The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, All Over Again in Bangladesh

English: Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory ...

English: Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 – 1911.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fire that killed 112 people and counting in a nine-story high-rise building in Bangladesh last night was in a sweatshop in which people were working late to make clothes for Walmart and Sears, news reports indicate. There were evidently no exterior fire exits, and people jumped from the top floors to get away from the flames.

ABC News also reports that Walmart was aware of issues at this supplier with safety as of last year, noting both that this is the worst fire on record in terms of fatalities, and that the death toll is supposed to increase.

In fact, this is merely a small part of the overall mortality from clothing factory fires in just the last five years alone, as they explain:

The Tazreen fire is the latest in a series of deadly blazes at garment factories in Bangladesh, where more than 700 workers, many making clothes for U.S. consumers, have died in factory fires in the past five years.

Ugh. This is so upsetting.

The utterly pointless sadness of this story eventually made a little angry, reminding me that I’d been meaning to put together a post about how completely unnecessary it is to buy any new clothes for children. Basically ever. Turns out, you can opt out, more or less completely. Which sounds better and better to me all the time now.

I’ll be the first one to admit that this kind of terrible tragedy was not my motivation when I resolved last year to buy all of Maya’s clothes (and many of her toys and books) used. But it sure will help motivate me to see the project through.

When I hatched my plan, I was thinking of reasons like those in this fascinating Slate piece by Elizabeth Cline, based on her book about the used clothing industry. Much like this 2001 documentary, Cline follows our castoff threads back to Africa, where a glut of cheap Western clothing has helped to decimate African clothiers.

Cline writes:

Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”

Then there’s the high cost in natural resources that Tom Philpott pointed out in “Are Your Skinny Jeans Starving the World?,” in which he describes how the rising world demand for cotton produced in places like China is supplanting food crops.

He’s right, of course — clothes cost much less than they used to, at least in some shops, and that is leading us to buy more:

In 1985, Americans on average bought 31 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy roughly 60—more than one per week. And when we lug home our haul we’re not shy about making room in the closet: We throw out 78 pounds (PDF) of textiles per person—five times as much as we did in 1970.

Even setting all these high-minded reasons aside, when I think about Maya’s wardrobe, I also see the problem as a Mom. I’d like her to be decently clothed, but I also don’t want to fuss when she predictably ruins something, or grows out of it before she even has a chance to put it on. And I really am far too cheap to pay what children’s clothes cost new, just to have her wear it for the two seconds that she can fit into something.

Thus far, I’ve managed to keep clothes on her, and have bought new items on only, say, three occasions in her two years (excepting shoes, which are harder to come by in good condition). I’ve also collected sufficient used clothes to see her through, at this point, for several years to come, and so am actually done for a while, which is a relief of sorts.

One side-benefit of this approach is that I don’t go into big box stores much, which keeps the crazy requests for owl pillows to a minimum. Also, she has a lot of jumpers and dresses, which seem to end up on the used clothing racks for little girls in disproportionate numbers. I actually like the look of dresses, and with most, you can use them for two seasons because they pose as a “frock” in year two.

Here are few tips if you want to join me in my quest to recycle children’s clothing, one family at a time:

1) Buy ahead. Look several years ahead while you’re there in the store. Once you get a bunch, sort them by size, season and store away. I plan on telling Maya the “clothing fairy” has come again. We’ll see if she’s as naturally skeptical as her father.

2) Keep track of discounts. The thrift stores in my area have “customer appreciation days” where everything is even more marked down.

3) Get there early or very late. Most of the good items go quickly at yard sales, but you can also find worthy stuff on the last day of multi-day rummage sales, when it will be deeply discounted, typically by half.

4) Look it over. Check for loose buttons, stains and hanging threads.

I’ve found Hanna Anderson silk dresses for two bucks, like-new shoes for five, and wonderful winter coats for eight. You may still need to buy something like tights, but the bulk of the shopping will be done, with little money spent, and mostly just your time invested.

When you’re done using the items, be sure to find someone to pass on your goodies to, in order to keep the cycle going. Unless an item is stained or ruined, if we repurposed all these things our kids go through, we could really make a dent in the amount of clothing we all buy.

