6 myths & 3 facts : why toxics continually enter your home

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Reading Time: 12 minutes

In my earlier life, I worked in one of India’s leading biscuit and confectionary companies. My office was near the production facility, so 4 pm would have the odours of baking biscuits and vanilla essence wafting into my room. In the short 6 months that I was there, I came to heartily hate the smell of industrial baking. The stocks of hydrogenated vegetable oil, refined wheat flour and white sugar that went into the facility every single day firmly quashed any notions I had of eating something reasonably healthy every time I opened a freely available pack of biscuits.

Sugar is one of the largest volume ingredients in any food product. Whenever a food product is formulated, especially for children, sugar is the Hail Mary pass – when in doubt, you simply increase the sugar to make sure your consumers love the product.

A recent conversation with a friend who works in another food company had us discussing a popular children’s beverage that is marketed on the promise of giving children a “healthy fruit drink” in the evening. My friend, who is a father himself, spoke to me with some horror about his discussion with his R&D team about the contents of this drink. “They told me it contained 96% sugar, Preethi”, he said with dismay.

And this brings home one of the myths of the food industry. It isn’t “tasty” or going to “appeal to our consumers” unless we super load it with sugar or fat. Most food industry marketers do not have the confidence to launch a product that is not over loaded with sugar or fat. They believe that they cannot achieve a profitable product with mass appeals with less sugar and less oil. Contrary to overwhelming public belief that excess sugar and fat is unnecessary and in fact dangerous, the industry believes that we indiscriminately want high sugar and high fat laden treats.

Similar myths and facts abound in household chemicals. This is why, despite them being researched and found to be dangerous, they continue to be used blithely to create products that you & I use every day.

6 myths and 3 facts in the consumer product industry

 Myth 1: There is a safe permissible limit for toxic chemicals (below which they are harmless)

The general rule followed in establishing safety standards in industrial chemicals is that a higher percentage means more harm. Therefore the assumption is that it is possible to find a level below which even a toxic chemical can be used safely.

Truth 1: There is no safe level for a toxic chemical

This logic has repeatedly failed us in several industrial chemicals. For example, petrochemical derived benzene is considered toxic even in the parts per trillion range. Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide was found to exhibit estrogenecity (the ability to mimic estrogens within the body and replace it) even in the very very low parts per trillion concentration range.

Certain endocrine disrupters like Bisphenol A, found in plastics, and parabens found in several cosmetic products paradoxically have a greater hormone mimicking action as their concentrations decrease.

4. no safe dose of parabens

Nano technology: growing concern

A growing trend which is of concern to us as consumers and parents is the use of Nano technology in industrial chemicals. Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring oxide and is widely used as a whitening pigment in plastics, and ceramics. Because of its high refractive index it is commonly used in sunscreens to enhance the SPF factor. Titanium dioxide is now being used as nano particles in several applications including food and cosmetic products.

We are also constantly eating nano titanium dioxide as it is now finding its way into making milk whiter, dazzling white toothpastes and in several food products that are marketed to children including cup cakes, hard candy and mints and those meant for adults like coffee creamers and even oatmeal. Researchers at Birmingham and Cornell University report that an average consumer could be ingesting 100 trillion nanoparticles of Titanium dioxide every single day.

3. Titanium dioxide in hh products

Previous cell research has already established that Titanium dioxide is cytotoxic – this means that it damages cells. A new study now reports that Titanium dioxide not only damages cells but is capable of inducing tumour like changes in exposed human cells with an increased rate of cell proliferation and a decrease in programmed cell death (both of which are traits of precancerous or cancerous cells).

Because nanotechnology is relatively new, the existing bio safety norms do not cover the effects of using Nano particles of what were considered generally safe ingredients. A Nano particle is sized between 1 – 100 billionth of a meter in diameter – at this size, their absorption rate into the skin significantly increases and they have extremely potent effects on our body as compared to the larger, non Nano particle size of the same ingredient.

Non traditional dose response dynamics

The Endocrine society states that one of the most worrying properties of Endocrine disrupter chemicals is their ability to cause reproductive abnormalities at “even infinitesimally low levels of exposure, indeed any level of exposure” particularly if this exposure occurs at a critical developmental phase. They have also stated that low doses often exert more potent damage compared to high doses.

Myth 2: You can get poisoned only if you swallow a product. Your risk of exposure is very little apply it on your skin

Truth 2: The skin is a living organ. It can absorb a wide variety of substances and pass it on to teh bloodstream inside.

We continue to believe that the skin is a non porous physical barrier. Nothing else explains why we continue to carelessly apply extremely toxic substances directly on our skin.

Nicotine patches and contraceptive patches are marketed and have been used by millions of consumers. The route here of absorption is direct dermal absorption, i.e. the skin.

The dermal route of chemical absorption is often faster and more deadly compared to the oral route where you swallow the ingredient in question. The body’s digestive system with its strong acid barrier can help filter out many deadly toxins. However the skin application route has no digestive system to filter out potential toxins. When we use nano particles to further reduce the size of our toxic ingredients, they are able to penetrate faster into the body through the skin, and directly enter the blood and lymphatic systems and our fat reserves where they can bio accumulate and persist.

 Myth 3: If something has been advertised on television, and is available in supermarkets, it is probably safe and has been tested

The U.S FDA lists that household and personal care products use over 100,000 industrial chemicals.  In its entire functioning history, the US EPA has managed to ban or restrict only 5 substances and that too only in specific applications.

Industrial chemical do not need to be tested before combined with other chemicals and launched as products into the market. If a new chemical is used, companies are rarely required by law to disclose safety data, and voluntary disclosure is almost never practised. In the U.S the burden of safety testing is put on the FDA. If the understaffed and stretched FDA does not block a new chemical within 90 days or ask for safety data, then the chemical is cleared by default.

Truth 3: Product testing by companies or the government is not fool proof. It is rarely able to simulate the effect of chemicals over a long period.

Pharmaceutical history is rife with instances of companies learning after launch that the products they marketed were actually toxic and dangerous.

The tragic history of DES – how a drug marketed to protect pregnancies caused vaginal cancer

Diethylstilbestrol (DES), was routinely given to pregnant women between 1940 – 1971 (for more than 30 years!), to help reduce the risk of pregnancy complications and losses. Originally considered safe for both pregnant women and their foetuses, DES was aggressively marketed and routinely prescribed.

In 1971, DES was found to cause a rare form of vaginal tumour among girls and women who had been exposed to the drug in their mother’s womb. It is to be noted that this research was first reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and action was taken by the FDA. The companies involved in marketing the drug neither funded nor did this research or took the effort to withdraw the drug.

Subsequently the US FDA withdrew DES for use on pregnant women. The drug itself was only very slowly taken off the market. It continued to be prescribed for different medical conditions some of which were later found to be not approved at all by the FDA. During the 1960s, it was even used as a growth hormone in the beef and poultry industry until it was phased out in the late 1970s after its carcinogenic properties came to light. The last remaining manufacturer and marketer of DES in the U.S, Eli Lilly, finally stopped making it in 1997; a full 26 years after the FDA banned its use on pregnant women.

Estimates suggest that more than 2 million people may have been exposed to DES across the United States, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the period between 1940 – 1971. DES is one of the first transplacental carcinogens discovered in human beings, a toxin that could actually cross the placenta and harm the foetus. Besides vaginal cancer, daughters exposed in utero were also found to have “an increased risk of moderate to severe cervical squamous cell dysplasia and an increased risk of breast cancer”.

The most recent published research in 2011, lists the cumulative risks of women exposed to DES as follows:  33.3% infertility rates compared to 1% in the general population, spontaneous abortion 50.3% vs. 38.6%, preterm delivery, 53.3% vs. 17.8%; loss of second-trimester pregnancy, 16.4% vs. 1.7%; ectopic pregnancy, 14.6% vs. 2.9%; preeclampsia, 26.4% vs. 13.7%; stillbirth, 8.9% vs. 2.6%; early menopause, 5.1% vs. 1.7%; grade 2 or higher cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, 6.9% vs. 3.4%; and breast cancer at 40 years of age or older, 3.9% vs. 2.2%.

The study also states that Daughters with prenatal exposure to DES may also have an increased risk of uterine fibroids, and incompetent cervix in adulthood. In the 1970s and early 1980s, studies published on prenatally DES-exposed males investigated increased risk of testicular cancer, infertility and urogenital abnormalities in development, such as cryptorchidism and hypospadias.

By studying the history and tragic consequences of just one drug, we are able to see how ill informed and unprepared governments and the companies are. This extends to both understanding the consequences of the chemicals they use and their efforts to make amends once they understand these consequences.

If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we will be condemned to repeat it.

Myth 4: It is impossible to formulate without manmade chemicals

Although the cosmetics industry is more than 4500 years old, today, we entirely depend upon industrial chemicals synthesized in the last 100 years for all our daily products.

Methyl, ethyl and propyl paraben, are common preservatives used in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. They are found in shampoos, moisturizing products, shaving gels, toothpaste and make-up.

However, the ester bearing form of parabens have been found in breast cancer tumours indicating that they have migrated from a product that has been applied on the skin (deodorants, creams) into the body.

Most cosmetic and personal care products available today use paraben preservatives. Even products marketed under the guise of being natural or sometimes even organic use these deadly chemicals.

Truth 4: Natural alternatives are available & have always been used

Natural alternatives have always existed. It is the responsibility of companies to use them and protect the health of their consumers. Some of the exciting options include grapefruit seed extract, vitamin e and extracts of plants with powerful anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties like neem, turmeric, thyme and rosemary.

Formulation path followed at Krya

The more water a product contains, the shorter its shelf life becomes, necessitating the use of cheap and dangerous preservatives like the paraben family. A powder or a solid formulation is more stable and depending on the ingredients used does not need synthetic preservatives.

When we formulate our skin and hair care line at Krya, we eliminate water. Our consumers add water when using our products. Therefore, we are able to create formulations without synthetic preservatives. We also use plant ingredients that offer powerful anti-bacterial and anti-fungicidal properties – for example, rosemary goes into the Krya Kids body wash, and thyme and peppermint go into the Krya hair wash.

5. krya natural formulation pathway

Myth 5: There are no long term ill effects in the products I use everyday

Truth 5: There are many long term ill effects caused by everyday products

Gene disruption, bio accumulation , transplacental migration & latency of exposure are some of the ways products as innocuous as a sunscreen can affect you in the long term.

Epigenetic disruption

As we saw in the case of DES, the exposure of the first generation affected not just the second generation but also continued to have effect on the third generation or the grand children of those who had been exposed to DES. This makes chemicals like DES epigenetic disrupters- where they modify gene copies ensuring that these modified / mutant genes get passed down from generation to generation with the same tragic consequences.

Bioaccumulation

Persistent endocrine disrupters have a high lipid solubility, therefore they bio accumulate in fat tissue. No endocrine system is immune to this class of chemicals so every one of us is likely to have this class of chemicals in our body.

Latency of exposure

The  Endocrine Society refers to Chemical endocrine disrupters as having “latency” of exposure”.  This means that there is a lag between the time someone has been exposed to the chemical to the manifestation of a disorder.

So we would not be able to observe the effects of this exposure immediately. It may manifest as we become adults or as we age.

Myth 6: I have been using these products for years; I cannot see any ill effects, so I must be safe.

Endocrine disrupter chemicals (EDCs) have extremely diverse and complex mechanisms of acting out in the body. A single EDC could be both estrogenic and androgenic.  Some could break down or metabolise to generate sub products with different properties. Sex steroids target many organ systems in the body including the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal system, the breast, uterus, cervix, vagina and other non reproductive tissues like the bone, muscle, and skin.

Truth 6: You could have several ill effects later that could never be traced back to the detergent or face wash you once used.

The many organs targeted and the long gestation may lead to a diverse set of symptoms that could never get traced back to the toxic chemicals we have been exposed to.

 We looked at some myths. Now here are some facts.

Fact 1: There is too much money at stake

We discussed the effect of several human carcinogens which are implicated in breast cancer in our last post. In 2004, a tally of all the research done on BPA showed that of the 104 independent studies done, 94 found adverse effects and 10 found no effects. However, of the 11 studies conducted or funded by the manufacturers of BPA, none showed BPA to have any adverse effects.

