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Sanjida O'Connell

Dr Sanjida O'Connell is a writer and a TV presenter. Sanjida writes about science and green issues. Her latest novel, The Naked Name of Love, was published by John Murray in March. Her latest TV series was on BBC 2: Nature's Top 40, and was a guide to our top British wildlife spectacles. Find more details about Sanjida's work at her website, sanjida.co.uk

Ethical fashion label collaborates with Tesco

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 15 March 2010 at 10:10 am

Ethical fashion label, From Somewhere, has just launched a diffusion line of clothing with supermarket giant, Tesco.


From Somewhere specialises in creating high end designs from high end scraps – cashmere, tweed, wool and jersey from the factory floors of companies like Jigsaw. Well known fans of the label include Livia Firth and Peaches Geldof – they also gave me one of their gorgeous dresses to wear to the launch of my novel, The Naked Name of Love.


 Now Orsola de Castro and Filippo Ricci, the duo behind From Somewhere, are acting as designers and consultants to Tesco to help the supermarket cut down on waste. Orsola has just come back from Sri Lanka where she was analysing the company’s waste: “The issue of stock is much more predominant in a large company. The minimum amount of fabric needed for a run of garment is 30,000 metres so anything less – 15-20,000 say – is often left to rot in warehouses with no guarantee how it will be used. The mills almost always over-produce just in case there’s a re-order. So we want to try and make Tesco responsible for this kind of waste.


A second type of waste is feeder cloth, which is used to experiment with different kinds of print. This is typically around 3,000m long and is thrown away afterwards. Orsola has turned some of her signature styles into garments for Tesco using surplus jersey; later her designs will also include trimmings from the feeder cloth. The first collection has just launched as part of the Florence and Fred range, along with designs by Goodone and Minna, with a collection twice the size scheduled for winter.


“The problem I’m facing is that Tesco want adaptations from our best selling designs,” says Orsola, “but I don’t know what sells in Tesco yet. And for high end garments you cut the pattern in 3D, rather than to look good on a hanger. Our collection has zero hanger appeal, which is why we’re launching online.”


But, as Orsola says, this is just the start. It may not make a huge environmental impact right now, but could well do so in the future: “If Tesco uses this idea and we can go and serve other big companies and make them take responsibility for their own waste, then this method makes environmental and social sense,” says Orsola, adding, “If fast fashion is made with pre-existing material, then the more we consume, the more we clean up.”


From Somewhere to F&F launches in Spring 2010 and will be exclusively available to buy online from www.tesco.com/clothing. The range is available in sizes 8-18 with prices starting from £16.00.

Eco Chic: My ethical report card

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 15 February 2010 at 10:38 am

My year of dressing ethically is up – although I’m not about to head straight to Primark. So how did I do? I think I’d give myself a B – but only due to a great deal of help from people kind enough to take the time to share their expertise, such as Dr Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, Lee Holdstock, textile consultant and Clio Turton from the Soil Association, not to mention the many designers I’ve spoken to over the past year. My report sheet will say my aversion to charity shops needs work but given that I will soon a) have a small baby, b) no job and c) no money, I might get over myself.


So, in my journey to discover fashion’s dark secrets, did I stick to my principles? Pretty much. BP – before pregnancy – the things I bought which weren’t ethical were thin tights (Falke and Ashton do thick organic cotton and wool ones and you can find organic bamboo and wool socks) and underwired bras and sports bras, none of which you can buy ethically yet unless you are flat-chested. Although you can get green knickers, apart from Patagonia’s sports briefs, I don’t like the cut, feel or price of any I’ve seen and have stuck with Sloggis (which last for years!). Special occasion lingerie is a different issue and I’d happily wear ones by Get Cutie and Eco Boudoir. Out and out bad practise though was a tunic from H&M for £5 made of viscose. I know. Bad, huh? My excuse was that it was the day before my week-long sewing course and I panicked thinking I’d need a project. The tunic is made of two bits of material and a ribbon so I thought I could re-create it in the class out of soy jersey. In the end it proved most useful during pregnancy.


