Monthly Archives: January 2010

Heavy Metal: H&M Strikes Again

It’s the third strike this month against H&M: first there was the disposable clothing incident, then the not-so-organic cotton, and now a settlement over unlawful levels of lead in their handbags. 

From the Center for Environmental Health

A federal law that went into effect last year requires that materials in products for children contain no more than 300 parts per million (ppm) of lead. But there is no federal standard for lead in purses. Under the CEH agreements, purses sold in California from all of the companies will ultimately be made with materials that contain no more 300 ppm of lead, with an even stricter standard for some materials.

Last year, CEH found purses and one wallet from the four companies that, according to independent lab tests, contained between 13 times and more than 115 times the 300 ppm standard reached in the settlement. Testing on a small sample of other purses also showed that weathering can dramatically increase the amount of lead that wipes off of them, suggesting that lead in purses can become an even greater hazard as the purses age.

Lead is listed by the EPA and other federal and state agencies as a cancer-causing chemical, and lead exposure has been linked to higher rates of infertility in women, an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure, among other health problems. Scientists are increasingly concerned that there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for pregnant women and young children.

Those bags might not come so cheap after all.

A few of the other brands with high lead levels included on CEH’s list include: American Eagle, Charlotte Russe, Billabong, Bloomingdale’s, Diesel USA, Volcom, Coldwater Creek, Forever 21, Kate Spade, Saks & Company, and Tory Burch.

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But is it Kosher?

Last night, when I saw the news about the alleged presence of genetically modified cotton in 30% of H&M’s tested “organic” garments, I had some questions about genetically modified crops. I emailed my former professor, the food writer Fred Kaufman. 

I was thinking of “The Nucleotidal Wave,” a piece he wrote about visiting the UC Davis Plant Transformation Facility, where  he watched scientists shoot DNA at fruits and vegetables with a gun he described as a cross between a “1950s gas pump and a mini fridge.”

I assumed Fred would invoke some nucleotidal knowledge, but he actually sent me to “The Secret Ingredient,” a different, but no less entertaining, story he wrote for Harper’s about the kosher certification process, suggesting the kosher model might be applicable to GM cotton. I downloaded it from the sidebar of his website, and laughed out loud several times as I was reading it, but in the end I was a little troubled.


It seemed to me that the kosher certification process turned out to be a highly marketable myth based on little more than, well, faith.

Then this morning I read Julie Roads‘ comment on my original post on the topic:

…and I also think that, like most things, organic was very special at first, but it’s become so mainstream that people are now using it as a buzzword – obviously – to sell. They’re selling organic out which basically sucks.

Same thing is happening with food. The flimsy rules around what can be labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ or ‘all-natural’ will make your head feel like cauliflower. And that’s just not pretty.

In the end, what do we get? The destruction of trust and, sadly, we end up not caring as much about ‘going organic’ anymore – because we have no faith in what it stands for.

So while I’m not entirely sure if this is what Fred meant when he sent me to “The Secret Ingredient,” I think both he and Julie are right: a lot of this is about faith. 

We can’t go around testing our organic cotton clothing any more than we can taste whether our non-GMO grapes have been spliced with jellyfish DNA, or know for certain that our kosher Oreos are indeed kosher. Honestly, I still can’t quite figure out exactly what that means, much less what it’s worth.

But, as Julie wrote, it would be a shame for the manufacturers to sell out “organic” without even giving customers the chance to believe in it.

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H&M Busted Again

I got this dress at H&M a couple of summers ago. It’s got a little inverted pleat in the front, a nice wide hem at the bottom, a woven pocket on the chest, and it’s made of the blackest black knit cotton–the tag says it’s organic. But after the news that a German lab found genetically-modified cotton in 30% of the garments H&M labeled as organic, one has to wonder whether it’s quite so black and white.


I was wearing it one sweltering day at Ellen, a great little vintage shop on the Lower East Side, when the owner complimented me on it, and, as any curious clothier might do, asked where I acquired it.

“H&M,” I said. “It’s part of their organic line,” I added, attempting to justify my guilty foray into fast fashion.

Ellen is the type to smoke incessantly in her store, fawn over you if she likes what you’re wearing, and say something like this if she doesn’t:

“Oh, I am so f—ing sick of that shit.”

Oh! My friend and I were done browsing and struggling to stifle our giggles, so we left without pursuing the conversation. But it seems Ellen was onto something. That day I assumed (never wise) she was sick of would-be customers like me patting myself on the back for my “responsible” choice–vintage might have been better. But maybe it was a witchy ESP of something rotten in…Sweden, although the news broke in Deutschland.

But what exactly was rotten? 

Well, according to the federal regulation of the National Organic Program, to which cotton is subject:

A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology).

Which is to say, if it’s genetically modified (ie: injected with a gene to make it resistant against herbicides or bugs), it ain’t organic.

According to the Organic & Non-GMO Report‘s interview with Terry Pepper, an organic cotton farmer in Texas, contamination can occur fairly easily if organic cotton is processed at the same gins that work with genetically-modified cotton. (Sounds like the disclaimers about peanut in M&M factories, no?) Pepper made a distinction between GMO free and non-GMO, telling the Report that, “GMO-free is not possible, but we can maintain non-GMO with some work.” 

If Terry Pepper in Texas can maintain non-GMO, it seems H&M should be able to do better than 30% for a line they label organic. But who’s at fault when a Swedish company that manufactures clothing from supposedly organic Indian cotton in a factory god-knows-where (not checked the latest labels in the organic collection) to be sold in 35 different countries mislabels their goods?What link in the supply chain should be required to test and prove the cotton is indeed organic, and by whose standards?