Obviously, there are other sources besides thrift stores, both for buying and selling used clothes. Here are some helpful links:

  • ThredUp.com and Mommy Cycle are sites that allow you to list like-new items for sale, and get a nice price for them, with a premium for higher-end labels in particular;
  • Craigslist, Ebay, and neighborhood list servs are always a good bet (though my local parents’ listserv is cutthroat, and I never seem to respond in time for the really great stuff), and here’s some alternatives to those as well for other types of items, like furniture;
  • Mom’s groups yard sales, church rummage sales, consignment shops and stores like Once Upon A Child, and locally staged events like those hosted by JBF are good options for donations or shopping;
  • If you are bold, you can let friends on Facebook know you need or want to unload items and see if there are givers or takers, or start a Facebook group for selling items and let folks in your area join;
  • You can also give them away on Freecycle.org, where the receivers are more likely to make use of the items;
  • Last, you can host a clothing swap — which  works well for both child and adult clothes. I attended a lovely one a few months back that had been going on every six months or so for years, and was overflowing with new fashion options. The ladies all brought booze and goodies, along with the unwanted clothing, shoes and jewelry, and it was quite the social affair! Great fun, as well as good for the closet, workers and the planet.

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I also held onto some of Maya’s smallest newborn items, which make nice baby doll clothes without the added expense of having to buy those. (And for a few more tips, here’s an earlier post I did on my love of the thrift, Green Tips for Thrifty Parents, and one on a thrift-store dollhouse I upgraded a bit.)

For more sentimental items their children have worn, I’ve seen people say on the craftier list servs that they plan to make a family quilt or a pillow from the fabrics, which would be a nice way to recycle those beloved reminders.

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Needless to say, in context, I’m well aware that all of this is a rather frivolous response to a serious tragedy. And even if some considerable number of us stopped buying new clothes tomorrow, would Walmart and the other major manufacturers wake up?

Maybe, but just for good measure here’s some information from a group working on the problem of deadly working conditions, the International Labor Rights Forum. They have been at the table with clothing manufacturers over the past few years, trying to broker an agreement on the most basic and fundamental of worker safety issues in Bangladesh: fire safety.

Here’s what their press release says about the latest on that:

In March 2012, PVH Corp. (owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen, IZOD, ARROW, G.H. Bass, and Eagle) signed an agreement with Bangladeshi unions, international unions, ILRF and other labor rights groups to develop a fire safety program to prevent future deaths in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The program includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.

These steps certainly make sense to me. But there’s a catch:

Other brands implicated in large, deadly factory fires in 2010 – including H&M, Gap, JCPenney, Target, Abercrombie, Kohl’s and Carter’s – have also been invited to join the agreement. “Unfortunately, Gap Inc. withdrew last month from fire safety discussions and instead announced their own non-binding program, which lacks central elements of the fire safety program signed by PVH and Tchibo,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labor Rights Forum. Gearhart added: “We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh’s low wages to make a profit. Their voluntary and confidential monitoring programs have failed; now it is time to come together and make a contractual commitment to workers and to involve workers and their organizations in the solution.”

Carter’s? The Gap? H&M? Target? It’s very disappointing that this agreement’s truly basic set of precautions is missing from factories. I would hope, along with the ILRF, that this fire serves as a wake-up call to these big international brands that the world will sit up and take notice of this terribly ugly situation.

I really don’t want anyone to die — half a world away, trapped in a sweatshop — for any stupid shirt, and I’m sure you feel the same.

A fire exit — which is something we get here in the U.S. every time we merely go to the movies — plus some basic worker protections are not too much to ask. In 2012. A full 101 (freaking) years after people died in our own New York City under basically the same circumstances.

So it certainly wouldn’t hurt to mention these feelings to the folks at Walmart, Carter’s, H&M, Target or The Gap.

You could also consider sending along to the ILRF the proceeds from any yard sales you might have, as we will next spring, to support their sensible efforts to fix this awful, but eminently solvable, problem. Any little bit counts, and the justice of putting that kind of money back into fixing the dire problems in the clothing industry could give you just that extra wee fillip of satisfaction as you go through the unpleasantness of sorting and unloading your duds.

