So even though my posts on the matter have been scant, I am a seamstress (sewist?) I started nearly a decade ago, and when I started it had nothing to do with environmental issues and everything to do with hating clothes shopping. While I’m still not keen on buying clothes (thrifting’s another matter), my reasons for sewing have shifted. I still sew because I can make clothes that I want (regardless of whether or not they’re deemed “in style”) in such a way that they fit properly, but now I also sew because it eliminates steps on the manufacturing chain. While the fabric is still being produced, I avoid the often exploitative system that pays people pennies to make clothes that pass through many hands before winding up in mine.
The labour issues tied up with the garment industry are, I think, very much tied to the sustainability issue, because the conditions that allow the systemic exploitation of workers are completely unsustainable. Mills can produce incredible amounts of pollution, often destroying the community’s water supply. The insistence on cheap labour, to support ever lowering end prices, means the labourers are kept in dire poverty. The global north’s insatiable appetite for ever cheaper goods requires the global south to be keep in the supplier role, and such gross imbalance is in the long run, unsustainable.
This is, of course, to say nothing of the morality of sustaining a cycle of poverty on such an enormous scale. Needless to say, I think this is categorically wrong.
I was thinking about this this morning, and I think that instead of making the world entirely efficient, we need to, in some ways, make it less efficient. Efficiency doesn’t account for human dignity — it concerns only rubrics of resources. Manufacturing clothes half a world away in a country where it’s easier to pay workers a pittance and labour laws are not enforced or non-existent is efficient, in that the savings in labour costs offset the increased costs associated with transporting the finished good. The fact that the worker making the good doesn’t make enough to keep a roof over their head and food on their plate doesn’t factor into that calculation; the human element is completely ignored. There’s a lot of debate as to whether the answer to sustainability is a global or a local solution, and while I’m certainly no expert, I think that local solutions are absolutely essential, though a global framework is required to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Local solutions, to me, mean that goods are produced in the same vicinity that they are consumed, keeping money in the community and reducing the ability of rich outsiders to exploit a power differential. While this is more obviously beneficial to communities where the majority of jobs are in factories producing goods for export, it’s good for the communities where those goods go too. Revitalizing the local manufacturing sector, (in this case the garment industry) would start to create jobs and stimulate our economy. There used to be a thriving garment industry in the US and Canada (notably New York and Montreal, respectively) which has all but disappeared. In the mid sixties, 95% of the clothes sold in the US were made there; today, that figure is at 5%.*
So sewing, for me, is a stick in the eye to the current state of the garment industry. It’s not a perfect solution: I still consume a lot of fabric (ask me about the small dresser I inherited from my grandmother that’s full of fabric), I bought a sewing machine and buy thread and buttons and whatnot, and it’s not exactly efficient. Fabric is not without problems — harvesting cotton is backbreaking, poorly paid work, and synthetics are often very toxic to manufacture. Bamboo isn’t nearly as environmentally friendly as it’s made out to be, due to the chemical treatments needed to turn the pulp into fabric. I have plans for all the fabric I have, but will I make all of those garments? Time will tell.
Am I likely to stop sewing? No. Do I try to buy fabrics made in the global north, with fabrics that have less of an environmental impact? Yes. Do I recycle fabric? Absolutely. Do I refashion clothes that aren’t working for me so that I avoid throwing them out? I have a stack of them waiting for me to get to them. Does my ability to sew make me think critically about how I consume clothing, regardless of source? I think so, though it’s hard to tell how much of that is due to sewing and how much is due to social awareness.
And I think that last question is a key bit about talking about sustainability and home sewing. I think a lot of the problem of getting people to think about environmental and labour issues is that those issues are, for the most part, very hidden from the end consumer. The consumer has no direct connection to any stage of the manufacture of the garment: the materials are grown, the fabric milled, and the garment sewn in factories literally across the planet, whereas 30 years ago, much of the manufacturing chain took place relatively close to the end consumer. Today, there’s nothing directly confronting the consumer saying “these harmful practices were used to manufacture this garment**;” conversely, the endemic nature of exploitation also leads to consumer apathy.*** People who sew have a more direct connection to their clothing, because they tangibly understand what goes into a significant part of garment production.
Franca’s third post in her series on sustainability talks about moving towards active, rather than passive consumption. She talks about how sewing gives us a very powerful way (if you have the time and money, obviously) to revamp our consumption patterns by making us participate in the creation of the garment we consume, whether it’s making it ourself or altering or embellishing something premade. I’m having a hard time pocking out a couple of things to highlight because the whole post is making me nod my head vigourously in agreement, and my experience as a seamstress certainly aligns with what she’s saying.
As a side note, I’ve noticed that handmade clothes last much longer than modern fast fashion. I’ve got clothes my mom, aunt and grandmother made and/or wore that are up to 40 odd years old, and have been worn for much of that time. I’d be surprised if my modern clothing lasted a quarter of that time. Long lasting goods are important if we’re going to try and conserve resources.
Lastly, this post by Peter at Male Pattern Boldness talks about how by sewing his own clothes, Peter unbrands himself. Clothing companies don’t sell us clothes so much as images, and by rejecting those images, he makes his own identity rather than cobbling one together from other people’s ideas of what’s cool. I love the line “My power lies within me, not my brand of sunglasses.” In my last post in this series, I’m going to expand on that a bit, and look at the social implications and complications of working towards sustainability.
*I found clips of this documentary about the evolution of the garment industry online, and it looks like it’s well worth watching if you have HBO.
** The existence of sweatshops and exploitative labour is well known for many consumers. What I mean here is that this is more of a theoretical problem for the end consumer: many of us don’t have sweatshops in our backyards, or know anyone who’s working in one. This is untrue for many people who live in poverty, as there are still sweatshops in the global north, but for the typical middle class consumer, there’s a distance afforded by having the garment made out of cultural sight.
*** A while ago, I had a peer who one time got talking about how he went clothes shopping because he needed some shirts or something, and he realized that all the clothes were made overseas. He acknowledged there was a labour problem, but casually waved it off by saying he needed some shirts, and this was the way things were, and so there wasn’t really an issue and there was no reason to do anything about it. Obviously I don’t think that everyone has this sort of attitude, but it’s a good example of how people can realize there’s a problem but be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, and use that as a reason to close their eyes to it.