Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for September 18th, 2021

Food fraud and counterfeit cotton: The detectives untangling the global supply chain

leave a comment »

Samanth Subramanian reports in the Guardian:

Five years ago, the textile giant Welspun found itself mired in a scandal that hinged on a single word: “Egyptian”. At the time, Welspun was manufacturing more than 45m metres of cotton sheets every year – enough to tie a ribbon around the Earth and still have fabric left over for a giant bow. It supplied acres of bed linen to the likes of Walmart and Target, and among the most expensive were those advertised as “100% Egyptian cotton”. For decades, cotton from Egypt has claimed a reputation for being the world’s finest, its fibres so long and silky that it can be spun into soft, luxurious cloth. In Welpsun’s label, the word “Egyptian” was a boast and a promise.

But the label couldn’t always be trusted, it turned out. In 2016, Target carried out an internal investigation that led to a startling discovery: roughly 750,000 of its Welspun “Egyptian cotton” sheets and pillowcases were made with an inferior kind of cotton that didn’t come from Egypt at all. After Target offered its customers refunds and ended its relationship with Welspun, the effects rippled through the industry. Other retailers, checking their bed linen, also found Welspun sheets falsely claiming to be Egyptian cotton. Walmart, which was sued by shoppers who had bought Welspun’s “Egyptian cotton” products, refused to stock Welspun sheets any more. A week after Target made its discoveries public, Welspun had lost more than $700m from its market value. It was cataclysmic for the company.

Blindsided, Welspun struggled to understand what had gone wrong, but working that out wasn’t easy. The cotton business is labyrinthine, and the supply chains of products – running from the source farm to the shop shelf – have grown increasingly complex. A T-shirt sold in New Delhi might be made of cotton grown in India, blended with other cotton from Australia, spun into yarn in Vietnam, woven into cloth in Turkey, sown and cut in Portugal, bought by a Norwegian company and shipped back to India – and that’s a relatively simple supply chain. For years, Welspun had been buying raw cotton, yarn and whole cloth, all claiming to be of Egyptian origin, from dozens of vendors. The source of the fiasco might have been a mistake – a mislabelled shipment of cotton yarn, perhaps – or it might have been deliberate fraud by some remote supplier. Either way, it was lost in the maze.

In the thick of its crisis, Welspun sought out a company named Oritain. Founded in 2008, in the town of Dunedin in New Zealand, Oritain is a kind of forensic detective agency – a supply-chain CSI. Its work, which takes us into the heart of modern commerce, depends upon a basic truth about our planet. The Earth is so geologically diverse that, in a location’s soil or water, the precise concentrations of elements often turns out to be unique to that region. That singular mix of elements works its way into the crops from the region as well, so that cotton grown in the south of the US has a different combination of elements compared to cotton from Egypt – each combination distinct, like a signature.

Prof Russell Frew, the geochemist who co-founded Oritain, had been studying element analysis at the University of Otago when he recognised how his research could address a major commercial problem. Fraudulent products sit on shop shelves everywhere. When they’re detected, they trigger fierce controversies, like the time in 2013, when British and Irish authorities found horse meat liberally mixed into “beef” patties. But for every headline-grabbing deception, there are countless unnoticed ones. Sugar syrup is blended into organic honey. “New Zealand lamb chops” come from Chinese feedlot animals; extra virgin olive oil is cut with cheap, inferior oil; T-shirts are stitched out of cotton grown on forced-labour farms. Labels often lie. The counterfeit food game alone is worth $49bn a year.

These deceits, Frew realised, could be sniffed out by element analysis: hence Oritain. The company’s clients include well known brands such as Primark, but also industry bodies such as Cotton USA and Meat Promotion Wales. All of them are keen to avoid nasty surprises of the kind that Welspun experienced, the kind that can burn up the bottom line or sink a range of products – the low-quality supermarket steak masquerading as prime Welsh beef, say, or the pair of socks that turns out to be made with cotton from Xinjiang, in China, where factories are suspected of using captive labour.