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Update:  

The Diane Rehm show ran a terrific segment this week on the situation with garment workers’ conditions in Bangladesh, and the guests also were unabashed in comparing the situation there to the labor conditions that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. As one guest remarked, the textile manufacturers have managed the feat of “time-travel” — recreating the terrible working conditions from the U.S. in 1911. As in 1911, the managers of the factory had locked the doors, trapping people inside, due to a concern that workers would steal the goods. How sad.

At least the 1911 fire galvanized reforms. We can only hope that this one does the same.

At Long Last: My Greener, Healthier Baby and Toddler Supply Guide

Many of my friends have asked for the “list” of baby items that we bought based on my research. I’ve finally scraped it together, as a reward for their kindness in pretending to pay any attention at all to my enviro-babble.

There are some healthier baby things now being sold – and there are gazillions of on-line retailers happy to bring these items to you. Below is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is the things I liked among what we personally have used.

In buying things for our family, I managed to tease out, mostly through trial and error, some overall principles for environmental health in children’s stuff. Some thoughts on what to look for, and what to avoid, are also below.

Before I get to the good stuff, as nerdy as I am, I feel compelled to put some caveats before you:

  1. There are a ton of Web sites for product reviews, including “green” products, with widely varying levels of green-washing and blogger integrity. In contrast, the product list below is stuff I bought and used when Maya was a baby or use now. The links here don’t trigger any commissions or the like – I’m just not that organized. If that ever changes, I will note it here. In the meantime, click away, knowing that I am only rewarded by the pleasure of knowing what I pulled together was of use to you.
  2. Products can change over time – particularly things with ingredients, like wipes and lotions. What I bought and liked may not be what’s being sold today. So for those kinds of things, I would encourage you to double-check for any negative product reviews on the Web sites selling the stuff, as well as with the consumer guides linked to below. (If you see something alarming about any of the items below, please do comment and let me know!)
  3. Generally speaking, I’m not making an environmental sustainability claim for these items, though, as noted, some of them are made by companies with a greener outlook, and ones I’m happier to support. (And I do think it’s important to specify whether we are talking about environmental health or sustainability.) I haven’t investigated what went into their manufacture, or the sources for wood, for example. I’ll also note that being this picky about the stuff we use often means a lot of packaging and shipping, which is not really that great for the planet.
  4. I tend to order stuff from Amazon, due to the free shipping: I’m cheap like that. But I don’t feel good about it, especially given how terrible it is a place to work (I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that this recent Mother Jones article describing a hellish nether-region of robotic inhumanity is about one of their warehouses, though the article doesn’t clearly say so). If you want to be better than me, and it’s not that hard to do, order directly from the companies that make this stuff where you can, or from a “greenie” retailer that doesn’t treat its workers like bots.
  5. Normal concerns about product safety – stuff like choking hazard levels and recalls – are also an ongoing issue. Obviously, if I hear of problems with something, I’ll change the post. But the idea of “endorsing” something still makes me nervous. So of course apply your own judgment and monitor your child’s use of whatever it is carefully.

Lastly, some explanation is needed regarding the consumer guides. There are others out there, but I use three:

  1. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: They closely examine the safety and health impacts of ingredients in personal care products, including subscreen, lotions, etc. Their scores run 0-10, with higher being worse for you. I try to ensure that everything in our home is a 0 or 1, but this is not easy. The scores are very cautious – for example, even essential oils like lavender are given scores. If allergens are not a concern, you may want to check to see the basis for the score, as some things are upgraded for merely being irritants. If you have chemical sensitivities, obviously, this information is a goldmine.
  2. Good Guide provides an overall score and several detailed subscores for a much more comprehensive set of data points on a wide range of consumer products. Their scoring system includes scores for environmental health, but also corporate sustainability practices and labor conditions. Confusingly, their scores run the opposite way as EWG’s, with 10 as the best score, and 1 the worst. As I care most about environmental health, I tend to look at that particular score first, and then be pleased, as a bonus, if the company overall is doing well. Their overall score may be quite different from the environmental health indicator in many cases. Unfortunately, Good Guide used to, but no longer, rates toys. (We owned several of these very popular toys they found to be toxic, including the Rainforest Jumperoo, which was upsetting. I’ve used the Wayback machine at times to dredge up their old ratings.)
  3. HealthyStuff.org tests toys, clothing and other items for environmental health concerns using an XRF gun (like the one used in your home for lead, if you had it tested, which shows what is in a product several layers down). They test mainly for four dangerous substances, including lead and chlorine, and assign a high, medium or low rating. They maintain a searchable database which may or may not have the toys in your home in it, but even flipping through the listings shows how many times these substances are found in highly common toys.