Let’s understand the economics behind this.

In 2002, U.S companies produce 2.8 million tons of Bisphenol A.  The value of BPA sales in 2002 in the US was 5.3 billion dollars, a single year.

Simply put, the stakes are too high. These high stakes are applicable to all industrial chemicals.

Fact 2: Depending on how the tests were conducted, the results can vary

Why is it that independent studies and industry funded studies always differ?

3 straight explanations exist for this:

  • Lab animal diet – If the rates / mice in question have been fed on a diet of soy, which can itself be mildly estrogenic, the results are skewed in endocrine disrupter studies. For example in a study testing the effect of paraben on cancer, the lab rats should not be fed soy.
  • Housing rats in plastic cages or stainless steel cages can again skew results as plastics disrupt endocrine levels but metals do not. So a study on Bisphenol A should house a rat only in metal cages and not the cheaper plastic cages.
  • What breed of rat was used?

o    Independent researchers have found that industry funded research almost always uses the Sprague Dawley rat supplied by one particular company. Apart from being chosen for its calmness and ease of handling, this breed of rat is so tough that its response to estrogenic compounds is extremely muted. This practice obviously severely tones down the results of endocrine disrupter studies resulting in claims that these chemicals are extremely safe.

2. Sprague dawley rat

Fact 3: Industrial chemicals need to be studied as a system and not in isolation

In 2005, Kevin Croft an EPA researcher published a chilling finding. Kevin Croft gave rats different doses of mixtures of 3 classes of common industrial chemicals – dioxins, PCBs and dibenzofurans at different concentrations, from those commonly found in human exposure to 100 times higher. At the time of his research, even the highest dose was considered safe when studied in isolation.

These chemicals were chosen as they are common industrial contaminants found in human foods from fish to breast milk.

At the lower doses, the researchers found that the effect of the mixture was additive and it significantly reduced the animal’s thyroxine levels, which is the most common thyroid hormone. At higher doses, the thyroxine reduction had a stronger multiplicative effect – the sum of their effect was greater than simple addition.

This means that any study that singly examines an industrial chemical is not sufficient. Neither is a ban or elimination of one type of chemical enough to guarantee our safety. We have to look a radical new products that completely eliminate the use of ALL harmful chemicals.

A new paradigm

There is grudging and reluctant response from the industry to consumer protests on safety. It is appalling to read the official statements given by companies when they commit to removing toxins like parabens. They give themselves atleast a 2 – 3 year window to “phase out” something that is toxic.

It is not practical to depend on governments to look after what goes into our detergents or moisturizers. Our government is still working on basic sustenance issues like food, water and sanitation and do not have the resources or the bandwidth to get into the complications caused by industrial chemicals. Investigative reports suggest that cosmetics and skin care products sold in India are still fighting basic norms like heavy metal contamination. We have not begun to go into the effects of leachates and feedstock industrial chemicals like parabens, phthalates, etc.

Our education today should not end with subjects like Mathematics, Physics and Geography. We have to expand our mind and begin exploring the connections our health has to food, and the products we use around ourselves.

We end this piece with a quote by Masanobu Fukuoka.

1. Fukuoka quote.

 This article is a part of Krya’s series on toxics in household and personal care products. Through this series, we hope to inform, educate and inspire you to look around your home and detox it and yourself from the harmful action of more than 100,000 suspect industrial chemicals that surround human life today. The natural world is full of safe, environmentally sustainable, cruelty free options to care for yourself and your home, and our series will try to present atleast a small part of this exciting world to you. 

If you would like to explore our series further, here’s what We’ve written before this piece:

  1. An introduction to the series
  2. Common carcinogens implicated in breast cancer found in your home
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Pink Predators: Common carcinogens in your home

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Reading Time: 11 minutes

Last month I attended a meeting of women entrepreneurs. On the sidelines, we were invited to a breast cancer awareness campaign organized by one of the entrepreneurs who had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. This young lady is a passionate advocate of early diagnosis of breast cancer. As a part of the worldwide pink ribbon day, her team conducted awareness camps for women employed in the major IT parks in Chennai.

As she spoke, a palpable tremor ran through the women in the room. Many had some encounter with the dreaded “c” word, having watched a loved one suffer.

I lost a favourite aunt in 2009 to breast cancer, or perhaps the aggressive chemotherapy given to her. I watched my bright, active danseuse Aunt shrivel away, lose her hair, her energy and eventually her life after four repeated chemotherapy assaults on her body. Breast cancer is one of the most common and fast growing cancers in India today and forms nearly half of all the cancer detected in India . In 2012, 70,000 Indian women died due to breast cancer.

The Pink Ribbon movement

In 1985 in the US , the breast cancer awareness month (BCAM) was created as a partnership between American Cancer Society & a pharma company that is now part of Astra Zeneca. The main aim of the BCAM is to promote mammography as the weapon of choice to diagnose and fight breast cancer. Such partnerships are fraught with ethical dilemmas. Astra Zeneca is the manufacturer of the breast cancer blockbuster drugs Arimidex and Tamoxifen. Some have argued the overly visible and alarmist tone of breast cancer awareness pushes for over reporting and aggressive promotion of the treatment which are the drugs. Worse still, it is now understood that X-ray mammography to detect breast cancer is dangerous and is a carcinogen.

The breast cancer awareness movement came into its own in the early 1990’s with promotion of the pink ribbon as the symbol. In 1993, Evelyn Lauder, Senior Vice-president of Estee Lauder and a  breast cancer survivor herself founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and widely popularized the pink ribbon as its symbol. In that year, Estee Lauder make up counters handed out 1.5 million pink ribbons with a information card describing the steps to construct a self breast exam.

Pink marketing

Since then, the pink ribbon has become one of the most visible symbols of cause related marketing across the world. Research shows that given parity cost and quality, more than 50% of consumers would switch to a brand associated with a good cause. Going by the popularity of the pink ribbon, breast cancer certainly seems to be a popular and profitable cause for the brands piggybacking on this cause.

1Pinkmarketing.jpg

From NFL costumes to cosmetics, from shoe sellers to cricketers, the pink ribbon has engulfed them all during the awareness month. While many critics and naysayers tend to dismiss this as pink washing, there are positives. Millions of dollars have been raised from these campaigns due to which early warning signs are now part of the general lexicon.

But one critical issue continues to trouble the general public.

Despite the top management support, and marketing muscle thrown behind breast cancer awareness, several cosmetic companies who support this cause, continue to use ingredients that are suspected to be carcinogenic. In many cases these suspect ingredients have been found in breast cancer tissues. Think about it. The very brands that raise money for awareness continue to use suspected carcinogens in their products.

Pink washing?

In 2013, 15 beauty brands devoted to defeating breast cancer got together to start an offshoot campaign called “we are stronger together”. But according to EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic database, 12 of these companies, including Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, and Estee Lauder & Origins sell a wide assortment of cosmetics that contain known carcinogens and other toxics.

The carcinogenic impact of these toxic ingredients is relevant to the study of what causes breast cancer. Research suggests that genetic causes form only 5 – 10 % to breast cancer develops. 90 – 95% of cancer exposure is thought to develop from a series of environmental causes including radiation exposure, excess alcohol consumption, and of course exposure to dozens of carcinogenic chemicals.

The Krya series on toxics

This Krya series on toxic chemicals in household products has been developed as a result of hundreds of queries from concerned users, very often in categories where Krya does not have any product yet. We are asked for our opinion on product categories on the potential hazards of chemicals and more importantly, recommendations for safer natural alternatives.

For the last 4 years on the krya blog, we have maintained our stand that the consumer products industry in India is dangerously under-regulated. Many products are sold widely with little understanding of long term human safety or environmental protection. In our personal experience, we have seen that R&D in global consumer products companies operates in silos, with a narrow focus on cost and immediate consumer gratification. Their safety standards are decades old. They continue to play with the boundaries of safety and often wait for a public outcry or a government order to cut back on toxic ingredients. This laissez-faire attitude has introduced to the trusting public a set of new, potentially dangerous, hydra headed monsters.

With October just gone by, we start our toxics series by examining common industrial chemicals that we could enter in our homes that are suspected to lead to breast cancer.

The Pink Predators

 Parabens

Parabens are a big family of preservatives found widely in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries. and have been around for nearly 100 years. They are the industry standard for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Parabens have been detected in urine, serum, breast milk and seminal fluid, but the most worrying fact has been their detection in breast tissue from patients with breast cancer. In one important north American study, it was calculated that the average person is exposed to 76 mg of parabens every day, with 50 mg from cosmetics, 25 mg from pharmaceuticals and 1 mg from food.

Research from the CDC’s National Centre for Environmental Health found that the blood of over 60% of the children surveyed during the National Health and Nutrition examination survey was contaminated with more than 8 toxins including significant levels of 3 kinds of parabens.

One alarming property of parabens is their ability to enter the body through the skin, something that most people are not aware of. This has been widely studied in underarm cosmetics like deodorants and whiteners. Breast cancer research shows a higher concentration of parabens in the upper lateral breast near the armpit corresponding to the use of deodorants which contain parabens.

3deo caution

After the work of many consumer awareness groups like EWG, Johnson & Johnson pledged to remove both parabens and formaldehyde from its baby care and adult skin care products by 2015 including brands like Aveeno & Neutrogena. But Johnson & Johnson continues to re-assert the safety of parabens and made this decision to eliminate parabens only to assuage certain consumer groups.

Globally most governments have not re-examined the safety of parabens. Some outliers are the Danish government which has banned the use of products for children below 3 years. In Indian parabens are commonly used in cosmetic and other applications.

While we can go back and forth on the safety of parabens , we certainly do not want to be learn 30 or 40 years later that the early researchers who warned against the use of parabens were absolutely right. This is exactly what happened in the global debate on smoking and lung cancer. While the debate raged, many were smoking their way to cancer hoping that the warnings would turn out to be false alarms.

On the other hand it is important to note that parabens do not have any beneficial or therapeutic whatsoever to humans. So the question to ask is this, are there safe alternatives to parabens ? The answer is YES! Paraben free products are available globally and are waiting for you to discover them.

 

Phthalates

Phthalates are chemicals used as plasticizers, to make physical products pliant and flexible – they are widely found, in vinyl flooring, raincoats, adhesives, detergents, nail polishes, soaps, toys and skin care lotions. For example, DEHP, a common phthalate, is added to PVC at concentrations between 1 – 40% to make it soft and pliant. Unplasticized PVC without DEHP is hard and brittle.

Phthalates are physically bound into plastics using a heating process, which means that they are very easily released into the environment when this physical bond breaks. This happens in many innocuous ways when phthalate containing products are kept near heat or exposed to strong solvents. For example : when phthalate containing plastic dishes are washed with harsh chemical cleaners.

Phthalates are cheap and versatile: so they are found in products as diverse as children’s toys, and utensils, coatings in pills and nutritional supplements, emulsifying and suspending agents in lotions and shampoos, binders and gelling agents in liquid detergent and dishwash. Other personal care products that contain phthalates are liquid soap, perfumes, deodorant sprays, hair sprays, eye shadow, nail colours and moisturizers.

When used in vinyl flowing, phthalates like DEHP easily leach into the atmosphere, contaminating indoor household air. Once released this toxic air can be inhaled by babies crawling on the floor or pets. A 2008 Bulgarian study found that higher dust concentrations of DEHP was found in the homes of children with asthma and allergies compared to non- asthmatic children.

While a lot of the present phthalate research focuses on infants and children, it is believed women are at a much higher risk of phthalate exposure due to their higher consumption of cosmetic products and exposure to household cleaning products. Recent (2010) in-vivo and observational studies show an association between phthalate exposure and breast cancer. Also, phthalates like many other endocrine disrupters are both bio-accumulative and additive – when mixed with other classes of chemicals like BPA or nonyl-phenols, they exhibit a deadly chemical synergistic effect. Essentially this means that all these toxic chemicals gang up against your body with a multiplier effect.

2Nail paints caution

A recent published study for the first time studied the positive correlation of DEP (diethyl phthalate), positive correlation with breast cancer. DEP is found in a high proportion of perfume carrying products like deodorants, hair sprays and moisturizing lotions because of its ability to make fragrance “linger” for a long time. DEP is also used as denaturant in alcohol and is found worryingly in products like mouthwash.