DP – during pregnancy - I bought a beautiful Komodo top and an Alchemist wool shrug from Equa Clothing, which I know I’ll wear in the future too. The rest of my wardrobe was second-hand Isabella Oliver from ebay. The exceptions were jeans from J Brand, who make fabulous organic jeans just not in maternity sizes, a couple of things from Isabella Oliver that I wasn’t able to find on ebay and a swimming costume. I hasten to add I didn’t buy any of these clothes but coerced other people into getting them for me so I could be well dressed and maintain a clean conscience.


Over the past year I’ve discovered a lot of depressing facts: that the production of our most common fabrics - cotton, polyester and viscose – cause untold environmental damage, threaten human health and result in the over consumption of energy and water. And even more depressing figures: a quarter of all pesticides used globally are sprayed on cotton. A fifth of all our clothes are only worn a handful of times. In the UK we throw away 2.3 million tons of textiles, half of which ends up in landfill.


But I’m optimistic. I think we’ll see a rise in organic and fairtrade fabrics over the next decade. People will become increasingly aware of their shopping habits. Ethical clothes will become more mainstream. A new labelling system will be developed so that we can track our clothes from oil drop or cotton boll right through to the finished garment. Scientists will create new and ever more desirable fabrics and cleaner dyes and a young generation of designers will think more about the ethics of fashion and embrace these novel textiles and technologies. And, in the meantime, I think by now we all know the answers – buy less, take care of your clothes, recycle, make your own, customise, charity shop, buy on ebay, go vintage, swap, swish, spend more on quality garments or head for ethical designers and companies.


As for me, being pregnant is a sartorial nightmare but there’s always a silver lining. It made me think very carefully about exactly what one needs and the minimum one can get away with and helped me design the template wardrobe I wrote about last week. PP – post pregnancy - I’ll edit my wardrobe heavily and will try and stick to the plan I outlined. I aim to buy a new set of long-sleeved tops (I’m desperately waiting for Howies to reissue their merino wool base layers), an LBD from From Somewhere, a pair of tailored trousers by Deborah Lindquist and a jumper from Izzy Lane. Given most of what I wear is black, I’ll invest in a few jewel coloured tops from charities or dress agency, Bristol’s The Rag Trade (soon opening in Brighton too). Once I’ve plugged the gaps in my template wardrobe, I aim to follow Kate Fletcher and only buy two pieces a year. But, most of all, I’m looking forward to having my old clothes back. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.


Thanks for reading.

Eco Chic: The new template wardrobe

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 8 February 2010 at 09:54 am

I’m heading towards the end of Eco Chic – My year of dressing ethically.  I’ve been thinking what I can take away – and hopefully you too – from my sojourn into the highs and lows of ethical fashion. There are a few givens – we need clothes and most of us want them. Clothes serve functions – they cover our modesty and keep us warm, cool or generally protected from the elements – but they also signal who we are, our personal sense of style, our creativity, bolster our sense of self worth and perhaps indicate our place or role in society. And many of us simply love fashion.


So I’ve created a capsule wardrobe, a template as it were, of more than we need but perhaps less than we want. The idea is that you would tailor this to your life style – perhaps you’re a dress person and hate trousers; maybe you’re a stock broker or a gardener or teach rock climbing for a living, in which case you’ll need to twist this to suit you. But the overall plan is that most of the clothes could be worn with each other to give you greater flexibility and means you need to buy less. Any time you shop, think of your own personal template and how what you buy will fit in with everything else.


For instance, the bones of my wardrobe are jeans, black trousers, a black suit and a brown suit. I have tops that look best with the suit and jeans, others that go better with the black trousers and suit. I rarely wear the suits as suits but wear the trousers with other tops or jackets and match the suit jackets with skirts, jeans or dresses. If I buy anything new I try and think how it’ll fit in with the basics I already have. I tend to keep my summer and winter clothes separate but, with some exceptions, you could wear summer skirts and dresses with long-sleeved tops and trousers or thick tights. And then, there’s that old chestnut – accessories like belts, scarves and jewellery can also alter and up-date an outfit too.


The other thing you need for this to work is a sense of style. I think you can work out what yours is or you want it to be if you don’t know. I tried by thinking how I could summarise my style and came up with Victorian rock chick! (Think vintage, nipped in jackets, fitted tops, flared skirts, dark denim, biker boots, heels, a lot of black). My friend Suzanne Scott, pilates guru, says to think of three words to describe yourself. When she did this she realised she was buying clothes that suited two out of three of her words; in other words she was buying clothes she liked but that didn’t suit her image of herself or her lifestyle. Once you’ve figured out your style then (mostly) stick to it and all your wardrobe should work together!


