Breaking the Mold, a series of articles on the life of a product.

Part 1 in our series on how a product is made from the ground up.

When I wanted to run an article on tracing a product from the ground up, I thought immediately of Emma. As the former product developer and assistant creative director for a small apparel company, she spent almost a decade regularly visiting factories in China and India, working directly with the manufacturers. From this behind-the-scenes look at the production line came her own transformation: the more she learned about a product’s effect on the environment and her health, the more her choices as a conscious consumer started to change.

This is the first article in a three-part series. (Read installments two and three.) First up: All the raw materials that go into a product (don’t assume organic always equals “good”).

– Alex Redgrave, Editor

An enamelware pot in the making.

A woman works on an enamelware pot.

If you reach into your closet right now and run your hand along the pieces inside, what you’re touching is not shirts, pants, hats and shoes. You’re touching vast crops of cotton, giant trees, pools of oil, stacks of rubber, metals and minerals. Pick a mug out of your cupboard, put a leash on your dog, and you’re coming into contact with bits and pieces of the earth that have been reconfigured into the recognizable tools of our day-to-day lives.

Before I started working in the apparel and accessory industry, I didn’t give much thought to how the things that ended up in my hands were made. Then one day I found myself in a Chinese tinware factory, in an industrial zone near Nanjing, watching a man pull down a two-story-high metal press to make an enamelware bowl. The raw unadorned metal, with edges still waiting to be turned over, was just a bent piece of tin. And then I had an emotional reaction – this was exactly the same kind of bowl my family used on camping trips, a sturdy vessel for eating cereal and carrying the odd frog. That bowl was most likely also fabricated in a faraway country and made by someone like this man, pressing hundreds per hour.

On that same work trip, I watched rubber being loaded into a giant oven for vulcanization, preparing it for the useful life of being someone’s rubber boot. I ran my hands through a pile of iron powder, ready to be cast into molds and destined to become fridge magnets. The raw materials for these objects must have been planted, mined, extruded, processed or catalyzed before they arrived at this purgatory of mass production. They had to come from some place, although at that point I had no idea where.

I became fascinated with how things are made.

Emma Segal in India.

Emma Segal in Tirupur, India.

First off, I found that you can very generally separate raw materials into two categories: “below ground” and “above ground.” The former is pretty simple: oil, and its various byproducts. From this large group we get polyester, acrylic, polyethylene, vinyl, modacrylic, rayon, spandex and all sorts of hard plastics. You can also include any metals, such as silver, gold, brass, copper, tin and stainless steel. The “above ground” category can be sub-divided into two groups: The first is animal derived (silk, cashmere, wool, leather, suede, angora, alpaca), and the other is plant-based (hemp, jute, bamboo, modal, viscose, soy, sisal, flax, rubber). Both “above” and “below” ground materials are natural – it’s what happens through the refinement of either one that we run into problems.

Raw materials all require processing. In the case of an organic cotton, that would entail finding some agricultural space, growing and picking the cotton, spinning it into a fiber, perhaps using an eco-friendly bleach and vegetable dyeing the yarn, which can then be spun into a fabric. Other materials are more complicated. Polyester, for example, requires a couple petrochemicals to start with, a heavy metal catalyst, extrusion of the liquid through a spinneret to create filaments, which then get woven into fibers and finally into a useable yarn. The dyeing process of the fabric is a bit tricky, as you’re basically dealing with a plastic yarn, so special compounds are used.

It’s fairly easy to look at the process of oil-based materials and see that there are plenty of potential health hazards. Although crude oil is, in essence, a natural product – the composted remains of dinosaurs and plant life – it is the processing that can be damaging. By now we’re all familiar with BPA, commonly found in plastic bottles and the lining of metal food tins, after it received a lot of bad press in the last few years. Antimony is lesser known, but another toxic additive used in the production process of many plastics, including polyester and water bottles. Phthalates (used to create pliable plastics) and PVC (very likely your shower curtain) have also come under scrutiny.

Knitting machine in India

A knitting machine in India takes a rest.

Even among seemingly natural products, there are questions and roadblocks. Conventional cotton is arguably cleaner than nylon, but is also the heaviest user of insecticides in the world. Organic cotton might seem like a better choice, but requires vast amounts of cleared farmland to account for insect damage and, subsequently, much more water. There are towns in the Tamil Nadu region of India that have sucked their supply dry for agriculture and industrial use, and now have to truck water in from other areas. I’ve watched locals dip their buckets into an open sewer, with no other option available, while the textile factory down the street pumped through gallons of water. Leather seems okay, until you wonder how an animal skin doesn’t decompose after a few weeks. Bamboo is lovely unless you start to question how they made an incredibly hard tree into a nice soft blanket (although it does make great flooring). Wool is a good option, but not so much if it’s from a questionable farm. And unless you’re buying wild peace-silk, that shirt involved the mass death of a lot of silkworms. Sometimes it seems like there are no easy choices, and each one requires a complicated compromise.

We are more or less in the infancy of these issues. (Nylon was developed in the 1930s, and polyester debuted in the ’40s.) There are people alive today who grew up in a world without the miracles and downfalls of synthetic materials. This also applies to many additives, fixatives, preservatives – a whole array of chemicals which are now part of our modern lives. It stands to reason that we do not yet know all the effects these compounds have on us. Some of them bio-accumulate, sitting in our bodies our entire lives and potentially becoming a problem later on. Cancers, birth defects and autoimmune issues have all been attributed to additives we’ve created. Some of them pass inertly through us, while others are more along the lines of the now well-known carcinogenic PCBs, banned since 1979. It’s been estimated that there are about 100,000 chemicals used in regular commerce today. Exposure limits in the U.S. for workplace use (set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, mostly in the 1970s) are often based on a single exposure from one source – not a lifetime of exposure from multiple sources, as has become the norm. That is, unless something dramatic happens, which then tends to be product specific like formaldehyde, BPA or melamine. Replacing a newly banned additive with an alternative can also create issues. How will it react with the rest of the components – and us – in the existing product? Have we looked at all the remaining substances in this modified product with the same care? Switching out one piece of the formula (such as making a product BPA-free) can create a chain reaction with unknown results.

Chinese worker with melamine press.

Man working a melamine press in China.

We could not reproduce many of the objects in our homes using the tools and methods of our grandparents, just like we can no longer look at a product and immediately identify where each part came from. In some cases that’s not such a bad thing – we can’t all be potters and woodworkers. Synthetics and treated materials have saved lives in the form of fire retardant uniforms and surgical plastic tubing. However, my coffee mug and backpack are among many of the things I buy that don’t need to go beyond a few simple components, and can be made well and in a safe environment. Do I need shampoo with a list of 14 unpronounceable chemicals, or can I buy one with five ingredients that I just might be able to eat? Finding a balance between modern science and time-honored solutions also makes sense for, say, developing ceramic glazes that are free of naturally occurring heavy metals – essentially building on the knowledge of previous generations and making improvements as we go forward.

What I try to do, and what we can all do, is become a little more curious – and curatorial – about what we bring into our homes. I don’t take it for granted that a label has a lot of information. Asking a few questions about the processes and people who make our belongings is worth the extra effort. Not just for our sake, but for the sake of those who are part of each manufacturing step. And most importantly, to determine what we’re surrounding ourselves with in order to create a more sustainable and better future.

All photos courtesy and copyright Emma Segal. See more of Emma’s work here.

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  1. johb
    Posted March 22, 2014 at 10:12 PM | Permalink

    It’s easy to say “be more curious”, however not really practical, hence not a solution.

  2. Maria Velasco
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 1:25 AM | Permalink

    I'd say consume MUCH less, MUCH less and ever less. We need very little.

  3. Emma Segal
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:00 PM | Permalink

    Hi johb – at this point in our evolution, it's true, there are some impracticalities that make it tricky to navigate the choices we make. Sometimes change can be inconvenient, time consuming and/or more expensive – but not always, luckily. I address this issue a bit more in the third instalment, so check back and it will be helpful.

  4. Emma Segal
    Posted March 24, 2014 at 1:06 PM | Permalink

    Agreed! Buying fewer things, of higher quality and awareness, is always a great choice. Not everyone will do that though – and our population keeps growing. I'd love to see the standard of mass market products evolve so that it reaches the point of only having "good" choices out there. A long, but I think achievable, process.

  5. Posted April 5, 2014 at 4:23 PM | Permalink

    Really enjoyed the article, Emma. Such a different perspective on consumption when you are able to see the whole process from raw to finished product. Agreed that buying less but higher quality is the way to go–also buying products that are multi-use can save you space and money too. It is so hard to resist the temptation of cheap, fast-fashion, food, and pretty particle-board pop-up furniture, but I'm giving it my best shot!

  6. Jeffrey D. Patrick
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 9:44 PM | Permalink


    Thank you. What a poignant inside perspective on the current market place of disposable fashion, goods, and products. I work in the fashion industry and this year my favorite question has been "Do you have any "vegan" clothing?" To which my current response is, "Do you know how they dye the indigo jeans you're wearing?" I love the idea of people taking a stand for change but wish that they would do it with conviction, information, and an eagerness to see it on a global scale. Over production and product saturation will be the demise of my own industry, but the few that create fine beautiful things made to last give me hope for the future.

    Apologies for my ramblings, but I look forward to finishing the series…

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