And why are everyone’s conventional cotton panties in a bunch over the alleged fraud? Is it because we’ve been lied to? Paid more for an item that might not be all it claimed to be? Just like to see big chains like H&M get busted? Or, are we, as Ellen said, just sick of this shit?

And here I thought it was just a little black dress.

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Pricing That Perfect Pair

I’m not the only who appreciates the value of finding the perfect pair of jeans.

As Guy Trebay wrote in today’s Times Style Section, for men of a certain age, the right jeans can make the difference between looking classy and classic (á la Harrison Ford in the Extraordinary Measures poster) or a little embarrassing (more like Ted Danson in “Cheers,” Trebay suggested).

I recently had lunch with another newspaper man of a certain age, my friend David. He describes himself as “fashion-impaired,” but he’s mastered the art of exactly what Trebay observed so many men fail at. That day, he wore black jeans, as he usually does, faded to a stony shade of graphite (not unlike his goatee).

As he describes them, his black jeans make “his bottom half invisible” whether with a coat and tie or an old faded band tee-shirt, and always with decal-free black Reeboks. This uniform, which suits him well, frees him from the daily burden of wondering what to wear.

“So what’s that worth?” he asked me.

“A lot,” I replied. (Indeed, after a particularly harrowing morning getting dressed, I would have forked over a pretty penny for a pair to render my own bottom half invisible–but that’s another story.)

https://www.vanmildert.com/mens-1/jeans-83/hugo-boss-black-mens-141062-1112_medium.jpg

black jeans by Hugo Boss

The black jeans David wore that day represented his first foray into the world of $100 denim–$110, actually. His wife convinced him to buy them two and a half years ago, and he has worn them pretty much every day since, removing them only to wash on the weekends.

Prior to those Boss jeans, his routine involved rotating two pairs of the Gap’s $40 version all week. They would last a year–meaning worn everyday, they would last six months before looking too tired (busted pockets, etc.) for work.

Those Boss jeans, on the other hand, at 5 days per week, have lasted two-and-a-half years. Using one of my favorite methods for calculating cost, the “price-per-wear,” they’re actually the better investment. The Gap pair maxed out (at least for work purposes) after about 182 wears. At $40, that means at their cheapest, David’s price was about 22 cents per wear. The Boss jeans, however, at 650 wears, now cost about 17 cents per wear. I’m no economist, but I think they call this amortization. If they last another year, he’ll be down to 12 cents per wear. (On the other hand, if he only wore them once, that would have been a $110 wear–see?) And they’re fitting and fading quite nicely.

“They are perfect,” he said.

And at this rate, if he keeps on wearing them, they’ll soon be verging on priceless.

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New Kid on the Block: Wool and the Gang

By now you may know, that when it comes to downtown knitting shops, I love Purl. But on my way there the other day (as I mentioned at the end of this post), I found a new nook to love on Thompson Street: Wool and the Gang. There’s no question that Purl is precious: colorful, comfortable, and populated with kindly experts to help with projects. 

Wool and the Gang, on the other hand, feels stark, modern, and a little edgy at first impression…until one remembers that knitters, by nature, are patient people who appreciate color and craft. And if you, in turn, are someone who appreciates color and craft, then you already have something in common. I had a chat with Jade, their British shopkeeper, who you’re likely to meet again here at Closettour, and picked up a ball of Crazy Sexy Wool for a new hat.

I started it last week at a neighborhood knitting bee, where it was my turn to be the new kid on the block. The group is comprised of three other girls: Melissa, plus two more called Jenny, like me. (One Jenny makes pretty clothing by hand, the other muses about the food she eats.) They watch Twin Peaks while they knit, which would be far too creepy for me to watch alone. It’s sort of nice having a little gang.

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Government Undies

You know what’s weird? This story, from the front page of today’s New York Times about middlemen, or more specifically, middlewomen, who sell giant bras and behemoth undies to the government from their homes, is pretty weird.

Clothing a Hard-to-Fit Inmate is All in a Day’s Work for Governments’ Go-To Gals

Photo by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

I especially liked this bit, when Florence Nicholas, a 69 year-old slipper-slanger, told the Georgia state government they need to catch up with today’s technology.

Take the bid specs that Georgia recently issued for broadcloth, explicitly asking for “domestic goods,” Ms. Corey noted.

“Everybody knows that there aren’t any domestic textiles in the U.S., or very few,” she said. “Very often, I have called the buyer to bring to their attention that the specifications don’t make sense,” she said. “And the answer I get is ‘Oh, we’ve been using the same specifications for the last 20 years,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, except technology has moved on.’ ”

Look, you can even see documents like this one, noting items like $162,627.00 worth of orange sneakers for Riker’s Island. Corey said she has generated as much as $2 million per year in sales.

If this journalism thing doesn’t work out, I suppose I always have my production experience.

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What Would Levi’s Do?

Jeff Jarvis is constantly asking us, What Would Google Do?  Now, as Google threatens to leave China, this piece in today’s WSJ finds a precedent in Levi’s tenuous trade relationship with the country, comparing this moment to the denim company’s exit in 1993 . (They have since returned.) From the article:

“If you look at the Levi Strauss and Google situations,it’s important to see there are similarities but there are differences,” said Sharon Hom, a spokeswoman for the group Human Rights In China. “The impact is much bigger today because it is making it into a public debate in China. Not everyone needs a pair of jeans but everyone needs information.”

So is Google the new Levi’s? Is information the new denim?

Where does that leave information about denim?

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