Endocrine disrupter

Why are phthalates dangerous to human health? Simply put, they are endocrine disruptors. Their behaviour can mimic endocrine hormones like estrogen , which really confuses our bodies , leading to disease.

In 2000, Puerto Rican scientists reported an association between DEHP & premature breast development in young girls signifying an early onset of puberty. At the same time the CDC in the United States tested blood samples of 289 Adult Americans and found phthalates in all of them. The levels of some phthalates, including DEHP in women of childbearing age far exceeded government mandated safe levels to prevent birth defects.

Two studies published in Environmental Health perspectives in 2003 found that pregnant women with phthalate exposure on average give birth one week earlier than those without significant phthalate exposure.

A 2006 study among Indian women with endometriosis showed a significantly high level of phthalates in their blood – this included phthalates which are restricted for use in the EU like DEHP, DBT, BBP and DnOP.

Regulations around Phthalates:

Most restriction around phthalates today focuses on children. The EU has restricted the use of certain phthalates like DEHP, DBP, in children’s toys from 1999. Phthalates like DINP, DIDP and DNOP are restricted in toys that can be put into a child’s mouth. The restriction allows these phthalates to be present only upto 0.1% of the plasticized mass of the toy.A similar act was passed in the United States in 2008.

5childrens toys post

Phthalates in the Cauvery river.

A study published this year studied water and sediment samples of the Cauvery River, one of South India’s major rivers. A two year soil sediment and water study found DEHP in 92% of the water samples and DEP and DMP in every water sample. Similarly 94% of soil sediment samples also contained DEHP. While the contamination percentage was said to be below USEPA guidelines for water, the soil concentration exceeded this guideline.

The Cauvery river basin covers Karnataka, Kerala , Tamilnadu and Pondicherry.  It is the source for both an extensive irrigation and hydroelectric system and also supplies drinking water for many towns and villages. Bangalore, Mysore and Mandya depend almost completely on the Cauvery for their drinking water. In this situation, the fact that some of the most toxic phthalates like DEHP have so comprehensively contaminated this river cannot be ignored.

Nonylphenols (NP ) and  Nonyl phenol ethoxylate (NPE)

Nonyl phenols come from a class of chemicals called Alkyphenols. Alkylphenols, including nonyl phenol are precursors to chemical detergents , and are used as additive to fuels, lubricants and other polymers.

All alkylphenols including Nonylphenol ethoxylate are xenoestrogens. They mimic the effect of estrogen in the body and they can disrupt the normal process of reproduction. Xenoestrogens can increase the growth of the endometrium, leading to endometriosis, and can also increase breast cancer tissue in tissue culture studies.

Precocious puberty or puberty among young girls below 8 years is one of the effects of Xeno estrogens. Studies across America, Europe and Asia suggest that irrespective of race and economic conditions, the earlier onset of puberty is attributed to the environmental chemical exposure. Precocious puberty has been studied to lead to significant psychological distress, poor self image and poor self esteem in a young girl. It has also shown to lead to reduced adult height, paediatric & adult obesity, gynaecological disorders like endometriosis, poly cystic ovarian disorder and infertility.

Nonylphenols are chemicals used in laundry and dish detergents, cleaners and emulsifiers, paints, pesticides and in personal wash products. Since the discovery of Nonyl phenol in 1940, its production has been growing every year – it is now a high production volume chemical, with 100 million- 500 million pounds of NPE being produced globally every year.

4synthetic dishwash

Nonylphenol persists in aquatic environments and can take months or longer to degrade in water and soil. Because Nonylphenol is used in so many cleaning products which “go down the drain” like dishwash products and detergent products, it is a ready contaminant into sewage and water supply. Nonyl phenol bio-accumulates inside the body, and is a potent endocrine disrupter.

Synergistic effects:

As already mentioned, one of the most troubling problems of ingredients like Nonyl phenol which are used as filler in pesticides for their “inert” properties is their ability to work synergistically with other chemicals and multiply their toxic effect on humans.

Current regulations:

The EU has eliminated the use of Nonyl Phenol and its ethoxylate in most industrial and product sectors. Canada has implemented a pollution prevention plant to drastically reduce the use of NP/NPE.  The US EPA plans to encourage voluntary phase of using NP/NPE in industrial laundry detergents.

In India this is not yet regulated.

Products that contain NP / NPE:

Used as a surfactant in shaving creams, detergents, dishwash, hair dyes, hair styling products and pesticides. It is difficult to ascertain if your brand contains this chemical as it is a feedstock chemical which is usually unlisted.

 

Pink could be the colour of happiness

But it is not in the case of beauty or consumer products.  Our article discusses just 3 kinds of toxic chemicals that are commonly found in Indian homes today in their cleaning, skin or hair care products. The US FDA lists over 100,000 industrial chemicals in use today!

This blog cannot cover all these chemicals in depth, but what we will do is to look at products and ingredients that are extremely toxic to you and suggest alternatives. Children and their toxic exposure is a grave concern for us at Krya, and one of our posts will examine the products that we surround our children with today , their current toxic load and examine better alternatives.

Having read this post, you may be left with a deep feeling of “why”. Why do companies use these chemicals? Is it out of malice? Are they out to get us? Are they as unaware as we are? Our next post will look at common myths and facts when formulating household products. Hopefully some more answers will emerge there.

 

This article is a part of Krya’s series on toxics in household and personal care products. Through this series, we hope to inform, educate and inspire you to look around your home and detox it and yourself from the harmful action of more than 100,000 suspect industrial chemicals that surround human life today. The natural world is full of safe, environmentally sustainable, cruelty free options to care for yourself and your home, and our series will try to present atleast a small part of this exciting world to you. 

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Try this instead – the new series on toxic free living

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Reading Time: 9 minutes

One of my most memorable trips was a visit to Officina Profumo Farmaceutica of the  Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence. Listed as one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, this apothecary & pharmacy was founded in 1221 A.D. by the Dominican Friars who started making herbal remedies and potions for use in the monastery. With a growing reputation that crossed borders, the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy finally opened its doors to the general public in 1612, sponsored by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

When I visited the Pharmacy in 2009, I was in awe of the nearly 400 year old heritage of creating creams, lotions, soaps and scents. This acute sense of history was heightened as we had just visited the church next door where we took in works by Botticelli, Vasari & Brunelleschi among others. The products continued to be plant based, many of their best sellers were recipes crafted hundreds of years ago by the Dominican Friars, and they continued to be made in small batches, by hand using locally available plant based ingredients.

4. SMN apothecary jars

In the medieval time Western homes, beauty and household care products were the realm of the Women of the home. A “still room” was an essential part of a home’s building plans, and it would be carefully constructed in a cold, dry part of the home, often in the basement, to store the medicines, potions, remedies and special food that were concocted in the home.

The cleaning products for the home like the concoction used to clean the silver, the special shaving soap used by the gentlemen of the home, the healing tisanes and teas, and the many many remedies for taking care of both large and small aches, pains and diseases were created in the “Still Room”. The recipes were carefully handed down the generations and were often a closely guarded, secret.

2. Still room at Harewood House

The Indian tradition was somewhat different from the western tradition especially in the plains. Because of the large bounty of plants across seasons with specific properties tailored for the seasons, our basket of remedies was very wide and varied. Given the hot and humid climate in our plains, our method of preparing our remedies and mixtures was also different from the western herbalism – we preferred tinctures or decoctions to tisanes. Apart from standardised products and medicines for hair and skin care and to cure ailments that were used from the Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani texts, we also had an Indian system of herbalism that was used for treating small ailments and personal care routines. This system of herbalism differed by geography and depended upon the local flora peculiar to the region.

So someone living in the South of India may have made hibiscus flower hair oil to prevent hair fall and other problems. Whereas, someone living in Chattisgarh, might have used the locally available dried Safflower in coconut oil to prevent hair fall and related problems.

As I continue to research India’s intricate connection with plants and nature and how we depended on the banquet offered by nature to clean, care for and maintain our homes and ourselves, I also realise that this connection is now becoming very tenuous.

Surveys done among several tribal groups across India reveal that the younger generation prefer to buy OTC or prescription capsules or pills to treat their ailments. And far from taking the trouble to pick a safflower and boil it in oil, they prefer to resort to an advertised cure for hair fall or a hair treatment product.

The columns in popular magazines and newspapers on beauty reveal our fascination with natural remedies – despite the onslaught of advertising and claims of superiority, we continue to faintly remember our tradition of the power of plants to take care of our hair, skin and bodies. But when it comes to taking care of our homes or treating our ailments, we have nearly forgotten the wealth of plants that we have around us.

As we like to say at Krya, Man (and Woman) has thrived for thousands of years before the arrival synthetic, industrially manufactured products. The chemical consumer product industry is about 150 years old and really started coming into its own during the First World War with shortages in basic commodities forcing inventions.

The first archaeological proof of the existence of soap in the Western world was in ancient Babylon, 4800 years ago. A ancient soap vat was found with inscriptions detailing how animal fat was to be boiled with ash to produce soap. The Ebers Medical Papyrus dated from 1500 BCE in ancient Egypt describes creating soap like material by mixing animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts like, Natron, a naturally occurring mixture of different sodium salts.

Natron was a panacea in Ancient Egypt. It was harvested from dried lake beds, typically in Wadi El Natrun, a valley in the Beheira govern ate in Egypt, and was used for thousands of years in ancient Egypt to clean both the home and the body. Blended with oil, it formed an early form of soap which softens water and helps remove oil and grease. Undiluted it helped clean teeth and was made into a simple mouthwash. It was used variously in the home from an antiseptic for minor cuts and wounds, to helping preserve and dry fish and meat. Natron was also used in Egyptian mummification procedures to absorb water and ensure dry conditions.

5. Natural natron

Since India was blessed with an abundance of plant life, different parts of India developed combinations of plants, with some minerals and ashes as cosmetic aids and to maintain clean homes.

The Soapberry tree has long been revered in Indian tradition and in Ayurveda as being an excellent cleanser for skin and hair. Sapindus trifoliatus, the south Indian soapberry, which we use extensively in our formulations at Krya, has been noted as a healing cleansing ingredient and has been recommended in Ayurveda to cure specific skin conditions like psoriasis.

Different species of Acacia form the soap pod or the Shikakai bush. It continues to be grown as a hedge plant in remote villages where its extensive set of thorns protects homes from the entry of wild animals like wild pigs. The soap pod is again extensively documented in both Ayurveda and Siddha. With its mild cleansing action and a varied set of saponins, Shikakai is used in hair and skin cleaning formulations, as a wound healer and bactericidal agent in infusions for oral care.

3. Acacia concinna flowers

Our research at Krya aims to create new and interesting formulations to help you care safely and sustainably, have thrown up many more natural soap substitutes. These include different kinds of wild tubers, other fruits, and sometimes even ashes of particular plants that have long been used inventively by the communities that have access to them. And all of these plant soaps are used to variously wash woollens, as a safe shampoo, to clean dishes, and to bathe the delicate skin of babies.

We are facing a crisis of great proportion today. And this crisis has to do with the choices we have made collectively as a race. By voting to put our faith and money behind products that have been manufactured inside a chemical facility without a long-term understanding of their safety, we have given away control of our life, our health and our planet. This lack of control has led to several alarming consequences for us and the planet.

Researchers from the U.S studied a small sample of 6 cleaning products used in a typical home and found that this group emitted 133 Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Each of the 6 cleaning products tested emitted between 1 to 8 chemicals that are classified as toxic or hazardous under US Federal Laws.

Ammonia

Ammonia is a common substance found in homes, emitted from synthetics like toilet cleaners, drain cleaners, window cleaners and specialised oven & stainless steel cleaners. These vapours may irritate the skin, throat, eyes, and lungs and can irritate people with asthma.

Coal tar dyes, are commonly found in almost all cleaning products giving them the bright, shiny, metallic colours that we seem to like. Your bright green dishwash or shampoo derives its colour from petrochemicals which can be contaminated with traces of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium. There is a concern that these synthetic dyes may be carcinogenic and the heavy metal contamination in them can harm the nervous system. These dyes can be absorbed through your skin or even worse, ingested as residue when your dishes or plates are not rinsed thoroughly. Worse still, from the point of view of the effectiveness, these dyes are completely unnecessary and have no relevance to how well a product cleans.