So here it is:


2 pairs of jeans

1 pair tailored trousers

1 pair shorts or Capri pants

1 pair linen trousers

1 pair casual trousers

2 winter skirts

2 summer skirts

2 winter jackets

2 summer jackets


Dress for formal occasions

Dress for work

Summer frock

5 T-shirts

4 vests

5 assorted tops

1 crisp white shirt

1 statement shirt

1 chunky knit

1 boyfriend cardigan

1 thin, fine cardigan

2 fine knits in silk or merino wool

2 thicker knits in merino wool or heavy duty cotton


Spring and summer coats

Sports gear

Outdoor gear, including a raincoat.


If you’re shopping on the high-street I’d suggest that the most ethical companies are American Apparel, Gap, M&S, Howies, Sea Salt, Monsoon and Jackpot.


My one-stop ethical shop for practically everything is Ascension, which also has two stores, in London and Dorset, and lovely jewellery too. Internet site, Fashion conscience, and shop, Equa Clothing are also good.


Jeans – we have a love/hate relationship with jeans. Finding the perfect jeans that lengthen your legs, raise your butt and lift your spirits, but can take a life time. In my case, it literally has and I would hate to admit how many pairs I own. Everyone’s shape is different but the two best ones for me have turned out to be a boyfriend cut by Kuyichi and a cigarette leg by J Brand, who do an organic range. If you’re bigger than a size 8 I’d also recommend Gap and Levis organics.


Sportswear - see my previous column

Underwear – Enamore, Eco Boudoir, Gap and M&S

Knits – Izzy Lane, I Love Lowie, John Smedley, Keep and Share

Tailored clothes – Izzy Lane and Anatomy

Designer dresses – Anatomy, From Somewhere, Karen Cole

Basics – Howies, American Apparel, M&S, Gap, Ascension – try their own brand; they also stock Fin, who do gorgeous tops.


I’d also recommend buying designer clothes. They might not have been made with the most ethical fabrics or using the best practises but the quality and cut ought to be good and therefore they should last for years, which is much better for the environment than buying cheaper clothes that will fall apart. You are also more likely to find timeless pieces – and be less tempted to buy fast fashion when you’re spending that amount of money. And once you’ve found your perfect designer item, have a look and see if you can get it on ebay first.


Let me know what you think!

Eco Chic: Rise of eco bling

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 1 February 2010 at 10:19 am

In America, it's bling bling. But out here it's bling bang

Danny Archer (Leo DiCaprio) in Blood Diamond


It’s coming up to Valentines day and I, for one, have already been dropping jewellery hints (although I think I’m more likely to be given another mushroom-growing kit). Most ethical fashionistas regard jewellery as a way to change your outfit without having to buy new clothes. That may not be you and you might prefer to wear the same pieces all the time but still, there’s no denying that jewellery has a fascination whether you’re a Masaai warrior or a Mancunian.


However, some would argue that mined jewellery – gold, silver, stones – can never be ethical simply because it’s dug from the ground. Even if you’re not that hardcore there are a wealth of problems associated with jewellery from ecological damage to child labour and human rights abuses. According to Oxfam’s latest report, Dirty Metals: Mining, communities and the environment, mining uses 10% of the world’s energy as well as producing arsenic emissions and giving rise to cyanide and mercury poisoning.


Recently there has been a greater focus on gold and diamonds. As journalist, Maddy Bowen in the movie Blood Diamond says, “The people back home wouldn't buy a ring if they knew it cost someone else their hand.” Well, lets hope not, given that the sale of blood-spattered diamonds still continues today in spite of the largely toothless Kimberly Process, set in place in 2000 to regulate the trade in diamonds in conflict zones. The situation is beginning to change though: US giant, Walmart, aims to track its jewellery so that by this year at least 10% will come from mines run in a socially responsible manner.


