Children go through clothes so quickly, it’s hard not to think of them as disposable. Whether they get stained right away, don’t fit due to a growth spurt, or aren’t a piece they like for some reason, this precarious type of wear makes ten dollar tops and fifteen dollar pants seem like the smart way to shop.
But is it?
When you look a little deeper, it’s apparent; cheap clothes turn out to cost more than we ever imagined. And, it’s our children who pay the price.
Cheap Clothes = Hidden Toxic Residue
This recent headline from May 15, 2018 reveals the problem: “Toxic chemicals found in Canadian baby products, study finds”.
Scientists at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in Canada tested items such as baby bibs and waterproof mats, pads and blankets, as well as children’s outdoor jackets, ponchos/rainsuits and waterproof pants. As quoted in Canadian newspaper The Star, reseachers found that, “Two-thirds of 137 items tested contained perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), both banned in Canada and internationally.” PFOA and PFOS are used to make textiles stain- and water-resistant. They also have been linked to cancer, damage to the liver, thyroid, immune and endocrine system. (For a thorough account of how Dupont, a major producer, had hidden the damage these chemicals can cause for over 50 years and fought to continue use, see “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”.)
In a 2014 report entitled, “A Little Story About the Monsters in Your Closet”, Greenpeace East Asia tested 82 pieces of clothing and footwear from around the world made by major kids clothing brands such as Disney, H&M, Nike and Gap. The results of their study are emblematic of a widespread problem that is not restricted to any particular country, product type, brand or age group. They tested for nonylphenol ethoxylates; phthalates, organotins, per/poly-fluorinated chemicals and antimony. All were found in the products tested.
What effects do these chemicals have? They can cause problems in the immune system, the nervous system and disrupt hormones. They can cause dermatitis, irritation of the respiratory tract and interfere with the development of reproductive organs in males and reproduction in females. (For a comprehensive summary of studies that have shown the damage these toxins do to life, see the technical portion of Greenpeace’s report.)
Sometimes the effects of these chemicals become shockingly obvious and even life-threatening. Over 400 babies experienced rashes and burns from the Carter’s 2007 product line as documented on this website. This is one father’s account of the reaction his months-old daughter had from wearing a Carter’s brand outfit:
Then one day, the burn got worse and Ava was clearly in unbearable pain. We immediately took her to the pediatrician. The doctors in the practice saw Ava’s wound and agreed she should immediately be admitted to the children’s hospital emergency. Ava caught a staph infection from her open wound. As you may know, staph can be life threatening, especially to an infant; Ava was barely 3 months. She had to be in a strict sterile environment (medical masks, gloves and gowns were required by all who entered who room) and we waited for IV Antibiotics to mitigate further health risks. Ava and my wife were in the hospital overnight. We were alarmed by doctors who all claimed the issue to be very severe but none of whom could diagnose it. We were all horrified and traumatized by this, wondering if our daughter would recover. Ava was on antibiotics for at least a month, the burn subsided but never healed and continued to painfully affect her. (As quoted in Growing Your Baby.)
Rashes like these due to a high dose of a toxin are scary and undermine trust in a brand. But what’s even scarier is all the time that it’s not obvious but impacting your child.
Children’s environmental-health researcher, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, explains: “We’ve been studying the impact of toxins on children for the past 30 years, and reached the inescapable conclusion – little things matter. … extremely low levels of toxins can impact brain development.” (As quoted in the video “Little Things Matter: The Impact of Toxins on the Developing Brain”) (emphasis ours).
It’s not just the brain that can be impacted. Every system and organ in a child’s body can be affected as they are literally building their bodies from the food you feed them and the environment that surrounds them. Therefore, clothing with toxic residue should be of concern. Specifically, because:
Children have a higher skin surface area to body weight ratio than adults, and experience more intensive contact with home surroundings, so increased dermal absorption of chemicals may occur. The skin of children is also more permeable than adult skin. In newborns, keratinisation (thickening and toughening of the skin) does not occur until 3–5 days after birth, and is more delayed in premature infants (Bearer, 1995). Studies have shown enhanced absorption of toxins including various dyes, drugs and disinfectants through the skin of newborns (Eichenfield & Hardaway, 1999). – Dorey, Catherine N. (2003), Chemical Legacy: Contamination of the Child, Greenpeace UK, October 2003, ISBN 1-903907-06-3.
Cheap Clothes = Hidden Costs
Conventionally grown cotton requires some of the most toxic chemicals on earth to grow and harvest. But according to O Ecotextiles, it’s nothing compared to the over “2,000 different kinds of chemicals regularly used in textile production, many of them so toxic that they’re outlawed in other products.”
Here are some of the ways companies realize benefits from using toxic chemicals:
Using chemical defoliants to harvest cotton instead of extra labor cuts costs for the company.
Using formaldehyde to make a shirt wrinkle-free is a cheap way to incentivize consumers to buy.
Choosing to manufacture in a developing country allows the company to continue using toxic chemicals without incurring environmental remediation costs.
Choosing to manufacture in a developing country also allows the company to save by paying as little as possible for labor, not providing benefits, requiring long working hours and even employing children.