1. allura red in cosmetics

2-Butoxyethanol (or 2-BE, also known as Butyl Cellosolve)

This is a skin and eye irritant that is associated with blood disorders and has caused reproductive problems in lab animal experiments. This chemical is listed as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection act as it is harmful to human health. The main way it enters our system is by inhaling the air inside our homes (which are contaminated by the use of the products that contain this chemical) and by direct skin contact with the leaning products we use. In Canada, 2-BE concentration is limited to 6%, but certain products like laundry stain digesters and stain removers can carry this chemical upto 22%.

Consumer product industry in India – still poorly regulated

The consumer product Industry in India continues to be under regulated. While the manufacturing of certain household products like detergents are classified by the ministry of Environments and Forests as a polluting industry with the symbol “Red” (highly polluting), there is still a lot of work to be done before we can reach the safety and human health standards set by countries like Canada.

Cleaning and consumer products do not require any ingredient listing. Safety standards have not taken into account the continuing research and environmental implications of using the multitude of chemicals that go into the products we use today. Companies are penalised only when they fail to follow basic hygiene standards, such as a bacterial count that exceeds permissible limits or the presence of a foreign object inside the product to be used.

Environmental activists continue to wage a war to get companies to follow decent standards of formulation that are followed as a matter of course all over the world. For example, phosphates which have been banned in many developed countries as their excessive use in cleaning products leads to water pollution and eutrophication are used in excess in India. Regulations in U.S and Canada limit the use of phosphates in foaming cleaning products like detergents and dishwash products to fewer than 2.5%. In India the phosphate levels in these products routinely exceeds 40% – Phosphate is used as a cheap builder and water softener to productive large amounts of lather in a cleaning product. Of course, as with the example of coal tar dyes, this lather is unnecessary and does not signify better cleaning.

The Krya “Try this instead” series has 3 aims: Information, Hope & Inspiration

1. To inform you about the dicey and nasty chemicals used many of the products that enter our homes today. We believe that this information will empower you to make better choices. So we aim to arm you with information, facts and research to help you navigate your way through the Chemical wasteland of products when you next navigate your supermarket.

2. To give hope (and safe alternatives) – Sometimes when confronted with information like the above, we tend to fall into an abyss of despair. Are we to no more have fun and use shiny fragrant products we ask ourselves? Will I never have a sweet, gel-based toothpaste again? How are we supposed to now clean ourselves and our homes?  This series hopes to give you good workable alternatives: in the form of ingredients, hacks or products that you can use in multiple ways across your home. For example, we use the Krya detergent like a swiss army knife in various combinations to clean our clothes, dishes, floor, bathrooms, hair and teeth by adding simple herbs for each of these functions. We will be writing about simple ideas and recipes such as the above.

3. Most importantly, to inspire you. The true Wealth of India, its plants, herbs and trees, have been variously catalogued by the British in their time and several ethno botanists and anthropologists today as its rich biodiversity of plants and the rich native knowledge of how these herbs can be used to lead a healthy, happy and clean life. In our quest to create Krya and lead a more natural and clean life, we have been amazed and inspired by this true Wealth of India – we celebrate this wealth every day, and hope to inspire you with this series to do the same.

We hope you will enjoy and appreciate this new series as you have with our past writings. Please do write to us and let us know if there are any particular areas you would like us to cover within the scope of the subject and we will be happy to do so. A happy, organic, natural, safe and clean day to you too.

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Green Bazaar update and conversations on sustainable fabric & menstruation

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If it is too good to be true, then it probably is. Krya was conducting a workshop and showcasing skin care products at the Alternative’s Green Bazaar yesterday. We commissioned a commercial artist to hand paint a cloth banner for us for our stall. We wanted to avoid the regular plastic flex banners with digital prints. We e-mailed our artwork to the artist, who assured us a perfect reproduction of the design by his own hand, using cloth and paint.

We were getting the banner printed in a rush , just the day before the bazaar. The night before the event we hopped into the artist’s studio to check out the progress on our banner. We arrived in time to discover that he digitally printed our design on a piece of flex and was using that as a stencil to create a “hand-painted” sign.

So after all the fuss, we printed a plastic banner in order to create a sustainable, hand-painted cloth banner. Had we known this, we could stopped our artist right at the plastic stage.

So we took our resource heavy cloth banner to the Green Bazaar on Sunday morning, along with the Krya detergent and Dishwash and the preview packs of the soon to be launched Krya hair wash and Krya face wash.

6.Krya at the green bazaar

Conversations on Sustainable Menstruation

We were thrilled to meet the team from Eco Femme, which is doing great work in sustainable menstruation. Kathy of Eco-Femme introduced me to Vijay and his work in menstrual activism. Vijay’s work is in a very specific field in menstruation: the right to sun-dry your undergarments and menstrual cloth. Before you think that this is a little too specific, Vijay shared a study by the Adyar cancer Institute which found that one of the causes of cervical cancer was the lack of sun drying of undergarments and menstrual cloth. The subsequent dampness, moisture and folding away of these garments were somehow able to create favourable conditions for the entry and spread of the Human Papilloma virus, which is associated with several medical conditions including cervical cancer.

I was struck how some people don’t have the basic to right to dry their clothes in the sun and some-how ended up with terrible consequences. This was an eye-opener.

5. eco femme

Later in the day, I was happy to share my experiences with Menstruation and how I made the switch to Eco Femme’s earth friendly cloth pads at Eco Femme’s Sustainable menstruation workshop. Kathy Walking then showed us a very powerful video that they had made at Auroville to demonstrate both current menstrual practices and the environmental effect of continuing to use disposable products. This video showed that women across India tried to dry their undergarments and menstrual cloth in cupboards, under beds, in the bathrooms, under sinks and similarly damp, possibly unhygienic places which had no air or light. This arose from a superstition that menstrual cloth was unlucky and should not be seen by Men. The point that Vijay was making resonated strongly with me as I saw this.

The second piece of research estimated the size of landfill if every single woman in India used disposable menstrual napkins every year–58 billion pads thrown away each year would occupy the land equivalent to 173 football fields every single year!

So yes, it is important to be open about Menstruation, and claim both our right to sun dry and our right to make better choices for our planet.

The Sustainable Fabric workshop

Krya and Chakra design studio jointly hosted a workshop on handlooms and naturally dyed fabric. A conversation with Ananthoo of Tula, reveals an interesting economic fact – a kilo of chemical dye costs as low as Rs 20, and a kilo of vegetable dye could cost anywhere between Rs 400 – Rs 1000 !

7. the Krya Chakra workshop on fabric

So obviously on the face of it, it makes no economic sense to even attempt to use natural dye on your fabric. Plus the colour palette of natural dyes is extremely limited. You will not obtain the “exciting” computer colours that are not abundantly present in nature like lime green or fuchsia or a bright purple.

2. natural dye colour palette

 

The Krya Chakra workshop was an introduction to handlooms and natural dyes, and listening to Bindu, I was struck by other limitations of the craft. The natural dyeing process is temperamental – you are never sure of the exact shade of colour you will get at the end of the process, because the same tree across different harvest years will yield slightly different shades.

The natural dyeing process needs to be done very carefully and meticulously. For example, to ensure the cloth holds the dye, dyers use different pre-treatment methods like soaking the plain fabric in buffalo milk and Terminalia chebulia or Myrobalan before applying the mordant. And this varies from region to region and the natural resources that are available to each dyeing community.

Natural dyeing is also a very water intensive process, compared to chemical dyeing. Chemical dyes come in easy to use forms which can then be straight away applied to the cloth, and have been designed to be colour fast.

But applying natural colours follows a linear process: each colour has to be applied, fixed, the excess washed off and sun dried before the next colour can make its way into the fabric. The process is therefore very time-consuming compared to using chemical dyes.

With so many apparent disadvantages in using natural dyes, why then are we supporting this craft?

While the water consumed by natural dyeing is large, it is important to remember that all of this water can be happily used for agriculture or other purposes. Bindu shares that in her dyeing village, the craftsmen swim in the irrigation canal, and stand of either side of it allowing the flowing water to wash away any excess dye. The farmers who use this water are happy to share it as they believe this water is good for the crops and does not harm in any way.

We must remember that before our centralised factory based models came into being, our lives were more intertwined and symbiotic. Treatises on the fabric traditions of India reveal a system of barter used to exist: cotton farmers would exchange their cotton with spinners for finished yarn which they could then hand weave themselves. Spinners would also barter yarn with weavers for finished fabric.

Chemical dyeing today has its roots in natural plant based dyeing, and the craftsmen are drawn from the communities of vegetable dyers. And they carry along with them practices of vegetable dyeing. So while chemical dyeing does not require the extensive rinsing and drying and liner processing that vegetable dyeing entails, it still requires water as a last rinse. And both small chemical dyers and large dyeing factories dip their textiles into running water and rivers to rinse off the excess dye.

The aftermath of chemical dyeing

We already shared the story of the Noyyal River in Tiruppur. Historically, the Noyyal River was called the “Kanchinadi” and considered a sacred river. The river itself is said to contain minerals which are health giving and considered “antibiotic” in nature.

The Chalukya Chola Kings built an interconnected tank and canal system to this river which helped drain away the excess water from the river into an intricate system of tanks preventing flooding along the banks. And the tanks themselves helped replenish groundwater by percolating the sub soil (in this we must understand that these tanks were not the impermeable cement graves that we dig today in the name of water storage, but tanks where the bottom was mud allowing water to percolate the sub soil).

Today, the Noyyal River has been kindly described as a sewer. The Tamilnadu Pollution control board estimates conservatively that 883,000 tonnes of toxic waste is dumped into the Noyyal River every year by the textile mills around Tiruppur.

2.noyyal runs black

Farmers have abandoned cultivation as digging below 6 feet releases a black, toxic sludge. Any produce grown absorbs chemical content and changes colour – coconuts for instance were found to have red insides as against their regular white insides.

8. Bindu and I at the workshop final

Chemical dyeing related illnesses

A video from Craft mark which documents the process of hand dyeing using chemical dyes, reveals a horrific basket of chemicals which the dyers dip their hands into every month – to set the dyes, the dyers have to dip their hands and the fabric into caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, sodium nitrate and soda ash, and acetic acid. The dye stains their skin almost indelibly and they find eating difficult as the dye colours and odorises the food they eat. They explain that they need to take a 2 day holiday to recover for every 10 day chemical dyeing work they do.

As we shared this with the audience at the Sustainable fabric workshop, we saw several people look at their shirts and garments with undisguised horror – imagine the effect these very same chemicals will have as they sit malignantly close to your skin and continue to be slowly absorbed by your skin every day.

Krya Talk

Of course, apart from the conversations with different people and the workshops at the Bazaar, it is a very edifying experience to stand in your own stall and greet visitors with information about what you do. I found a lot of interest around the Krya hair wash, and our small batch at the Bazaar was sold out. Apparently even my threats of greenish residue left behind in the hair was not enough to deter people who wanted to try out a safer product on themselves. The question I was asked most about was whether the Hair wash would reverse hair fall.

9. How does this work final

I am particularly wary about marketing claims, coming as I do from a background in Consumer Product Marketing. Most research and statistics can be interpreted in any way to obtain favourable results for the product you are marketing.

I particularly dislike product claims – it is my belief that is almost impossible to isolate external, environmental and internal causes from the workings of a product. So if I told you the Krya hair wash would reduce hair fall, and when you bought the product, you also decided to detox your life and started eating organic food that was wholegrain and maybe vegan, with a lot of greens in your diet, it would stand to reason that your health indices would dramatically improve. This meant that your hair fall, if you had any would also slow down. Now should I attribute it to the Krya hairwash you were using at the time? Knowing what goes into the product and how it works, I could say yes. But I would be incorrect if I discounted the dramatic effect of eating clean healthy food on your system.

So to the questions on hair loss, I simply said that the hair wash would do what it was supposed to do really well – it would clean your scalp and hair without loading your system with toxins, and leave your scalp to function in a regular healthy manner without irritating it or stripping it of serum.

