when my daughter moved into a twin bed. These are already wearing through after only 3ish years.

Having only personally used two brands, I’m unfortunately not up to suggesting brands, especially as what I like might feel uncomfortable to you. That said, I will explain how to go about finding the best of what’s on the market. I must admit I’d buy my ripped brands again anyway. There are too many excellent reasons to buy organic cotton sheets beyond durability and fit, including that the Sustainable Cotton Project says cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides. These happen to be among the world’s worst pesticides. I choose organic to avoid being involved with that system. Besides, now I have many lovely rags to clean with.

It’s hard to know what’s what in the world of organic cotton. I try to buy from manufacturers who say they work with certified cotton and specifically mention  third party labels like USDA organic, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), or sets that meet Oeko-Tex standards. I also have natural undyed and unbleached sheets. It can be difficult to find out the specifics on manufacturing processes and the safety of dyes. So I just go natural. There are certainly sheets on the market adhering to these standards that come in colors. Another thing to consider is country of origin. If you want to support local farmers, you might not want your sheets from places as far away as China or India. When it comes to food, it’d widely accepted that USDA organic domestic is more trustworthy than USDA organic international. I assume the same goes for cotton. It’s harder to police. Since cotton is a crop, I also like to look for Fair Trade labels or mention on the sheet packaging (these aren’t always available).

Here’s a little something on linens from Planet Home:

The greenest sheets (and towels) are the ones you already have.  But it buying new, choose 100 percent organic cotton, either undyed or dyed in an ecofriendlier fashion.  Choosing organic is mainly about making a positive environmental impact; the exposure to toxins from contact with the cotton itself while sleeping is minimal.  Dyes, on the other hand, can come off on skin and are environmentally harsh.  If you see something called “green” cotton, don’t mistake it for organic.  It’s conventional cotton that hasn’t been bleached with chlorine or treated with formaldehyde, a carcinogen.  Bamboo is an eco-friendly material, but not when it is made into a fabric.  Bamboo sheets are basically rayon and not a great choice.  If you’re going to use conventional sheets (or towels), natural fibers are best.  Do not purchase anything with a permanent press finish, which is treated with formaldehyde, a VOC that you will inhale as you sleep.

If you’re reading this and have an organic sheet and towel brand you love, trust, and think makes a durable product, please say so in comments!