Now that my throat-clearing is over, here’s some of the fun stuff.

The Quick Version: General Things to Look For

These are good:

  1. Simple, wooden toys (made from solid wood, and not particleboard, plywood, fiberboard or other pressed “wood” products);
  2. Organic textiles (particularly ones that go in the mouth, like loveys, and for bedding and clothing for brand-new babies, whose skin is very thin);
  3. Products that qualify for Oeko-Tex, a fairly protective European textile standard;
  4. Books and musical instruments, including photo albums of family and baby pictures that tell your child’s life story — identity development is a major issue for babies and toddlers. Our “Life with Maya” board book is a huge hit (for a clumsy but functional place to order a board book version of a photo album, see here);
  5. Stuffed animals and dolls that can be thrown in the wash (“surface clean only” usually means plastic pellets inside);
  6. Stainless steel dishes and containers, and glass bottles and containers, for food storage and serving;
  7. Fragrance-free (many fragrances contain untested substances, and include harmful pthalates);
  8. Ingredient lists for products like toiletries that are written in comprehensible English with terms all explained on the packaging;
  9. Buying less stuff, and nicer toys, for the reasons I suggest here — after all, you have to look at them and pick them up a million times a day;
  10. Finding used stuff that fits the above guidelines from yard sales, book sales and thrift stores (a few tips for greener thrift store shopping are here).

These are good to avoid:

  1. Polyurethane foam (to minimize flame retardants);
  2. Electronic gizmos, because they often contain heavy metals (though we have some, certainly, and just try to keep them to a minimum);
  3. Soft, molded plastics (as in bath toys, bibs, teethers and teethable items on toys), because they are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and older ones likely contain pthalates (see more on why to avoid PVC in toys here);
  4. Plastic plates, utensils and cups (including those cute melamine designs), as they go in the dishwasher, and heat makes plastic degrade and get into the food;
  5. In toiletries like lotions and such: parabens (like methylparaben or butylparaben), sulfates (like sodium lauryl sulfate), PEG (which is usually followed by a number), and either a) long, incomprehensible lists of gunk in products; or b) products that fail to list all of the ingredients on the bottle and refer you to some stupid Web site you’ll never get around to checking (like Method does). Talcum powder is also out, because natural talc can contain asbestos, and is an inhalation risk;
  6. Unneeded big hunks of plastic indoors (we do have some of those enormous, ugly plastic vehicles out in the back yard, purchased well used);
  7. Traditional pack-and-plays are a bundle o’ suspect plastics and foams and a pain to pack up; we used a Baby Bjorn travel crib, which is certified compliant with Oeko Tex. It was expensive, but it still works well for traveling;
  8. Stroller covers – they are awful. Most are made of PVC. Babies and children would be far better getting a little wet and breathing outdoor air. Also made of PVC are those cool decorative wall stickers for nurseries, which likely off-gas above the baby for quite some time;
  9. Foam play mats, which, by one manufacturer’s (SkipHop) own admission to me, all contain formamide, a carcinogen created in the foam-making process that was the basis for a ban of the mats in France and Belgium last year. For Maya’s rough-and-tumble period, I used a couple of jute yoga mats (there is a plastic backing on these, but regular yoga mats are all PVC, which is awful when you think about it. Hot yoga, anyone?);
  10. Crocs are made of the same material as foam play mats (called EVA), and the company will not say whether formamide is in them, so I wouldn’t put them on children, certainly;
  11. Art supplies, which can be problematic, particularly paints, markers and white-board pens, and face paint at fairs and used at Halloween is typically loaded with lead and other harmful heavy metals (if you really need some for a costume, try these instead);
  12. I do not use infant or children’s Tylenol. It’s subject to all-too frequent recalls due to manufacturing problems, and the children’s form contains butylparaben. In addition, a meta-review of 20 studies on the issue strongly links aceteminophan to asthma in children. (Yet my own pediatrician still passes out dosage information!)
  13. Heating food in plastic (and I would include the steamer-blender type baby food machines, as being labeled BPA-free doesn’t mean an item is free of plastics or other chemicals that act like hormones). On baby food, actually, you can’t win: some commercial baby food in jars has BPA under the lid, yet most mini-choppers and food processor bowls are polycarbonate, and can contain BPA or similar chemicals. We use either a glass blender or a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything (works like a VitaMix, but for less than half the price);
  14. Cheap children’s furniture, including play kitchens, bookshelves, tables, etc., is often made of pressed wood products that contain formaldehyde, which is linked to leukemia. Solid wood, when you can find and afford it, is far better as it won’t off-gas (ask for a natural oils or beeswax finish in lieu of varnish);
  15. Noxious odors: keep in mind that your sense of smell is a decent indicator of when there are solvents and other harmful chemicals around. If it stinks or is making you woozy, get rid of it.