I was pleased to find that my underplayed response resonated with my audience. And we quickly sold out. To add to this, 2 of my consumers who had bought the hair wash two weeks back when we launched, came to the stall to tell me how well the product was working for them. And this feedback, as you know, makes my heart sing. If you too would like to try our limited range of skin and hair care goodies please click here.

The Green Bazaar also showcased some interesting food stalls, including a food stall by SHARAN which showcased vegan food and also showcased the vegan creations of a young Mum who is a wholegrain baker. I noticed several participants carrying SHARAN’s leaflets, and was thrilled at people’s interest and curiosity around this very pertinent subject.

3.team sharan

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. lavender at bazaar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case you missed it, the Alternative’s Green Bazaar is a bi-monthly event – so do ensure you are there the next time around.
If you too would like to know about Menstruation and why it is not environmentally sustainable at the moment and explore your options, start here.

In the meantime, our series on sustainable fabric continues. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
  10. Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
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The warped state of Handlooms in India

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Reading Time: 10 minutes

I was surprised to read a few days back that Flipkart has signed an MoU with the Indian Textile Ministry to provide an online marketing platform to handloom weavers and their products. Through online marketing platform, Flipkart is also supposed to provide support in data analytics, market intelligence, guidance on how products should be priced, brand building & packaging to the weavers.

Someone reading this report may well question why the government continues to spend money on this Handloom sector. And if so much money, schemes, man hours and support has been already given to boost the handloom sector, is it undeserving of all this aid, as it still hasn’t improved or really turned around?

Handloom Numbers:

When we speak of the handloom sector, we first need to understand its scale through some important numbers. 95% of the world’s hand-woven fabric comes from India and this sector also contributes to India’s export earnings. The Handloom census of 2009 – 10 tells us that that this sector provides employment to 4.33 Million people.  This number has reduced significantly from 1995-96, when the number of people employed by this sector was close to 6.5 Million people in either weaving or allied activities.  But only 15% of the total fabric produced in our country comes from the handloom sector.  Compare this to power loom fabric which in 1956 contributed to only 2.3% of India’s total fabric and today occupies 85% of our fabric market.

In 2011-12, the handloom industry wove 6900 million square metres of cloth. The Government since Independence has (at least on paper) poured thousands of crores of money, and resources down this sector. As of last year, The Textile Ministry’s annual report cites several schemes to rejuvenate the handloom sector. Some of this include:

  • Subsidized rates on hank yarn (of 10% on yarn price) under the Mill Gate Price scheme
  • Marketing events and promotional activities to help weavers exhibit their wares (about 700 were done last year), A ministry sponsored Handloom week event every year,
  • An integrated handloom development scheme with a budget in 2011-12 of 236.5 Crores to provide financial assistance , training in weaving and dyeing, design and management and construction of new handloom sheds
  • Institutional Credit scheme – which provides margin money assistance, an interest subsidy for the first 3 years of loan repayment, a credit guarantee trust fund,  and promotional activities and camps by banks disbursing the loan to help make weavers aware of the scheme.
  • Comprehensive health insurance and health care facilities,
  • A scholarship scheme and life coverage under the Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana
  • Diversified Handloom development scheme which is to upgrade weaver skills through workshops, exhibitions, design development, documentation of traditional designs, setting up of Weavers service centres, R&D facilities and Institutes like IIHT, NCTD, etc.

Despite all these measures, people in handloom sector have high levels of poverty, extremely variable incomes and sometime abject penury.

Our discussions with companies like Exind Corporation, which is the company behind Kalpadruma in Chennai, tell us about eerie ghost towns where the handlooms are draped with cobwebs.

Older weavers want their children to have nothing to do with the crafts and handloom weaving appears to be largely the occupation of senior citizens with several 70 year old handloom weavers (as seen in the picture below) continuing with the craft with no younger apprentices in sight to continue the tradition.

10.handloom weaving

 

Did you know about the Handloom Reservation Act ?

These activities are over and above the Handloom Reservation Act which was passed in 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. This act is still supposed to be under enforcement and regulates 22 types of garments for the exclusive production of the Handloom sector.

When this act was passed, it was criticised as being draconian and unfairly skewed towards the handloom sector. The act was also criticised as being sweeping and including generic categories of garments into the reserved status.

The Handloom Reservation act has defined a handloom to be any loom other than a power loom, and its reach extends to the whole of India. It also gives sweeping powers to the Ministry to include any garments it may seem fit outside of these 22 reserved garments to be included in the Act whenever they feel the need.

Many of the textile products we use every day are regulated by this act. For example, the Handloom reservation act includes almost all cotton and silk saris for the exclusive production of handloom mills or weavers. Similarly Dhotis, Angavastrams, lungis , dress materials, kambals and shawls with a few exceptions are included in this act.

Certain kinds of fabrics and weaves are exempt from this act. For example, synthetic saris made from polyester, nylon, etc and saris made from chiffon, georgette, crepe, and cotton voile are completely exempt and can be made in a power loom.  Saris made with blends that use material other than silk and cotton, or where 45% or more of the weight of the yarn is made from synthetic or manufactured yarn like viscose are exempt from this act.

Perhaps because of the protests and lobbying of the powerful textile and power loom lobby from the time this act was passed, till date, this Act remains powerful only in paper. If you leave aside the huge sweep of this act and how it seeks to protect a large part of what we wear and ensure that what we wear remains Handloom, which may be called draconian, the fact is that while the Act remains powerful, its execution has been lackadaisical at best.

In January 1995, out of 72,553 power looms inspected for possible violations 656 cases were booked – this is despite the fact that violation of this act by power looms is more the norm rather than the exception. ( as per some government reports)

So what ails the handloom sector and why are such a large number of weavers struggling in utter penury today? Is the only reason the financial might and concentrated power of the power loom industry? Is the government to blame? Are we also responsible?

Conundrum : Is what I buy even handloom?

The Weaver communities talked about in the ancient Sangam period and even upto the 17th century were integrated entrepreneurs. They had close associations with the cotton cultivators who were generally close by. The cotton bales would reach the villages where they would be hand spun by the women in the weaver families. The yarn would then be woven into fabric. Textile dyeing done either at the yarn stage or after the fabric was printed was either done in-house or by a close association of dyeing craftsmen who would typically be located close to a water body. The dye would be produced from plant based material and then transferred onto the yarn or the fabric. The entire process of textile making was integrated more or less within a geographical location. This meant the weaver had to go nowhere for his raw material or textile accessories.

Resources have now become more and more centralised. Today’s handloom weaver cannot find hank yarn or dyes within his geographical location. As weaving today is done in rural and semi rural areas, weavers have to travel far to obtain their raw materials.

The availability of hank yarn for handlooms is also a serious issue. A hank is a coiled unit of yarn or twine.  Handlooms need yarn in this format compared to power looms which need yarn in the cone format.

2. hank yarn

Under the Handloom reservation act, a spinning mill is supposed to produce 50% of their total marketable output as hank yarn for handlooms. Hank yarn is tax free and has other subsidies. A garment is classified as handloom by the government if the raw material purchased is Hank Yarn. This classification based on raw material is merely for convenience as authorities would find it very difficult to physically monitor the output and then classify it as handloom or powerloom. Further, the supposed output of hank yarn, which is handloom ,is also exempt from excise duty.

So some power looms use this subsidy illegally as follows. They purchase hank at the lower rates, re-wind it in cones to fit their machines and create textiles. Since they purchased hank yarn, they then claim that their output is “handloom” and further avail excise duty exemption. This diversion of the hank yarn to power looms reduces raw material availability for the handloom sector. As a result handloom weavers face a year round shortage of yarn for their fabric. This excise evasion not only diverts yarn from a weaver to a mill, it also mis-classifies power loom output as handloom output! So the power loom owner buys yarn at a subsidized rate, weaves it in his mill & sells it as handloom (again at a lower excise rate) – in this process the handloom weaver loses hank yarn, the government loses excise money and consumers like us don’t get to wear a genuine handloom product even though the label may say “handloom”.

Myth : Handloom garments are expensive & old fashioned

Hank yarn and dye are the raw material used to produce a handloom garment. We have already seen how hank yarn can be diverted from handlooms by the loopholes of subsidies and excise exemption. The basic price of the yarn itself that weavers have to pay in a centralised system of yarn production is much more than what they would have paid in the past, when yarn was available in their villages. High cost machine produced yarn available in large towns or cities is what they have access to today. When weavers who are small scale entrepreneurs buy this high cost raw material, it stands to reason that the garments they produce will also have a correspondingly high price.

Consumers used to low cost, mass produced powerloom fabric are often unable to accept this high cost. The question of design innovation is caught in a classic chicken and egg situation: weavers may be willing to innovate if their market risk is reduced by the investor. Investors are of course willing to have innovation if they are sure their fabric will be sold.

In the meantime no one is addressing us the consumers as we sail forth, shopping in Malls and buying powerloom fabric. We do not know their ramifications of our choices. We do not understand what we are losing as we continue to push our traditional fabric and garments out of our wardrobe.

The biggest strength of a decentralised, village based, weaver system of the past was that regional designs and identities were preserved.

For example, in our earlier post written by Richa Dubey, she spoke about the Leheriya design which was created by artisans in a desert longing for the rain. This longing was immortalised in the flow of rain drops on their garments through their dyeing craft. Similarly, a Baluchari sari from West Bengal had motifs like animals, plants, marriage processions, horse riders of vignettes from the Ramayana outlined in white.

4. paisley

The Kanjeevaram saree which was believed to have been woven 400 years ago have peacocks, parrots, swans, mangoes and leaves as common motifs. The borders have triangular pinnacle like marks which represent the temples in and around this town, which gives this town the sobriquet of the “Temple town”.

3.handloom inspiration

With globalisation of fashion, our regional identities and where we come from becomes blurred. And the weaver who continues to craft his fabric taking cues from his environment becomes obsolete and old fashioned.

Myth : Handloom garments are difficult to maintain

Our pieces earlier by handloom and textile enthusiasts talk about the differences wearing a handloom fabric give to its wearer. We have experienced this for ourselves when we wear our Tula rain fed organic cotton handloom shirts, or our Kalakshetra handloom vegetable dyed saris or our Kalpadruma vegetable dyed organic cotton handloom towels.

Handloom garments are extremely breathable and absorbent. So you do not feel sweaty or hot as the fabric allows air to pass through. They also feel very cool and comfortable and soft, especially after they are washed many times. However, they need to be maintained with care – you cannot simply toss them into a machine thoughtlessly like you would with your knits, t-shirts and other powerloom fabric. But this care can reap rich rewards for you as your handlooms will last much much longer.

We are going to write a more detailed post on why there is this difference in handloom garments and how they should be maintained well, and can actually be made to last for decades if not years when done so.

But this post will simply carry a small note on what makes handloom garments different. Natural fibres like cotton and silk require more careful handling compared to synthetics. They are also generally less elastic compared to synthetics which mean that they can shrink or tear under stress unless treated. In large processing plants like those which create cotton knits or t shirts, natural fabrics are specially treated using techniques like mercerisation, or superwashing to enhance the fibre’s properties.

But native handloom weavers have always used local, indigenous methods to enhance the fibre’s strength and ensure that the fibre can withstand the rigours of handloom weaving. Weavers from different states have slightly different ways of tearing yarn. In many places in South India where rice is freely available, rice paste or rice starch is used on the yarn. It is soaked in this paste and then dried before being woven on the loom. In our research we have seen different natural pastes being added to this basic mix including onion paste in some cases.

This natural starch and plant combination along with the handling of the yarn by hand keeps the handloom fabric in better shape compared to powerloom fabric. And as the cotton is gently treated from the beginning it feels soft and comfortable when worn. In order to retain the properties of the handloom garment, it needs to be treated with a similar amount of care from the wearer’s end. But with this care, your handloom saree, skirt or dupatta can retain its colour and be worn just as proudly by you even twenty years down the line.

This post has been able to cover only a few of the issues that assail the handloom sector. We have not even begun to cover the important aspect of fair trade when it comes to this industry which is a point worth pondering about or the question of working in a hazardous occupation, which is a problem associated with chemical dyes. Our upcoming posts will cover all of these and as promised introduce you to some companies and organisations which are worth supporting and are doing sincere and stellar work in this field.