The Story of Stuff is an eye-opening online documentary that shows how cheap stuff impacts so many lives. In this excerpt from the documentary, founder of The Story of Stuff Project Annie Leonard explains:
I was walking to work and I wanted to listen to the news so I popped into this Radio Shack to buy a radio. I found this cute little green radio for 4 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this radio and I was wondering how $4.99 could possibly capture the costs of making this radio and getting it to my hands. The metal was probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq, the plastics were probably produced in China, and maybe the whole thing was assembled by some 15-year-old in a maquiladora in Mexico.
$4.99 wouldn’t even pay the rent for the shelf space it occupied …, let alone part of the staff guy’s salary that helped me pick it out, or the multiple ocean cruises and truck rides [that] pieces of this radio went on.
That’s how I realized, I didn’t pay for the radio.
So, who did pay?
Well, [along the production chain, some of] these people paid with the loss of their natural resource base. [Other] people paid with the loss of their clean air, with increasing asthma and cancer rates. Kids in the Congo paid with their future—30% of the kids in parts of the Congo now have had to drop out of school to mine coltan, a metal we need for our disposable electronics. These people [the store personnel] even paid, by having to cover their own health insurance. All along this system, people pitched in so I could get this radio for $4.99. And none of these contributions are recorded in any accounts book. … company owners externalize the true costs of production. [emphasis ours]
The “savings” you enjoy have simply been passed on to other people along the production chain … and the environment. Farm laborers and factory workers pay with their health, their dignity and their future. So do their children when their parents work in such conditions. Their communities pay by losing their once clean natural resources of air, water and soil.
Wear the Change
There are companies that have chosen to opt-out of the business-as-usual model and create a system where everyone wins. You’ll recognize the leaders of this movement by seeing the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label on their clothing. It’s THE label that assures you that from seed to consumer, toxic levels of chemicals were not used and the final product is free from toxic residues.
These companies may also have a Fair-Trade certification. And, they find ways to empower the communities where they manufacture their clothes. They take steps to show they understand that at every stage, from seed to consumer, there are people that are affected by the actions they take as a company. They want to affect these people positively.
SafBaby proudly carries clothing from two of these leaders: Under the Nile and Colored Organics.
They are GOTS-certified, Fair-Trade certified and committed to giving back in profound ways. Both were created by moms who turned their passion about making a difference in the world into life-changing companies.
For the past 20 years, I have continued to stay true to my mission and myself, by creating products that continue to provide work for people, while making Babies, Parents and Mother Earth ALL HAPPY. – Janice Masoud
In 1998, Janice Masoud set out to find clothing that would not harm her two young daughters’ sensitive skin. In her search, she discovered the truth about conventional cotton production and conventional clothing manufacturing – that these processes pollute the land, degrade the soil, poison the workers and take from communities. Unable to find a fabric that did not have a detrimental impact on her daughters’ health, the environment and society, she and her husband decided to create a clothing line that was the change they wanted to see in the world.
Under the Nile’s products are made from 100% organic cotton and are manufactured under the rigorous requirements of the Global Organic Textile Standard. They make soft, durable, comfortable, beautiful and healthy clothing and other items for children, newborn through age 4.
They also give back to the people and communities that work for their company in empowering and varied ways. For example, to help address unemployment and poverty in remote villages in Sharkeya, Egypt, Janice created the 13 Villages Project. Each of the 13 villages makes one of Under the Nile’s 13 fruits and veggies toys and by doing so the women in those villages learn a skill and earn an income without having to leave their home.
“I believe there is hope in our ability to think beyond ourselves and take responsibility for the long and short term impacts of the purchases we make.” – Amanda Barthelemy
Amanda Barthelemy founded Colored Organics not long after the birth of her first-born daughter, Sienna. In researching the healthiest products to use for her newborn, she came across an article that discussed the benefits of organic cotton over conventional cotton.
However, what affected Amanda the most was realizing the devastating impact the conventional cotton industry had on its workers. Deplorable labor practices such as sweatshops and child slave labor, practices that are rife in the industry, essentially demoralize workers who have no voice. And, daily interactions with poisonous chemicals often subjects farm and factory workers to allergic reactions, and yes, even death.
Amanda immediately recognized what a substantial and fundamental change she could make in the lives of people by choosing organic cotton clothes that were manufactured cleanly. She went a step further and was inspired to create a children’s clothing line dedicated to the ideals she wanted to make a reality, Colored Organics.
Colored Organics guarantees their GOTS-certified, Fair Trade certified clothing is 100% sweatshop-free. They also donate up to 50% of their profits from clothing sales to help find homes for orphaned children in India. The clothing line is ethically-made, stylish and colorful clothing for children, newborn through size 11/12.
Conscious Shopping Made Simple
“There is no “safe” level for hazardous chemicals – that is why the target of zero use
is the only credible basis for taking effective action to eliminate these harmful substances.
Both companies and governments need to clearly commit to this aim.”
– Greenpeace, from “A Little Story About the Monsters in Your Closet”
In the SafBaby Shop, you’ll only find GOTS-certified clothing. With every purchase, you’re choosing to be a superhero my making sure the safest clothing is next to your child’s skin and creating a better, healthier future for the world.