For more thoroughly ethical bling, try Ascension and People Tree. Two fantastic designers are Made, who uses independent artisans and Fifi Bijoux, whose gold and silver come from small co-operatives in South America. You could also try buying vintage, going to charity shops or supporting local artists by taking a look at the jewellery for sale at Etsy.

Pictures courtesy of Ascension

Eco Chic: Can fur be green?

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 25 January 2010 at 09:58 am

Japanese designer, Chie Imai, produced a collection in 2008 called Eco Harmony. The clothes were made from recycled polyester - trimmed with mink. Imai says that fur can be worn for generations, it’s organic, it causes no pollution and it “returns to the earth”. In other words, it’s reuseable, recyclable and sustainable: all eco-industry by-words. So can fur ever be green?


Another company to jump on the green fur bandwagon is Eco-Luxury, an Oregon-based company selling, ‘The world’s most eco-friendly fur’ with the slogan, ‘All the luxury, none of the guilt’. The fur comes from New Zealand possums who chomp their way through 20,000 tons of vegetation, enough to fill a container ship, every year, and are threatening indigenous plants and animals, including the endangered kiwi and giant land snails.  “Fur is sustainable, recyclable, biodegradable,” says Chrys Hutchings, founder of the company, who goes on to argue that possum fur is a special case: “These animals would be killed anyhow and the way that the government does it is inhumane.”


I would have to say that I don’t believe fur can ever be green. I realise the possum pests are a slightly different issue, but worldwide 50 million animals are killed annually for their fur, 85% of which are kept in farms. Although the fur industry says that farms are inspected and monitored, Viva! says that animals are kept in cruel conditions. Arctic foxes, for instance, are housed in cages little bigger than the animals themselves when in the wild they would naturally roam across 15,000 acres of tundra. Animals are usually killed by being electrocuted with a probe in the mouth and genitals. However, undercover footage taken in Chinese fur farms, which now supply 95% of the world’s fur, shows racoons having their heads slammed against the ground before being bludgeoned and then skinned alive.


Although pro-fur campaigners point out that faux fur is made from fast dwindling petrochemicals, Justin Kerswell from Viva! says, “A cocktail of chemicals are used to treat fur and the animals have to be fed and transported to be slaughtered. There is a simply massive energy consumption and other waste associated with the industry. In the USA alone, fur farms generate tens of thousands of tons of waste every year, including slurry, bedding and animal corpses. Farmed-fur requires about 20 times the energy needed to produce faux fur.”


But what about vintage fur? Here I see no reason not to wear fur. The animal has already been killed and unless worn, the fur will end up in landfill. I personally wouldn’t do it because I couldn’t bear the thought of people thinking that I support the fur trade or the resulting discussions one might have with strangers (I once wore a leather jacket from a charity shop to a conference on the rights of great apes only to have a skinhead spit in my face). So what do you do? Wear a badge saying, ‘Yes, it’s real, but it’s okay, it’s old’? – which would rather spoil your look. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys chatting to random strangers (or wiping off paint), then go for it.

Eco Chic: Getting a kick out of wearing coffee

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 18 January 2010 at 09:36 am

LFM and I have a favourite top each. Mine is a V-neck from Paul Smith; his is a running top from M&S. They’re both black, fitted, super-soft, hard-wearing, long-lasting, washable at low temperatures, quick drying – and made from Modal.


Modal and Tencel are the environmentally-friendly face of viscose. They’re produced by Lenzing Fibres. Like traditional viscose, they’re made from wood but, in this case, from Austrian beech woods that are sustainably managed. The company has developed an eco-clean way of turning the cellulose into fibre using magnesium bisulfite, ozone and hydrogen peroxide. It’s a closed loop system so by-products are not released into the environment and, in fact, half of the raw waste is extracted and sold commercially. The rest is used to create energy: Lenzing’s processing plants in Austria and Indonesia (but not the UK and China) are run on electricity, steam and hot water they’ve generated themselves. As a result, the total fibre production produces 1.3 million tons of CO2 less than the equivalent volume of polyester. The equivalent volume of cotton would produce an extra 300,000 tons of CO2, require another 340,000 ha of land and an additional 2.2 billion cubic meters of water than Modal and Tencel do.


The good news is that these fabrics have gone mainstream – they’re mixed into garments sold in high street stores such as Next, M&S, Topshop and Zara UK. It’s just a shame that you can’t request or easily search for clothes exclusively made from them.