We hope you are enjoying reading our sustainable fabric series and also hope that our series is inspiring you to take a closer look at your wardrobe. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interveiwing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.

And do tell us what you think of this new series here or on our Facebook page.

 

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Dye another day

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

It almost always comes back to water. On the Krya blog we focus on sustainable urban living. We explore the many different ways in which urban living is stressing the environment and equally the many interesting ways in which we can return to a holistic, sustainable way of living.

 

And we are constantly amazed by the myriad ways in which water gets polluted. Ground water and water on the surface of the earth (both fresh and saline). While 70% of the planet is water, there is no good reason to go around trashing this precious resource. This is simply because it takes only a moment to pollute water but an eternity (and a ton of money) to clean it again and make it fit for consumption – by humans, plants and animals. This seems obvious yet the daily massacre of water that takes place compels me to point it out here.

 

The textile industry is a leading source of water pollution. World Bank estimates that 20% of all industrial water pollution comes from the dyeing of textiles. The textile mills release millions of gallons of wastewater containing pollutants like chlorine, formaldehyde, lead & mercury into our freshwater bodies. Some 72 toxic chemicals had been have linked to textile dyeing. A single T-shirt made from regular cotton requires 2700 litres of water and uses 150 grams of chemicals in the production process.

How did the textile industry sink to this state of affairs?

Dye

Dyeing is an ancient art, as old as humanity.

6. cuneiform tablet

The original dyes were mostly plant derived, from roots, berries, fruits and bark. They used simple methods like crushing or boiling to dye fabric. Dyeing was in fact a secretive subject and only a select few could access it, wearing dyed clothes as status symbol.

5. charlemagne's coronation

The medieval depiction above of Emperor Charlemagne’s coronation by the Pope, shows the Emperor wearing am indigo robe and the Pope wearing a  white robe. Indigo and purple in ancient times were worn only by royals. Similarly, in Indonesia, the batik process of dyeing used several symbols and certain symbols could only be worn by royals. People could be placed in the pecking order just by looking at the symbols on their batik clothes.

Some of the most famous ancient dyes were red madder, extracted from the roots of the Rubia Tinctorum and the blue indigo from the leaves of the Indigofera tinctoria.

Indigo, the original king of dyes

Apart from the glorious deep blue colour that the Indigo plant delivers, it was the king of dyes from ancient times for a number of reasons. Most dyes require a mordant like alum, common salt or salts of aluminum, chromium etc, to fix the dye to the fabric and ensure colour fastness. Indigo is unique in that it uses a fermentation process to release the coloring molecules and fabric can be directly dipped into the indigo and dried to get the desired blue colour.

7. dyeing wool

In ancient times, many households would mix the ingredients required into a vat, let the mix ferment for a week to get the dye and then dip the fabric into the vat to colour it. This indigo vat then can be maintained for many years on a continuous basis, adding some indigo as and when the dye dilutes. Some Indigo vats have been known to be used for over a hundred years continuously. It was common for many households to have their own indigo vat. This was a very local, DIY, contained process and very environmentally friendly.

4.badshahmiyan indigo

The picture above, shows Master Dyer Badshah Miyan of Jaipur following this traditional Indigo dyeing process today in Jaipur. Of course we cannot all wear Indigo and other colours are needed. The fundamental unit of living has also changed and we cannot all have an ancestral indigo vat running to meet our clothing needs. Further with the growth in demand for the dye, indigo cultivation started replacing other food crops which made it a precious commodity.

Around 1850 several organic chemists began research into synthesis of indigo from chemical sources. By 1897, BASF had developed a commercially viable chemical synthesis that eliminated the need for the leaves of the Indigo plant. In due course in the 20th century all natural dyes were replaced by their synthetic equivalents. Unfortunately what started off as an innocent quest to replace natural indigo with a cheaper chemically synthesized alternative ended up in an global industry that freshwater with toxic chemicals inexorably.

The T-Shirt Town in Tatters

Tirupur in Tamil Nadu is a leading textile center accounting for 80% of India’s knitwear exports. Tirupur textiles accounted for over $ 4 billion in revenues per year in recent times. It provides employment to over 6 lakh people.

This is really commendable from the economic point of view.

But the environmental costs of the past few decades have been terrible too.

According to one Tamil Nadu pollution control board report, each year the Tirupur textile industry generates 833,000 tonnes of toxic waste including bleach and sulfonic dyes, much of it directly dumped into the nearby Noyyal river. This untreated chemical effluent drains into the Kaveri river and then finally washes up in the Bay of Bengal. The textile industry in the past few decades has contaminated around 80,000 acres of cropland in this area ,mostly rice fields. The locals have in the past found that the red chemical dye from the Noyyal river water was absorbed by the coconut trees on the banks, dyeing the coconuts a deep red colour.

2.noyyal runs black

 

The Audubon magazine has this to say about the state of affairs in Tirupur

“The Noyyal is now essentially an open sewer. At Kasipalayam, where the river slows down and effluent accumulates, the water runs brown and smells unbearably of human waste. The banks are strewn with plastic bags, aluminum cans, and other garbage. Close inspection sometimes reveals a splash of unnatural green or purple from the upstream dye factories.”

The environmental risks are similarly severe at other Indian textile hubs like Tirupur.

The pollution is not new news

Since the 1990’s several groups have taken legal action against the polluting units near Noyyal  and a lot of legal back and forth has happened through supreme court orders. In the meantime effluent treatment technology has also improved. To manage the high costs of effluent treatment, common effluent treatment plants ( CETP) have been in vogue for some time now. In Tirupur some 18 CETPs handle the liquid waste of 350 dyeing units. However these CETPs still discharge varying levels of harmful matter into the rivers. With the further development of Zero liquid Discharge ( ZLD ) technology , it is possible to reuse all the waste water from the dyeing units.

Picture1

Treated  & Untreated Samples from Tirupur ZLD plant

 

This prompted the Supreme Court in January 2011 to order the Tamil Nadu government to close all polluting units that did not comply with zero liquid discharge norms. While the Tirupur exporters association claimed in December 2012 that they had achieved 100% ZLD levels, a February 2014 report in The Hindu states that pollution of the Noyyal river continues unabated.

 

What next?

At the start of this piece I noted that it takes only an instant to pollute water but an eternity ( and a ton of money) to undo the damage, which is why each act of pollution must be avoided.

So a number of questions arise.

Can the entire clothing of the planet be met through sustainable textiles, right now ? this year ? How do I know if my brand of clothing uses sustainable practices ?

I checked out the sustainability report of the first brand that popped into my head, Fabindia.

Now this is the information on the Fabindia website

“We use both vegetable dyes and commercial dyes with the goal of minimizing our impact on the environment while striving for the best color properties. For our bleaching process we use only hydrogen peroxide which is totally biodegradable.”

This information gives me 2 concerns straight away

  1. I am not comfortable with the vague term “commercial dyes”. So the next time we hit Fabindia , I need to ask the store staff for only the vegetable dyed items
  2. Hydrogen Peroxide is not inspiring me at all. I have many concerns about the biodegradability of hydrogen peroxide. My simple test is as follows : Can I pour a glass of peroxide into my plants ? I have serious doubts. While I still cannot rule out the safe use of hydrogen peroxide in bleaching textiles, I at least know that fabindia does not use Chlorine bleach in its process, which is considered to be far more toxic as an effluent.

However the more I try and find details about brands with global supply chains with extremely opaque information flows, I realize that it is easier to discover local brands that have clear picture of the entire process. It is my one person satyagraha.

For example, as I type this , I am wearing a shirt from Tula, a brand that creates clothes from rain fed organic cotton, which is hand dyed with vegetable dyes and hand woven.

3. Tula

The entire supply chain is contained within a 500 km radius of my home. It cannot not get more sustainable than this. I cannot get everything that I need from Tula, but I can certainly get a few fantastic shirts, which is a good start.

So how sustainable is the garment that you are wearing right now?

 

To read more about sustainable fabric start here:

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha

 

 

 

 

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From Arikamedu to Abercrombie – the sustainable fabric series

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m not sure if my fascination with fabric is more or less than my fascination for washing fabric. But I have always loved Indian fabric and traditional textile crafts.

In school, I learned about the spice trade of India and how it helped many regions within India grow rich as they traded flavourful and hard to find nutmeg, pepper and cardamom which then found their way to kitchens across the world. Romila Thapar’s book on Early India, details this fascinating trade. Muziri located near Kodanganallur Village near Kochi was linked to the pepper, spices and beryl trade. A second century Ad Greek papyrus documents a contract between an Alexandrian merchant importer and a cargo financier of pepper and spices from Muziri, giving us an idea of the large volume of this trade.

6. Arikamedu

Excavations at Arikamedu tell us about a large settlement that used to be in trade contact with ships and merchants from the eastern Mediterranean. Apart from shipping locally available goods, Arikamedu has also been a place where certain kinds of textiles were manufactured locally to roman specifications and then shipped there.

5. Shakuntala

The Roman historian Pliny complained that trade with the East caused a serious drain on Roman income of which atleast 110 million sesterces went to India’s luxury goods. Roman records indicate that the Roman Senate actually banned the import of Indian Muslin for some time to stop the roman gold drain.

Apart from Rome, Indian textiles found their way to Egypt – scraps of Indigo dyed cotton Ikat textiles were found in a Pharaoh’s tomb. Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro unearthed scraps of Rose madder cloth along with spindles.Herodotus, the ancient greek historian, described India’s cotton as “a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep”

Nothing symbolises the freedom and Swadeshi movement as much as the charkha does, and as does Khadi, the quintessentially Indian fabric.Khadi is not just a piece of fabric – it represents an ideology and the beginning of a movement that was founded on self reliance. This said that India could spin her own fabric and clothe herself, thus helping her own economy grow forward.

2. Gandhi spinning the Charkha

Khadi was promoted by Mahatma Gandhi as a fabric that would help promote rural self employment and self reliance, and made it an integral part of the freedom movement. But the Swadeshi movement then did not come cheap. Khadi was much more expensive compared to British made fabric. So when people started to complain to Gandhi about the cost of Khadi, he stopped wearing an upper garment and started wearing only a Khadi dhoti as a subtle, or perhaps not so subtle message: that it was better to wear as much or as little Khadi as possible instead of clothing yourself with something that was not made in India by an Indian.

 

Our choices today are multifold. We are a much more global economy, and we have free movement of products, and fabrics from different parts of the world into our country. Globalisation comes with its own unique sets of opportunities. And perhaps we have come back full circle to our days of yore, when enterprising merchants and financiers helped ensure the spread of Indian textiles.

 

With one key difference. The merchants of Arikamedu in ancient times, continued to grow, spin and wear their own cloth, and continued to hold onto their cultural and craft traditions. In fact they grew better and better at it until they had so much to offer, that they could not just make products for themselves but for everyone else as well. The textile crafts and traditions of India are fast disappearing today. They have morphed fast, have taken on several unwholesome aspects and are no longer bountiful or available in plenty.

3.sambalpuri ikat weaving loom
There are many reasons for this. And many hidden reasons when you start examining this. There are also several unhealthy consequences to this.

 

In this month when we celebrate the 67th year of our Independence, won by an extremely unique civil disobedience and non violent movement, we will focus on the equally unique Fabrics of India. This month, on the Krya blog, We will examine in great depth the history of Indian textiles while focussing on certain textile crafts. We will examine their environmental sustainability, explore how well they work for us in our tropical weather & speak to practitioners of the craft and designers who work with traditional fabrics.

1. Girl in pochampally

We will also explore Khadi in depth and study in detail the current issues we grapple with in textiles namely the spread of Bt cotton, the cotton farmer suicides, the environmental issues presented by the textile dyeing industry and the nascent but growing organic cotton industry. All along we will interview and present to you the works of young entrepreneurs and designers who have firmly waded into the fabric tradition of India and are working hard to provide us access again to our famed textile past rooted in the principle of being indigenous, local and environmentally sustainable.

 

Our previous series on reusable menstrual products was an eye opener to us and provided us with a lot of perspective and inspiration. We have no doubt this series on the fabrics of India will be even better. We look forward to bringing you lots of depth, fresh perspective and inspiring reasons to choose a more sustainable and earth friendly wardrobe. Keep reading this blog.