I’ll also just note that I’m (perhaps unjustifiedly) suspicious of silicone teethers, dishes, food storage, baking items, etc. While the silicone may be inert, I’m not convinced that anyone’s looked closely enough at the plastic additives that give the silicone its color and shape. (If you know more about this, please let me know.)

One overall tip is to look for “Waldorf” items. Whether or not you’re on board with the educational approach, these items are all natural and are often handcrafted and beautiful.

It’s no accident that many of the companies I prefer are European. Under both an agreement on chemicals called the REACH treaty and various country-level rules, they impose more protective environmental standards on textiles and chemicals, among other things.

If you have too much stuff, as we do, you can create novelty (which is a trigger for the brain) by cycling toys. I use cute animal fabric bins (though these are not organic) to take things in and out of circulation, which helps to declutter, keep the sets together, and to maintain Maya’s interest in what we have.

Below, I emphasize the stuff that you can buy for a baby, but that also works for a younger toddler or beyond, so that it’s a better investment.

Companies I like for toys, gear, toiletries and stuffed animals:

Toys and stuffed animals, etc.

Gear

  • iPlay (raincoats that are PVC-free, for example; they still are fairly plastic-y, so there may be better ones)
  • Baby Bjorn (items are Oeko Tex certified)
  • Naturepedic (crib mattress and changing pad)
  • Lunchbots (stainless steel snack containers; plain is best as some complain of chipped enamel on the colored ones)
  • 3 Sprouts Organic (storage bins and hooded towels are organic; other storage may not be)

Toiletries and Cleaners

Favorite Retailers

Here’s the Exact Stuff I Used and Liked:

Nursery

Decorating

  • Mythic Paint (Zero VOC-emissions paint) (goes on smoothly; we painted right before a vacation and still let it air out for more than a week; I still wouldn’t get near it if I was preggo)

 

Infant Toys Only

Infant to Toddler Toys and Stuffed Animals

Toddler Toys Only

Big items

Gear

Newborn Baby Clothes, Swaddlers and Wipes

Toddler Clothing Items

Food-related or Kitchen Gear

Toiletries

Greenish Stuff I Didn’t Love

Pending Attractions

  • I’ll do a future post on formula and its various issues, including the packaging and presence of Bisphenol-A (BPA) and the use of a toxin, hexane, to get DHA/AHA out of seaweed to add it to formula and enhanced milk, a basically unregulated process.
  • I’ll also do a post as well on child safety in cars, including some thoughts on car seats. We use a Britax Advocate 70 CS Convertible Car Seat for its long rear-facing ability and side-impact protection, but it’s not perfect by any means, as I explain in this post. If you want a car seat without any flame retardants in it, Orbit’s is the only one currently on the market, though Britax has committed to a phase-out this year. [Update: see comments on this other post.] To minimize exposures, I used baby slings for shopping, etc., when Maya was little, rather than a removable car seat-type stroller. It did mean I had to wake her up sometimes, which was a drag.

Do you have green products you use and like? Please do tell in the comments, so that everyone can benefit from your experience.

And if you’re looking for something, please let me know, as this is not an exhaustive list…

Sources for more Information on products’ environmental health and safety:

Other sources may be found in the blog links to Eco-Stores Online, in the side-bar. Hope this is useful to you!