There are also a number of other new, green fabrics coming into the market, like one recently created from coffee. Ironically, Jason Chen, the general manager of the Taiwanese Singtex Industrial Company, had a brainwave as he was sipping coffee in, where else – Starbucks. Most coffee grounds end up in landfill but Singtex is now collecting waste grounds from the Java giant to turn into sportswear. The fabric, spun from the coffee grounds, is soft, light, flexible and breathable and can also be used to produce an outer shell that’s water resistant. Apparently it only takes the grounds from one cup of coffee to make enough material for a couple of T-shirts.


Another innovative fabric that is currently being trialled is spun from nettles. The common stinging nettle was used to produce textiles for thousands of years until people switched to cotton in the fifteenth century. Stinging nettles can be grown sustainably, organically and with little water – in fact, as most gardeners know, they hardly need any encouragement.


Camira Fabrics, based in Yorkshire, has been working for the past four years with Defra on a fabric made from nettles and has now produced a range called Stingplus. It’s a tough textile primarily made for bus and car seats. Nettle can be turned into finer fabrics too, with a texture like linen. It has the ability to wick moisture away from the body as well as keeping the wearer cool and trapping warm air, plus being naturally anti-bacterial and mould resistant.  Brennels, a Dutch fashion designer, has brought out a range of smart-casual clothes made from the fabric.


A little wackier and not as easy to get hold of is SeaCell, made from seaweed, Pina, from pineapple leaves, Lenpur, a cashmere soft silky fabric produced from white fir wood, soy jersey from India, which has a fabulous drape and mutabar bark from Uganda can be made into a leather or canvas lookalike.


But buying your own eco-friendly fabric and running up a gorgeous green garment is a little harder. It’s one of the main complaints that ethical designers have – it’s difficult to buy small quantities of good quality eco fabrics. You could try buying vintage fabric or go to Soil Association approved Green Fibres, which sells organic cotton, silk and hemp, Brighton’s Hemp Shop. Oeco textiles and cotton, hemp, soy and bamboo from Eco earth fabrics. But, if you’re anything like me, these fabrics are not going to make your heart sing, your creative juices flow or make you want to whip our a sewing machine faster than you can say, ‘Thread’. Let’s hope seaweed and coffee go mainstream.

Eco Chic: Should we all be wearing polyester?

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 11 January 2010 at 09:49 am

Right now, I’m dreaming of being wrapped up in cosy woollen knits – but for most of the year where would we all be without cotton? Cultivated since 3,000BC, it’s the main staple of wardrobe essentials – T-shirts and jeans – it’s soft, durable and a global best-seller. However, its production can be extremely polluting and use vast amounts of water as I’ve written about before (Are T-shirts costing the earth?). Since that column, the Environmental Justice Foundation has produced a new, sobering report on a widely-based insecticide, endosulfan, which has been linked to the deaths and deformities of many families who grow cotton.


The most common alternatives to cotton are polyester and viscose but they’re not without their problems either. Polyester is an oil derivative, which means that by its very nature, it’s not going to be sustainable. Polyester is made of two polymers, MEG and PTA, using a process that requires a lot of energy and can result in the discharge of greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide) and heavy metals. However, it can be processed in a closed loop system where emissions are kept low. In addition, dyeing takes less water and energy than natural fibres do and once you get your polyester garment home, it continues to use less energy as you can wash the fabric on a lower temperature and it dries quicker than cotton does.


Viscose is made from the cellulose in trees – so normally comes from an unsustainable source of wood. The conversion of wood to a silk-like fabric also requires a lot of energy and huge amounts of water, according to Lee Holdstock, the Soil Association’s textile consultant. The cellulose is treated with nasties like caustic soda and carbon sulphide. Spinning the resulting fibres can involve chemicals such as sulphuric acid and zinc sulphate compounds. Which ought to be removed from the water before it’s discharged back into our rivers. The worst culprits are rayons, produced using a copper ammonium compound that is also a toxic fungicide.


A number of clothes are being marketed as ethical because they’re made from ‘bamboo viscose’. Bamboo is fast-growing and can be a sustainable source of cellulose but unfortunately most producers using the same-solvent processing practises as traditional viscose to turn that bamboo into fibre.