 

 

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And one wash to care for them all – a guide to maintaining your cloth napkins

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

And we come to the end of our series on sustainable menstruation. And as promised, we end this series with a helpful eBook on how to wash and care for your cloth napkins.

Eco femme’s beautifully designed cloth napkins come with a 75 wash guarantee, so their pads will last you atleast 6 years or more. Kathy Walking tells me that she still has cloth napkins which are about 10 years old in her stash, which are soldiering on. So the bottomline, as we promised was that cloth napkins will last you for a long time. Which means that your EQ (environmental quotient) is large and strong everytime you choose a sustainable menstrual product.
Which brings me to the part that we get the most queries about. The washing. And the underlying fear of handling a lot of blood.

Menstrual blood as our high school biology texts taught us are the blood and endometrial lining of an unfertilised egg. So the menstrual blood you handle was created to sustain and nourish another living being. It is not waste. And it is not gross. And is a deep part of our sacred feminine. Many of the users who we spoke to for our switch pieces, echo this as they tell us that using a reusable product helps them connect back to their body and really see their menstrual flow.

But you might still feel suspicious about the work involved around caring for your napkins. As someone who has made the switch successfully and has used only cloth napkins for more than 2 years, I can testify that the hardest part about caring for your napkins is the mindset that it is unpleasant and difficult.

 

I estimate I spend anywhere between 5 – 10 minutes extra everyday I have my period to manage my napkins. But this extra time seems like a very small investment towards keeping tree gobbling and gas guzzling disposables out of our landfills, away from innocent animals and away from ragpickers who are otherwise forced to sort through it. Click here for a neat infographic explaining this.

And this extra 10 minutes means that I get to wear soft, fragrance free napkins that work just as well as my disposables, feel much more comfortable and are healthier for me.

In my book ,this makes these 10 minutes completely worth it.

Click here to download our guide to caring for your cloth napkins with the Krya detergent. And click here to buy the aforementioned Krya detergent.

Krya giveaway:

We are going to be giving away 3 cloth sanitary pad starter kits to 3 lucky people: each kit will come in its own reusable cloth bag (for you to shop with) and will contain samples of the Krya detergent along with instructions to wash and care for your cloth pads.

If you would like to win one of these starter kits, all you need to do is this. Follow our posts and updates in this series and tell us one reason why you would like to make the switch to green your period. Head over to our Facebook page to enter now.

 

More green period information:

To learn more about how you can consciously and sustainably manage your periods every month, start here:

  1.  Here’s an introduction to the world of reusables
  2. Here’s where you can find out more about the dangers presented by disposable sanitary products
  3. Here’s a piece chronicling Srinivas Krishnaswamy ‘s perspective on Reusables and Disposable products
  4. And here’s the first part of our Interview series: this is an interview of Lakshmi Murthy of Uger Pads, Udaipur
  5. Here’s Anita Balasubramanian chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads.
  6. Here’s the second part of our interview series: this is an interview of Kathy & Jessamijn of Eco Femme, Auroville
  7. Here’s Susmitha Subbaraju chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads
  8. Here is the perspective provided by SWaCH on the human rights and social justice issues presented by disposables
  9. Here is the third part of our interview series: this is an interview of Gayathri of Jaioni reusable cloth pads
  10. Here is Preethi Raghav chronicling her switch to reusable menstrual cups.
  11. Here is Sruti Hari of Goli Soda chronicling her switch to reusable cloth pads and sharing why she decided to start selling reusable menstrual products at her store, Goli Soda.
  12. Here is an interview of Tracy Puhl, the young, inspiring business owner behind GladRags reusable cloth pads.

 

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There are no accidents – conversations with Tracy Puhl, GladRags

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Reading Time: 10 minutes

We’ve spent about a month on the Krya blog talking about sustainable menstruation. And we are feeling victorious and somewhat exhausted. We started with an introduction to the subject, briefly spoke about the dangers behind disposables, and then begun exploring reusable options available in Indian interspersed with pieces by users who had made the switch and a conversation with Swach, which is a NGO in solid waste management who brought out the perspective of human rights and dignity of labour associated with clearing soiled disposable napkins.

The reason we started writing about this series is twofold. A part of what we do at Krya has been to provide lots of relevant information about how everyone can live more sustainably.

Perhaps taking a cue from Chef August Gusteau of in the film, Ratatouille who said that anyone could cook, even a little rat called Remy.

gusteau_featured

We talk about sustainable life hacks that anyone can use, even people living in a city, (usually considered the bane of a sustainable existence). Using our sustainable life hacks can help you reduce your carbon footprint, treat natural resources with greater reverence, and our hacks are usually easy to adopt and good for you as well.

All the sustainable life hacks we talk about are hacks we have used ourselves, with a reasonable amount of success. So these life hacks have been tried, tested and are certified by us! Our series on reusable menstrual products comes after I (Preethi) have tried and made the switch to reusable menstrual napkins; I have been disposable free for nearly two years now.

The second reason we wrote this series was this: we have been talking about reusable menstrual products for some time now, and I have discussed it at length in the solid waste management workshops I have been a part of organised by the Hindu and in my column on sustainable living in the Hindu’s Habitat. A large part of the queries that come my way, apart from what products to choose, have all been about how cloth napkins should be maintained and cared for.

I understand the need for this line of questioning. Menstrual napkins, especially if they are to be reused, come with the need to be kept clean and germ free to avoid any possibility of infections. Also, the chances of skin irritation can be high if synthetic products are used to care for them. We will be addressing the topic of caring for and maintaining your menstrual napkins with one of our helpful eBooks tomorrow.

 

Writing this series has been educative and an eye opener to me as well. I feel privileged to get the open responses that I did from the makers of these reusable products, and their consumers: everyone was interested in contributing to this series, and every person I spoke to has been open, and approached this in the spirit of sharing and learning.

 

While using cloth has been a part of Indian tradition for a long time now, we did not have any companies creating well designed, modern cloth napkins for managing your periods until a few years back. But reusable cloth napkins have been in vogue in the U.S from the 1970s, and have been adopted by a whole tribe of people for various reasons including care for the environment, and also to look after them better.

 

Many U.S returned Indian women who switched to reusable cloth pads, tell me of how they were inspired to make this shift by the products they encountered in the U.S. And the name of one company kept coming up in the conversations I had, GladRags.

GladRags is a fascinating company and makes for an interesting read for anyone interested in entrepreneurship. It was started by an entrepreneur in the early 1990s, Brenda Mallory, as she was inspired by the experience of cloth diapering her child to use cloth for her menstrual flow as well.

 

20 years down the line, when Brenda decided to sell GladRags and focus on other creative pursuits, a 24 years old GladRags employee decided to buy over the company from her. And the sale and the terms were agreed upon within a month! This way GladRags continues to be a woman owned and women managed company that continues to focus on period positivity. The company has been growing from strength to strength and now sells its products across US retail and in 15 countries around the world.

 

I wrote to Tracy Puhl, the inspiring owner of GladRags, and was pleasantly surprised to hear back almost instantly, agreeing to answer my questions for this interview.

In this interview, I choose to focus on the sprit of entrepreneurship and ask Tracy questions on how GladRags is run. And I come away with new lessons on creating a venture that is both collaborative and empowering.

 

Here is Tracy talking to us about GladRags, running a positive and empowering venture and her inspiring relationship with Brenda Mallory, from whom she bought GladRags.

 

My mother always told me I should become a business owner, I guess she was right!

6.Tracy Running 5K

My name is Tracy Puhl. I live in Portland, Oregon, USA where I’m the owner of a sustainable menstrual product company called GladRags.  GladRags was founded in 1993 by Brenda Mallory. Inspired by the cloth diapers she was using with her infant daughter, GladRags began as a home-based business and has now grown to a company that serves women all over the country (and even the world!)

A series of happy “accidents” led me to work at Glad Rags.

I was providing job support for adults with disabilities who were performing packaging work for GladRags. I got to know the company and fell in love with the products. Later, when I was ready to make a career change, there just happened to be an opening at GladRags! The rest is history. 🙂

Curiosity and a desire to reduce my environmental impact led me to make the switch.

I had heard a little bit about cloth pads and menstrual cups, but didn’t have much experience with them. My first reusables were some homemade cloth pads a friend gave me. Next, I tried sea sponge tampons, then GladRags cloth pads, then a Moon Cup! Now, I’m more grateful for the comfort than anything else. Disposables were so uncomfortable, but I didn’t even realize it until I had switched!

2.GladRags Pads

I started with just a handful of pads and some sea sponge tampons and used disposables when I ran out. I pretty quickly got tired of disposable pads and tampons when I had these better options, so that inspired me to stock up more quickly. I’ve never regretted making the switch—I only wish I had done so earlier. I feel like my experience with my period in high school would have been so much better if I had been using GladRags then.

Buying the company that I worked for seemed like a great idea at the time, and continues to be..

I had been an employee at GladRags for about two years when the founder decided she was ready to sell the company and focus on her art career. Not wanting to lose my job or see the company be absorbed by a competitor, I decided to figure out how I could take over. Once I make my mind up to do something, I’m really focused on making it happen! I think I made the decision to buy GladRags, and then just over a month later we were signing papers.

My relationship with Brenda, is very unique. When we were negotiating terms of the sale of the company, we often met up together (against the wishes of our well-intentioned lawyers) to hammer out details. We just as often were checking to make sure the deal was fair for the other person as we were for ourselves. I think the fact that we both wanted the best for each other helped us come to an agreement that has served as well.

1. brenda & tracy

This is definitely a different way of doing business—most acquisitions of companies are all about getting as much as you can for yourself, not looking out for the other person’s interests. Fortunately, Brenda and I have a lot more respect for each other than that! And we genuinely like each other as people. We always make sure to meet up on the anniversary of the sale and toast to our various successes. If we can, we’ll meet up once or twice during the year to catch up, too.

I think we’ve stayed true to our roots, but are excited about growing Glad Rags to the next level.

Brenda is very busy with her art career these days (check her out: brendamallory.com) but has always been available to me as a resource if I need it. After 18 years of running the company, she’s deserving of a break though! 🙂

The company values have stayed true to their roots—the respect for people and planet, the dedication to improving women’s menstrual cycles, and the integrity of the company are a big part of what drew me to GladRags in the first place.

3. celebrating period positivity

I think our vision is the biggest thing that has changed. With a fresh set of eyes (and plenty of new enthusiasm), I have bigger dreams than ever for GladRags!

The average woman in the U.S uses between 12,000 to 16,000 disposable menstrual products in her lifetime.

That’s a huge amount of waste going to landfills (or washing up on beaches). Not to mention the ongoing manufacturing impact of creating, packaging, and transporting all of these disposable products.

Often, the first response is “reusable pads?? Isn’t that gross??” It can take some time for people to really think about it—and once they do, they may discover that they’ve only been taught to believe that menstruation is a disgusting process, rather than a totally natural, healthy one! It’s amazing to see the shift in peoples’ thinking when they realize this. It can lead to much more positive feelings about their own bodies, especially during their menstrual cycle.

4. At an expo

Most women who are looking to switch to reusable products are doing so for environmental or health reasons, and are very surprised to find out that cloth pads are much more comfortable than their disposable counterparts.

The big concern women have over choosing reusables is how to wash and care for them, or handle travel with them.

Lots of women are concerned about how to wash the pads or how to use them when they’re out in public. We’re working hard to educate women so that they have all of the info! GladRags are really easy to wash—you can pre-soak if you’d like, and just wash on cold/dry on low like regular laundry. We also have a carry bag to tote your cloth pads while in public.

Some women are concerned about the up-front costs of reusable cloth pads. However, in the long run, cloth pads are actually much cheaper than disposables!

We intend to grow and make reusables a well known option for menstrual management.

We have so much room to grow, and we intend to do so! We hope to reach even more women, and make reusables a well known option for menstrual protection. At this time, we’re not looking to get into other reusable products—people often suggest we should start making cloth diapers—because we really want to focus on feminine care. That’s what we do best!

You can buy online at GladRags.com or in natural groceries and pharmacies across the United States. Stores like Whole Foods or grocery co-operatives often carry our products or can special order them. We ship worldwide, and have distributors in a few other countries.