Oritain promises to determine with 95% accuracy if a coffee bean or a cut of meat is really from the source advertised on its label. Some items are easier to analyse than others. “Tea is a . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:57 am

When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia

leave a comment »

Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia

Evan Osnos reports in the Guardian:

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

Up close, the effects were far more intimate. When Wall Street came to coal country, it triggered a cascade of repercussions that were largely invisible to the outside world but of existential importance to people nearby.

Down a hillside from the Hobet mine, the Caudill family had lived and hunted and farmed for a century. Their homeplace, as they called it, was 30 hectares (75 acres) of woods and water. The Caudills were hardly critics of mining; many were miners themselves. John Caudill was an explosives expert until one day, in the 30s, a blast went off early and left him blind. His mining days were over, but his land was abundant, and John and his wife went on to have 10 children. They grew potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, beets and beans; they hunted game in the forests and foraged for berries and ginseng. Behind the house, a hill was dense with hemlocks, ferns and peach trees.

One by one, the Caudill kids grew up and left for school and work. They settled into the surrounding towns, but stayed close enough to return to the homeplace on weekends. John’s grandson, Jerry Thompson, grew up a half-hour down a dirt road. “I could probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I missed,” he said. His grandmother’s menu never changed: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and cake. “You’d just wander the property for hours. I would have a lot of cousins there, and we would ramble through the barns and climb up the mountains and wade in the creek and hunt for crawdads.”

Before long, the Hobet mine surrounded the land on three sides, and Arch Coal wanted to buy the Caudills out. Some were eager to sell. “We’re not wealthy people, and some of us are better off than others,” Thompson said. One cousin told him, “I’ve got two boys I got to put through college. I can’t pass this up because I’ll never see $50,000 again.” He thought, “He’s right; it was a good decision for him.”

In the end, nine family members agreed to sell, but six refused, and Jerry was one of them. Arch sued all of them, arguing that storing coalmine debris constituted, in legal terms, “the highest and best use of the property”. The case reached the West Virginia supreme court, where a justice asked, sceptically, “The highest and best use of the land is dumping?”

Phil Melick, a lawyer for the company, replied: “It has become that.” He added: “The use of land changes over time. The value of land changes over time.”

Surely, the justice said, the family’s value of the property was not simply economic? It was, Melick maintained. “It has to be measured economically,” he said, “or it can’t be measured at all.”


.
To their surprise, the Caudills won their case, after a fashion. They could keep 10 hectares – but the victory was fleeting. Beneath their feet, the land was becoming unrecognisable. Chemicals produced by the mountaintop mine were redrawing the landscape in a bizarre tableau. In streams, the leaves and sticks developed a thick copper crust from the buildup of carbonate, and rocks turned an inky black from deposits of manganese. In the Mud River, which ran beside the Caudills’ property, a US Forest Service biologist collected fish larvae with two eyes on one side of the head. He traced the disfigurements to selenium, a byproduct of mining, and warned, in a report, of an ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event”. (In 2010, the journal Science published a study of 78 West Virginia streams near mountaintop-removal mines, which found that nearly all of them had elevated levels of selenium.)

This was more than just the usual tradeoff between profit and pollution, another turn in the cycle of industry and cleanup. Mountaintop removal was, fundamentally, a more destructive realm of technology. It had barely existed until the 90s, and it took some time before scientists could measure the effects on the land and the people. For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain – one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For aeons, the hills had contained more species of salamander than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracts neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation. But a mountaintop mine altered the land from top to bottom: after blasting off the peaks – which miners call the “overburden” – bulldozers pushed the debris down the hillsides, where it blanketed the streams and rivers. Rainwater filtered down through a strange human-made stew of metal, pyrite, sulphur, silica, salts and coal, exposed to the air for the first time. The rain mingled with the chemicals and percolated down the hills, funnelling into the brooks and streams and, finally, into the rivers on the valley floor, which sustained the people of southern West Virginia. 