Oh, how very cheery. I’m partly looking into this now to stop myself high-tailing to the sales and buying a cheap jumper. Next week some happier news – a range of alternative fabrics to look forward to when we run out of oil and water becomes too scarce to slosh about on clothes.

Eco Chic: A new year's resolution - ethical trainers

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 4 January 2010 at 09:54 am

By now most of us will have consumed our body weight in Christmas cake, chocolate and canapés. Eating carrots in this cold weather is hardly an option: exercise the one solution that could whittle away those Christmas kilos.


If finding ethical sportswear is a trial, finding environmentally-friendly trainers is an even bigger post-hangover headache. A trainer’s midsole, made from ethylene vinyl acetate, can last for a thousand years in landfill. Ethical Consumer’s latest report (Running away from responsibility? 2007) highlights the problems: labourers work long hours for little pay whilst companies pay millions to celebrities to endorse their products. Labour behind the Label argue that David Beckham’s ‘salary’ from Nike could pay 100,000 Indonesian workers a living wage.


A living wage is defined as one for a full-time working week without overtime, which allows that worker and her family to meet their needs for food, clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport. Whilst companies like Nike, Reebok and Puma are entering into dialogue with campaigners like Fair Labor Association and showing a greater corporate transparency, none (according to this last report) are paying a living wage. The few companies that do stipulate maximum working time set it as 48 hours per week with 12 hours (possibly compulsory) overtime.


The most ethical trainer companies assessed by Ethical Consumer are Brooks, owned by Russell Corporation, followed by Gola and ASICS. Since the report was published Brooks  have added a lot more information about their company policy to their website. They do not employ child labour or forced labour and do set a maximum working time, albeit at 48 hours plus 12 hours overtime. There is no commitment to a living wage but the company states that it:


requires that employees be fairly compensated by providing wages, including overtime pay, and benefits that meet or exceed all applicable laws and regulations.


The company adds:


All Brooks products are designed and engineered in the U.S. and manufactured in Southern China. China has ratified four of the fundamental ILO conventions on discrimination (C.100 , C.111) and child labor (C.138, C.182). Since China has not ratified all of ILO’s principals, we require our factories to sign a “Working Conditions Policy and Commitments” document in which they agree to be in compliance with the local labor laws (including age requirements, fair wages); not employ child/forced/slave labor; and provide adequate food, housing, and medical coverage to all employees.


So not a cast iron guarantee but definitely moving in the right direction. The company is also taking green strides: all packaging is from 100% recycled paperboard printed with soy-based inks. Those 1,000 year soles have been replaced with BioMoGo: they include a natural additive that encourages anaerobic microbes to break down the soles in 20 years.  They’re made using a Compression Molded Preform (CMP) manufacturing process instead of being punched out of a large sheet. CMP thus reduces waste by 50%. Oh, and the laces are made out of recycled material too.

I’ve been trying out a pair of GTS 10s, which received a ‘Best Update’ award in the Winter 2010 Shoe Guide in Runner’s World’s December 2009 issue. The low-down for running geeks is here:




So far I’ve found them exceptionally comfortable and with a good fit, particularly as I have a slight tendency to pronation, although as I’m now only able to run two miles at a time, I can’t give them the hammering I’d really like to. But surely a crisp winter run has got to be better way to herald the new year than with a glass of carrot juice and a wheatgrass chaser.

Picture courtesy of Brooks

Eco Chic: To dye for?

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 21 December 2009 at 09:55 am

I’m not big on oatmeal, unless it’s cooked with soya milk for breakfast, but this is the natural constituency of organic cotton. Like most people, I prefer my clothes with a little colour. Unfortunately, the dye industry is another of fashion’s dirty little secrets. Vast amounts of water are used in the process (around 40-50l per kilo of fabric) and much is contaminated with dye and is not recycled. Dr Juncheng Hu from the South-Central University for Nationalities in Wuhan says that in China alone 1.6 billion tons of dye-laden wastewater is pumped into the river systems every year. According to Dr Harold Freeman, CIBA professor of dyestuff chemistry at North Carolina State University, the problem may be as simple as the fact that drinking water is now coloured and the dye is not readily removed. Many dyes also contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals, for example, the popular Procion Turquoise MX-G contains 1 to 5% copper.


