Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Leigh Anne Van Dusen, founder of O Ecotextiles. O Ecotextiles partners with fabric manufacturers to create safe, low-impact and gorgeous fabric for home design. Leigh has an encyclopedic knowledge of sustainable (and unsustainable) fabric production, and she has been passionately pursuing change in the textile industry for over a decade. I’m tremendously excited to welcome her to Crab & Bee to share some of her wisdom about she runs O Ecotextile’s business, textile industry issues, and how to purchase healthier fabrics!
You became interested in sustainable textiles in 2004 when you wanted to reupholster your sofa. How did that lead you to create O Ecotextiles?
Leigh: In looking for a “green” fabric for my sofa, I found many fabrics that were sophisticated, but not environmentally friendly; or green (mostly recycled polyester), but not stylish. Even the “organic” fabrics were processed with chemicals that were harmful for people and the planet. Since I couldn’t find a company that was creating sophisticated, stylish fabrics using organic or sustainable methods, we (my sister and I) decided to create our own, never thinking it would be as hard as it has! We quickly learned how absolutely gigantic the textile industry is, how polluting, and how often it was exploitative of its workers. And there were no natural fiber fabric collections extant that combined high design, high performance and “green” credentials. We decided to offer fabrics that would change the way textiles are being made by proving that it’s possible to produce luxurious, sensuous fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable. Our initial impetus and goals remain our current objectives. We desire our production and end products to have a benign toxicity profile for the earth, and for humans and animals (yes, those are different considerations); to be fiercely carbon positive; and to be a consistent fair trader and good employee that pays family wage long term jobs and affords good working conditions.
Can you describe the lifecycle of one of your fabrics?
Leigh: We are primarily focused on the textile manufacturing process. We want to clean up this industry, to ensure that workers are given a fair shake and to realistically evaluate carbon and water issues. We want the end product of this new industrial paradigm to be beautiful and durable – without sacrificing luxury. We select only the very finest natural fibers that have been grown entirely without chemicals which have been identified as being harmful – to humans or other life on the Earth. Since growing even organically certified cotton, one of nature’s thirstiest plants, can contribute to the desertification of the world, we emphasize the use of less thirsty natural fibers such as hemp, bamboo and linen. Then we process them minimally, stripping the many finishes (all those “antis” – static, wrinkle, stain, bacterial, mildew, etc.) from the finished product, offering it in its purest form. We have also been inspired by overcoming technical roadblocks: When we began this process almost eight years ago, we had to find partners who were willing to work with us. We were, after all, just two unknown women from Seattle with a crazy idea. It turns out that we had to have our hemp linen piece dyed – almost unheard of these days – because our dye house in Italy, run by women who were themselves committed to changing the industry, could not dye the yarns. Nor could we afford to ship the yarns back and forth for weaving. The result is a fabric that, instead of reading as a solid block of color like a painted wall, has subtle variations due to the different amounts of dye uptake along the length of the yarns. The fabric is alive. It would be impossible to replicate this effect in a yarn-dyed synthetic. Another example of overcoming technical problems was finding a low impact, fiber reactive dye that could pass the colorfast tests. Our first formulation of GOTS certified dyestuffs yielded color that didn’t pass the tests – we were crushed. But a few lab dips and tests later we found a formulation that was colorfast to ACT as well as GOTS standards And at the end of their useful life, our fabrics can be used as mulch in your garden.
What is your favorite aspect of your job?
Leigh: I really like to being able to provide a solution for the many people who call us at wits end: the mom whose child is allergic to everything; the chemically sensitive people who thought they’d have to do without fabrics. It makes me think we’re really providing a service.
Lots of companies market their products as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”, and I find it difficult to navigate the marketing terms. What are some important things to look for when shopping for sustainable and safe fabrics?
Leigh: The most important thing to do, by far, is to search out third party certified products: Global Organic Textile Standard-certified fabrics (GOTS) or Oeko Tex certified fabrics – not just the fibers. The fabrics certified to these standards ensure that what you’re getting is safe – think of a fabric as being similar to organic applesauce. If you begin with organic apples but then process those apples with preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, etc., then the final product cannot, by law, be called organic applesauce. There is no similar law protecting you in fabrics, so it’s easy to find a fabric made of organic cotton, but which is processed conventionally. It is not an organic fabric.
- If organic fabrics are not available, pay attention to the type of fiber used in the fabric and the production methods employed. Never buy conventional cotton if you can help it; never use PVC or acrylic. If buying polyester, is it antimony free?
- Be aware of greenwashing. Remember, avoiding greenwashing doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect product. It DOES mean science, honesty and transparency is paramount.
- Look at the company you’re buying the product from: It’s important to look beyond the hype – green registers as dollar signs in many corporate minds, so look at the company’s claims: do they offer a gazillion products but have a small “green” section? (Some cleaners come to mind, like Method vs. the green offerings from Clorox, for example.)
- Can you easily find info about the company’s sustainable practices on their web site?
- Google the company name + environment.
- Also, if it’s a really big company, check their R&D budget – if they’re invested in sustainable solutions, it should show up.
I mostly sew garments; are there any manufacturers of fashion fabrics that you like? Do you have any plans to sell fashion fabric?
Leigh: There are too many to name! Some mills make deliriously delicious fabrics – but they’re not green. So sad. We have our hands full with our upholstery and drapery fabrics, but practically every fabric we carry has been used as a garment. The problem for fashion fabrics is that fast fashion has pushed the prices of fabric even lower, making the mills use ever more toxic chemicals (because they’re the cheapest and easiest to use). It’s a vicious cycle.
As someone who handles a lot of fabric, I find it disturbing that I’m not better protected against toxins from textiles. How can I get involved in the fight to make textiles safer?
Leigh: There are many ways to be involved. The Washington Toxics Coalition (www.watoxics.org) is doing a great job in fighting for revision of antiquated toxics laws in the U.S. Write your senators and congresspeople that you support the Toxic Substances Control Act of 2013. But above all, become educated in what makes a sustainable textile – the government isn’t going to do it for you, so it’s really up to us to discover what the issues are – and the risks of not paying attention.
Thank you, Leigh!
Meeting Leigh has given me a lot to think about. Obviously (based on my blogging history), I’ve been focusing more on thrifted/second-hand fabrics in the past year and not as much on how to find sustainable new fabrics. Since our chat last year, however, I have started seeking out GOTS-certified organic cotton for basics like t-shirts and tank tops, as Nathan and I tend to live, work out, and sleep in them. And I plan to make us a new set of sheets in a healthy fabric when ours give up the ghost. I’d like to strike a personal balance of thrifted fabrics, healthy/sustainable fabrics (for the garments and textiles I touch the most), and the occasional random fabric purchase.
Sometimes reading about toxicity and environmental impacts of the products and food we consume brings me to a very low place where I feel simultaneously terrified and apathetic, so I wanted to say that I shared this interview not because I want to scare anybody, but because I believe our wonderful sewing community deserves more information on the textiles we work with every day. I believe that the majority of the textile industry needs to change their practices, and I think the more we learn and talk about it, the faster change can happen. It’s been hugely inspiring to see people speaking out and taking personal action against the terrible garment factory working conditions and environmental practices, for example.
Have sustainable fabrics been on your mind lately?