"Your clothes don't have that new clothes smell," a customer said to me one day, leaving me bewildered, confused, and wondering silently if she was offering a glowing compliment or bludgeoning critique. As soon as she left, I rushed to Google and looked up "New Clothes Smell" and was horrified with my findings! You see, it has become the industry norm to use formaldehyde and other chemicals as what are called 'finishing agents' during 'post-production' in order to make fibers stiffer so that clothing will keep it's shape longer. That's how pieces may hug your butt in that cute way or hold your form just how you like it.
So to connect the dots: that supposed "new clothes smell" is actually formaldehyde off-gassing. Yum.
If you are like me, you probably will remember about 10 years ago when certain big box stores began running commercials for wrinkle-free chinos and khaki pants! Magic, right? I was a fourth grade teacher at the time and let's just say, my paychecks wouldn't pay for much. So the idea that I could give the axe to my dry-cleaning bills was incredible. "I can just pull those suckers out of the dryer and slide them on, no ironing, no pressing?" Seemed too good to be true. But even back then, I wondered, albeit, silently, how the heck did these companies pull that off?
Fast forward a decade, and that magic trick doesn't seem so magical anymore considering they are using the same chemical that preserves dead bodies to make our clothing stiffer and more resistant to wrinkling! I don't know about you, but, call me crazy, I prefer clothing that is formaldehyde-free. I would like some separation between death and my fashion sensibilities.
So I decided to do some further digging on this commonly used garment finishing chemical: The National Cancer Institute says that formaldehyde can cause "burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation." The institute goes on to say, "Several NCI surveys of professionals who are potentially exposed to formaldehyde in their work, such as anatomists and embalmers, have suggested that these individuals are at an increased risk of leukemia and brain cancer compared with the general population." And if that wasn't enough, the Environmental Protection Agency "considers formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent)." Of course, there is no conclusive evidence that formaldehyde causes cancer, but I will let you be the judge if you want it on your clothing?
At Fed By Threads, I am relieved to say with pride, our clothes do not have that new clothes smell, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Formaldehyde is for the deceased and for science experiments. I am going to go out on a limb and say it doesn't belong in our clothing.
The effect of our shift away from formaldehyde, however, does have repercussions: I size all my gals DOWN because our fabrics will move a little, breathe a little, and in the wash return to their form. Our fabrics do not SHRINK and do not off-gas! It's a whole new way of thinking about clothing, the way clothing used to be made before companies came up with the brilliant idea to help consumers get rid of the ironing board by adding products used in morgues.
So next time you are shopping, ask the sales-clerk if the clothing they are hocking has formaldehyde or other similar chemicals on it. Check out the perplexed look on their face and push them to get a manager so that you can ask them? Chances are they won't know what you are talking about. But tell them you won't buy their clothing until you are assured they didn't use formaldehyde.
As we say, "Wear The Change You Wish To See In The World."
-Alok Appadurai is co-founder of Fed By Threads, a writer, photographer, advocate for animals and the environment, and a new dad. Alok is based in Tucson and you can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fed By Threads is America's only organic Made-In-America vegan clothing that feeds 12 emergency meals to hungry Americans per item sold, via foodbanks across the country.
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