One solution is to use natural dyes, made from plants, such as madder and woad. Dr G Badri Narayanan from Purdue University calculated that if India only used natural dyes the amount of pollution released into the water would be halved. In UK the newly founded Cotton Roots uses natural dyes. The company make T-shirts and hoodies and specialise in customising organic and fairtrade clothes for the corporate sector. MD Susan Waters had the idea for the company as she was sipping a cup of tea in the Victoria and Albert Museum after viewing a clothing collection that was hundreds of years old yet still colourful. She thought that perhaps we should be copying our ancestors and using plants, minerals, salt and sunlight to dye clothes today too. The possibilities, she says, are endless from real tea-shirts to coffee-dyed aprons for baristas.



This is all very admirable, particularly in the commercial world, but many natural dyes are not without their problems either. First, it depends on the mordant used to fix the dye to the cloth – most are very toxic, such as chromium, and large quantities have to be added, typically in a weight equal to or double the weight of the fabric. Alum is one of the better mordants as it’s less toxic (this is what Cotton Roots uses). Secondly, natural dyes typically don’t bond with synthetic textiles like polyester or viscose.


Dr Hu and his colleagues have developed a way of cheaply removing dye from water. Plates coated with a material made from nickel oxide suck the dye molecules out of wastewater allowing it to be recycled. The system is not being used but does offer hope. Dr Freeman also claims that dyes are gradually becoming less toxic and more efficient so a smaller amount of water needs to be used in the dye baths. In Europe the label Oeko-Tex Standard 100 ensures that clothes have not been dyed with ‘chemicals harmful to health’.


So, if you’ve read this far, you’ll note the distinctly un-Christmassy tone of my last column of 2009. No, you don’t need a new outfit for Christmas parties, in a vibrant colour or otherwise, you’ve got plenty in your wardrobe. And yes, I am having an attack of sour grapes: at five months pregnant I don’t fit into any of my party frocks.

Eco Chic: Is swishing the new shopping?

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 14 December 2009 at 09:32 am

Readers of online green glamour magazine, Daisy Green, will already be familiar with the concept of swishing, but for the rest of us it sounds a little outré: the sartorial equivalent of chucking your keys on a party table. But swishing, apparently, is set to be the new ethical equivalent of shopping.

My next-door-neighbour (NdN) and I went to a swish in Bath organised by Posh Swaps. The idea behind swishing is to donate your clothes, update your wardrobe and have a fun night out. We were instructed to bring three items of ‘posh clothing’ and in return we could take home three items formerly belonging to someone else. When we arrived the clothes were laid out on tables, a bit like a rather random jumble sale, and we had half an hour to look at them before the ‘swap’ officially started.

About forty women crowded round the tables and NdN and I wondered whether our elbows were going to be sharp enough. I was disappointed – both with the quality and variety of clothes. When the count-down ceased NdN and I each grabbled one thing. Mine was a little black tunic dress. I also had my eye on a floral cardigan in a small size but saw it being scooped up by a lady with a large armload of clothes. “I just love the colours,” she trilled loudly, “I’ve no idea if any of them will fit!” As she was, let’s say, medium sized, I assumed she was getting the cardigan for someone else but thought I’d ask. Very politely I asked if it would be possible to try the cardigan after her if she decided she didn’t want it. She agreed and when she returned from the changing rooms, I approached her. “You’re definitely not having it,” she said, and proceeded to physically push me out of the way in her eagerness to get more clothes.

“Definitely a case of the ugly sisters,” giggled NdN, who’d been watching.

There was almost nothing left, so doing the fashion maths, I’m guessing people took more than they brought. It was all over in thirty sad minutes. I felt swizzed, not swished: I’d spent £16 on a ticket and travel, swapped a designer blouse, a linen jacket and a nice top for a handful of crisps, half a glass of OJ, a bag full of business cards and one squashed Quality Street and a Primark tunic. My suggestion would be to go to a recommended swish, such as Daisy Green’s Big Swish. But hey, apparently the latest craze is going to be vintage jumble sales held in bars with DJs - and rock, booze and frocks always was a potent fashion cocktail.