 

Tracy’s advice for other women entrepreneurs:

Do what you are passionate about! Don’t worry about doing things the way they have always been done; it’s okay to be creative! Be collaborative, not competitive. Support other entrepreneurial women in your community. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You WILL make mistakes. Just make sure you learn from them!

 

And Tracy has amply demonstrated this creative and collaborative unique way of doing business: both in how she bought over GladRags and how she continues to run it. Thank you so much Tracy and Team GladRags for taking the time to respond to our questions and sending us these lovely photographs.

 

Please support the fantastic work done by GladRags by liking their Facebook page. You could also check out the products they have to offer on their website. Tracy tells me that they ship their products worldwide and that their deliveries are quite prompt.

 

Krya giveaway:

We are going to be giving away 3 cloth sanitary pad starter kits to 3 lucky people: each kit will come in its own reusable cloth bag (for you to shop with) and will contain samples of the Krya detergent along with instructions to wash and care for your cloth pads.

If you would like to win one of these starter kits, all you need to do is this. Follow our posts and updates in this series and tell us one reason why you would like to make the switch to green your period. Head over to our Facebook page to enter now.

 

More green period information:

To learn more about how you can consciously and sustainably manage your periods every month, start here:

  1.  Here’s an introduction to the world of reusables
  2. Here’s where you can find out more about the dangers presented by disposable sanitary products
  3. Here’s a piece chronicling Srinivas Krishnaswamy ‘s perspective on Reusables and Disposable products
  4. And here’s the first part of our Interview series: this is an interview of Lakshmi Murthy of Uger Pads, Udaipur
  5. Here’s Anita Balasubramanian chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads.
  6. Here’s the second part of our interview series: this is an interview of Kathy & Jessamijn of Eco Femme, Auroville
  7. Here’s Susmitha Subbaraju chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads
  8. Here is the perspective provided by SWaCH on the human rights and social justice issues presented by disposables
  9. Here is the third part of our interview series: this is an interview of Gayathri of Jaioni reusable cloth pads
  10. Here is Preethi Raghav chronicling her switch to reusable menstrual cups.
  11. Here is Sruti Hari of Goli Soda chronicling her switch to reusable cloth pads and sharing why she decided to start selling reusable menstrual products at her store, Goli Soda.
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The big green switch – Sruti Hari , Goli Soda

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Reading Time: 9 minutes

Our series of posts on sustainable menstruation have covered 3 kinds of areas: We’ve presented facts about how disposable driven menstruation is un-sustainable, and given you charts, facts and blog articles.

We’ve then featured pieces from actual women who have successfully made the switch – both to cloth pads and menstrual cups,

We’ve then interviewed 3 companies who manufacture cloth pads in India, to understand what makes them tick, and why we should support their work.

But an interesting opportunity came my way when I spoke to Sruti Hari. Sruti is one half of the creative team that runs Ashvita – an art gallery, a series of cafes and retail stores focussing on all kinds of interesting products.

I first met Sruti at the Ashvita Bistro which we discovered a few years ago. A few conversations later, I discovered several areas of mutual interest and conversation.

Sruti’s passionate love for Cinema which lead her to save memorabilia and artefacts form Indian cinemas, sometimes from dustbins to build an impressive collection which now form a part of the Cinema Resource Centre.

1. sruti and ammu

Sruti’s deep love for animals and the environment is evident when you see her care for Ammu Kalyani (her beautiful, rescued Indian dog), when you see her growing her own basil for the pesto made at Ashvita, and when you see her passionately advocating and selling Daily Dump’s Kambhas.

Sruti’s interest for the environment meant that Goli Soda was inevitable. It is Chennai’s first (and perhaps one of the few stores in India) to focus on upcycled and environmentally sustainable goods. Goli Soda’s products are carefully curated to offer you quirky colourful ways to lead a more sustainable life – from coasters made of loofahs, to upcycled wallets, poo paper products, organic clothing and of course Krya’s products.

6. goli soda chennai

Goli Soda also sells Eco Femme’s reusable cloth napkins. We catch up with Sruti to chat about Goli Soda, her experience with cloth napkins and why she recommends and sells reusable menstrual products at her store.

 

 I am a film maker, a model and an environmental crusader.

I have felt connected with nature from childhood – girl guides and treks cemented the bond further. The very fact that my roots are in Kerala meant that I was lived a life that was enmeshed with nature. I spent every summer at my grandparent’s home in Kerala where we grew our own vegetables, used plants and herbs to take care of myself like turmeric for my face and hibiscus for my hair.

My love for animals and desire to lead an ethical life deepened my connection with the planet.

I started giving up non vegetarian food, leather and silk at 6. While I come from a vegetarian household, where even eggs are considered non vegetarian, my older sister used to eat chicken when we went out. So I grew up thinking of chicken as food which you ate outside your house, and never connected my eating with an actual bird.

I joined a summer camp at C.P Art centre where we saw films and had workshops of different animals and birds. I then understood what I had been eating was actually a bird with feelings, and decided to give up eating non vegetarian food. I progressively gave up using leather and silk as well.

 

I started Goli Soda for a selfish reason – to give myself access to ethical and sustainable products

I thought that when I retired I would go back to living more with nature – but then I was too impatient to wait. So I started holding workshops at Ashvita to learn more about the sustainable practices I wanted to learn like organic terrace gardening.

4. the otg workshop at ashvita

As the workshops grew, and my access to environmental products grew, starting Goli Soda became imminent. I wanted access to sustainable and ethical products without having to travel far or search extensively for them online. People on FB and other mediums started to share ideas about cool recycled ideas. But these remained as ideas. To actually make the switch, you need the convenience of products. And I figured there would be more people who want this as well. And given our retail background, starting a store focussed on environmentally sustainable and upcycled products came to us naturally.

 

We choose well designed products that are environmentally conscious to sell at Goli Soda.

Goli Soda started mainly as an upcycled store. We wanted people to understand that and that it was okay to reuse something and give it a new lease of life. We are particular about design and quality because of our background in art with Ashvita. We like to choose products with unique design and high quality.

Also, when it comes to environmentally suitable products, people tend to picture them as boring, and dull and not colourful or cool. We are trying to change that mindset and show people that you can be cool and design conscious with eco friendly products. This explains how we choose the products we retail at Goli Soda. They all have to be well designed with good packaging and product design – the two examples that come to mind are Eco Femme’c cloth pads and Oh gourd’s coasters.

We also offer natural cleaning products like the Krya detergent and the Krya dishwash at Goli Soda. Most people are unaware of how much synthetic household cleaners damage the environment. There is a greater awareness of environmental and human damage when it comes to personal care products but very little when it comes to household care and cleaning products. So we prefer to educate our consumers in that area and don’t offer personal care products at the store.

And of course these are products that I look for which is why I retail these. I don’t want anyone to feel compelled to pick up a synthetic detergent or a chemical filled floor cleaner – they have an alternative which works well.

 

I started selling Eco Femme at the store after my positive experience with their reusable cloth napkins.

Diapers and sanitary pads really affect the environment. Every day when I step out of my house I see used pads and diapers and can see cows and dogs eating this. That affected me. I started to educate people about segregating and composting their waste. When I sell people the Kambha, I tell them to segregate their recyclable waste from their food waste. But I used to be stumped when they asked me what to do with their disposable sanitary napkins and diapers.

3. sruti at a kambha demo

A chance conversation led me to consider using Eco Femme reusable cloth napkins. I think Eco femme’s products are brilliant – the packaging is beautiful, and the product experience is awesome. So I had to have them at Goli Soda as well.

 

I started my switch to reusables gradually.

I started with Eco Femme’s panty liner at first. I thought my experience was brilliant. And it was better than disposables because it came with wings – so I had no side spots or staining. I started getting used to washing and caring for the pantyliners. Then I shifted to daypads for normal flow continuing to use disposables for heavy flow. When I got comfortable, I switched completely to reusables.

Now I still use disposables when I travel, but I am in the process of figuring it out. I have been using reusables for a year now – now when I use disposables I find it very uncomfortable.

 

Having switched to reusables, I discovered how uncomfortable disposables really are:

Before I switched, I used to think disposables could handle heavy flow and protect me from accidents better than cloth. Having made the switch, I now know better. I have had staining accidents only with disposables and not reusables. Using reusables has put me in better touch with my body and I’m intuitively able to handle my flow much better.

I am still figuring out how to adapt when I go to shoots, etc. I travel once every 2 – 3 months and sometimes my outdoor film work can stretch upto 6 months in all kinds of places.

Krya note: Sruti’s point about knowing your body better when using reusables is well taken. This is the case across many categories of reusables. Cloth diapering mums find that children on cloth diapers are more conscious of their bodies and adjust to toilet training faster than disposable diapered babies. Using a completely dry disposable, makes you unconscious of your body’s rhythms and cycles and isolates you from your body.

 

I love the comfort and bright colours of reusable cloth napkins.

I am instantly cheered up by the bright colours and designs of the cloth pads and love how comfortable they feel. There is no synthetic plasticky feel; it feels like you are wearing soft, padded underwear. There is no additional, synthetic layer like there is in disposables,

Of course washing and maintaining it takes a small amount of additional time. I prefer to hand wash my pads myself – but of course washing them is quite easy.

 

I ask other women to switch to reusable cloth pads simply for the comfort they provide.

The environment needs people to act now and not talk. I am tired of dinner table conversations about global warming where no change is made at the end. Everyone knows intellectually why eco friendly products are good – but they believe they are uncomfortable to use which is why they do not take to them fast.

 

While I am an environmental crusader, I find people getting on the defensive if I lecture them about their ways. So I focus on the superior feeling of comfort a product like Eco femme’s cloth napkins can have. I always used a disposable – a combo of wood pulp and gel pads. I don’t know any other way apart from disposables. But the minute I switched to a reusable cloth napkin, I felt good.

When I wash out my own blood and do not throw it into a dustbin, I feel more connected to myself. I ask women to transition slowly – so that they understand their flow and gently transition so that they get comfortable with the experience.

 

We’ve had a reasonable rate of success selling reusable cloth pads at Goli Soda.

I found most people are interested in it. For example, when I heard of cloth pads, I had the image of smelly rags in my mind. When I opened up Eco Femme’s pack I loved it. I find this happening to many people at our store. Some come in armed with information and know what to buy; others take back our flyers and mull over the information.

When I’m around, I’m happy to answer questions about my experience as well. Many people follow my advice and transition gradually. Some give up at the pantyliner stage. But many people carry on and make the switch.  And that makes me proud.

 

And it makes us proud too Sruti. To see your work. To shop at your store. And to have Krya associated with you and Goli Soda. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and sharing your experiences.

 

Please do support Sruti’s work at Goli Soda and at Ashvita Nirvana (Chennai’s first PETA certified cafe offering vegetarian and vegan food) by visiting them and by liking their Facebook pages. Ashvita Nirvana has a delicious and sinful vegan menu as well – I recommend the hazelnut chocolate vegan shake!

 

More green period information:

To learn more about how you can consciously and sustainably manage your periods every month, start here:

  1.  Here’s an introduction to the world of reusables
  2. Here’s where you can find out more about the dangers presented by disposable sanitary products
  3. Here’s a piece chronicling Srinivas Krishnaswamy ‘s perspective on Reusables and Disposable products
  4. And here’s the first part of our Interview series: this is an interview of Lakshmi Murthy of Uger Pads, Udaipur
  5. Here’s Anita Balasubramanian chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads.
  6. Here’s the second part of our interview series: this is an interview of Kathy & Jessamijn of Eco Femme, Auroville
  7. Here’s Susmitha Subbaraju chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads
  8. Here is the perspective provided by SWaCH on the human rights and social justice issues presented by disposables
  9. Here is the third part of our interview series: this is an interview of Gayathri of Jaioni reusable cloth pads
  10. Here is Preethi Raghav chronicling her switch to reusable menstrual cups.

 

Krya giveaway:

We are going to be giving away 3 cloth sanitary pad starter kits to 3 lucky people: each kit will come in its own reusable cloth bag (for you to shop with) and will contain samples of the Krya detergent along with instructions to wash and care for your cloth pads.

If you would like to win one of these starter kits, all you need to do is this. Follow our posts and updates in this series and tell us one reason why you would like to make the switch to green your period. Head over to our Facebook page to enter now. 

 

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