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, who spent years tracking the effects of the Hobet mine, told me: “The aquatic insects coming out of these streams are loaded with selenium, and then the spiders that are eating them become loaded with selenium, and it causes deformities in fish and birds.” The effects distorted the food chain. Normally, tiny insects hatched in the water would fly into the woods, sustaining toads, turtles and birds. But downstream, scientists discovered that some species had been replaced by flies usually found in wastewater treatment plants. By 2009, the damage was impossible to ignore. In a typical study, biologists tracking a migratory bird called the cerulean warbler found that its population had fallen by 82% in 40 years. The 2010 report in Science concluded that the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on water, biodiversity and forest productivity were “pervasive and irreversible”. Mountaintop mines had buried more than 1,000 miles of streams across Appalachia, and, according to the EPA, altered 2,200 sq miles of land – an area bigger than Delaware.

Before long, scientists discovered impacts on the people, too. Each explosion at the top of a mountain released elements usually kept underground – lead, arsenic, selenium, manganese. The dust floated down on to the drinking water, the back-yard furniture, and through the open windows. Researchers led by Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, published startling links between mountaintop mines and health problems of those in proximity to it, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. Between 1979 and 2005, the 70 Appalachian counties that relied most on mining had recorded, on average, more than 2,000 excess deaths each year. Viewed one way, those deaths were the cost of progress, the price of prosperity that coal could bring. But Hendryx also debunked that argument: the deaths cost $41bn a year in expenses and lost income, which was $18bn more than coal had earned the counties in salaries, tax revenue and other economic benefits. Even in the pure economic terms that the companies used, Hendryx observed, mountaintop mining had been a terrible deal for the people who lived there.


.
O
ne afternoon, I hiked up through the woods behind the Caudills’ house to see the changes in the land. By law, mines are required to “remediate” their terrain, returning it to an approximation of its former condition. But, far from the public eye, the standards can be comically lax. After climbing through the trees for a while, I emerged into a sun-drenched bowl of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:26 am

The Battle of Antietam and the endurance of the Confederate ideal

leave a comment »

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

One hundred and fifty nine years ago this week, in 1862, 75,000 United States troops and about 38,000 Confederate troops massed along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

After a successful summer of fighting, Confederate general Robert E. Lee had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland to bring the Civil War to the North. He hoped to swing the slave state of Maryland into rebellion and to weaken Lincoln’s war policies in the upcoming 1862 elections. For his part, Union general George McClellan hoped to finish off the southern Army of Northern Virginia that had snaked away from him all summer.

The armies clashed as the sun rose about 5:30 on the clear fall morning of September 17, 159 years ago today. For twelve hours the men slashed at each other. Amid the smoke and fire, soldiers fell. Twelve hours later, more than 2000 U.S. soldiers lay dead and more than 10,000 of their comrades were wounded or missing. Fifteen hundred Confederates had fallen in the battle, and another 9000 or so were wounded or captured. The United States had lost 25% of its fighting force; the Confederates, 31%. The First Texas Infantry lost 82% of its men.

That slaughter was brought home to northern families in a novel way after the battle. Photographer Alexander Gardner, working for the great photographer Matthew Brady, brought his camera to Antietam two days after the guns fell silent. Until Gardner’s field experiment, photography had been limited almost entirely to studios. People sent formal photos home and recorded family images for posterity, as if photographs were portraits.

Taking his camera outside, Gardner recorded seventy images of Antietam for people back home. His stark images showed bridges and famous generals, but they also showed rows of bodies, twisted and bloating in the sun as they awaited burial. By any standards these war photos were horrific, but to a people who had never seen anything like it before, they were earth-shattering.

White southern men had marched off to war in 1861 expecting that they would fight and win a heroic battle or two and that their easy victories over the northerners they dismissed as emasculated shopkeepers would enable them to create a new nation based in white supremacy. In the 1850s, pro-slavery lawmakers had taken over the United States government, but white southerners were a minority and they knew it. When the election of 1860 put into power lawmakers and a president who rejected their worldview, they decided to destroy the nation.

Eager to gain power in the rebellion, pro-secession politicians raced to extremes, assuring their constituencies that they were defending the true nature of a strong new country and that those defending the old version of the United States would never fight effectively.

On March 21, 1861, the future vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, laid out the world he thought white southerners should fight for. He explained that the Founders were wrong to base the government on the principle that humans were inherently equal, and that northerners were behind the times with their adherence to the outdated idea that “the negro is equal, and…entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.” Confederate leaders had corrected the Founders’ error. They had rested the Confederacy on the “great truth” that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

White southern leaders talked easily about a coming war, assuring prospective soldiers that defeating the United States Army would be a matter of a fight or, perhaps, two. South Carolina Senator James Chesnut Jr. assured his neighbors that there would be so few casualties he would be happy to drink all the blood shed in a fight between the South and the North. And so, poorer white southerners marched to war.

The July 1861 Battle of Bull Run put the conceit of an easy victory to rest. Although the Confederates ultimately routed the U.S. soldiers, the southern men were shocked at what they experienced. “Never have I conceived of such a continuous, rushing hailstorm of shot, shell, and musketry as fell around and among us for hours together,” one wrote home. “We who escaped are constantly wondering how we could possibly have come out of the action alive.”

Northerners, too, had initially thought the war against the blustering southerners would be quick and easy, so quick and easy that some congressmen brought picnics to Bull Run to watch the fighting, only to get caught in the rout as soldiers ditched their rucksacks and guns and ran back toward the capital. Those at home, though, could continue to imagine the war as a heroic contest.

They could elevate the carnage, that is, until Matthew Brady exhibited Gardner’s images of Antietam at his studio in New York City. People who saw the placard announcing “The Dead of Antietam” and climbed the stairs up to Brady’s rooms to see the images found that their ideas about war were changed forever.

“The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” one reporter mused. “We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type.” But Gardner’s photographs erased the distance between the battlefield and the home front. They brought home the fact that every name on a casualty list “represents a bleeding, mangled corpse.” “If [Gardner] has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it,” the shocked reporter commented.

The horrific images of Antietam showed to those on the home front the real cost of war they had entered with bluster and flippant assurances that it would be bloodless and easy. Southern politicians had promised that white rebels fighting to create a nation whose legal system enshrined white supremacy would easily overcome a mongrel army defending the principle of human equality.

The dead at Antietam’s Bloody Lane and Dunker Church proved they were wrong. The Battle of Antietam was enough of a Union victory to allow President Abraham Lincoln to issue the preliminary emancipation proclamation, warning southern states that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State,” where people still fought against the United States, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the…government of the United States…will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons….”

Lincoln’s proclamation meant that anti-slavery England would not formally enter the war on the side of the Confederates, dashing their hopes of foreign intervention, and in November 1863, Lincoln redefined the war as one not simply to restore the Union, but to protect a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

To that principle, northerners and Black southerners rallied, despite the grinding horror of the battlefields, and in 1865, they defeated the Confederates.

But they did not defeat the idea the Confederates fought, killed, and died for: a nation in which the law distinguishes among people according to the color of their skin. Today, once again, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:09 am

Woody Almond Shaving Paste and Red Cedar Aftershave

with 2 comments

Another example of why there’s no need to pay a high price to get a good brush: the RazoRock Bruce. At $12 it’s more expensive than the Keyhole brush ($10), and has the same knot, but some might prefer this handle. The Plissoft-style knot did a fine job building a lather from Meißner Tremonia’s Woody Almond shaving paste — a lather with a wonderful fragrance.

Three passes of the Edwiin Jagger head (here mounted on a Maggard Razors MR11 handle) left my face smooth and ready for a good splash of Anthony Gold’s superb Red Cedar aftershave. Great way to start the weekend.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 10:32 am

Posted in Shaving

%d bloggers like this: