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.
First in a tentatively four part series. Intro post is here. Future posts can be shown by using the “series: sustainability” tag.
There’s two broad branches to the issue of how to approach sustainability: there’s the idea that by replacing goods, services, and essentially lifestyles (for lack of a better term) with hopefully equivalent things that are more eco-friendly, or we can more fundamentally shift how we consume to consume less, and to make what we do consume more efficient and sustainable. I think the first idea is incredibly shortsighted for an number of reasons, and is unfortunately easier and probably more profitable for more businesses (and thus more popular with more people). Going around saying that we need to more or less completely retool Western society is not a popular position to take. We’re accustomed to a way of life, and aside from the obvious societal inertia, it’s a hard sell to say to the uninitiated that we can’t keep doing business as usual, just with different products.
So, I think that we need to dramatically rework how Western society is constructed, and while I’d love to go into that more*, I suspect many of you aren’t interested, and that’s not entirely the point of this blog or series. It does, however, provide a backdrop for how I consume clothing.
The short answer is, I don’t, but this is not exactly correct or complete. By the standards of many (not all) of my peers, I buy very few new clothes, and the clothes I do buy tend to be things like tank tops and underwear. I probably could make them myself, but it’s either not economically sensible for me or I haven’t tried (though making underwear is on my very long list of things to try, purely for the “I wonder how this works!” aspect of it). I do buy these things from cheap stores, because I can’t justify spending a large amount of money on a knit cotton tube with straps. I wear them long past when they’re intended to be worn, and I chalk a lot of that up to how I do my laundry.
There’s a somewhat on-going discussion about sustainability in fashion on some blogs, and in light of Franca’s excellent first post on it, I thought I’d throw in my two cents. Given my tendency to go on at length (and I very much appreciate those of you who stick around and read to the end!), I think this is going to be a new series.
So, the framework. I try to make my wardrobe mesh with my ethics of consumption, and this boils down to a few main points:
- I generally avoid buying clothes made by companies I know (or by dint of their prices, can reasonably suspect) flout labour standards. I read labels.
- The majority of the clothes I buy are second hand.
- I also make my own clothes, though living in Canada (and being spectacularly unable to knit) this is considerably more practical for summer clothes rather than winter. I’m also having an increasingly limited time to devote to it, though I am trying to make it a priority.
- As personal preference, I look for clothes and fabric made with natural fibres, though this is certainly not without problems of its own.
- I try to keep the amount of clothes I buy small, partially because I don’t have a lot of money to work with in the first place, and partially because I just don’t need a huge wardrobe.
- Whatever clothes I have, I wear the clothes until they fall apart (and then often still keep them for rags or camera socks* or what have you). I alter and/or repair clothing if it’s at all feasible.
- When I have clothes that don’t fit and can’t reasonably be altered, I give them to my friends. If they don’t want them, or aren’t really worth lugging around when I visit them, they go to the Goodwill.
Let me make it clear that this is about my personal ethics, and I’ve no interest in shoving it down other people’s throats. I’m not the Great Moral Arbiter Who Knows Best For Everyone, and I’ve no intention of acting like it. Conversely, this is not an attempt to hand myself a cookie and say “good for you! you’ve gained some arbitrary moral high ground!” I sometimes get reactions like either of these when I say I’m a vegetarian, and it’s an interesting parallel. I am by no means perfect, and what’s a good decision for me is not necessarily what’s a good decision for someone else; I have much, much more productive ways to use my energy than to judge everyone around me by my moral tape measure. Plus, there’s that whole glass houses adage.
So here’s my plan: I think I’ll split this up into four further posts, to keep each of them to a reasonable length (ha!). Tentatively (and this is subject to change, depending on where the conversation goes — please weigh in!) the posts will discuss:
- Consumption of fashion
- Sustainability of thrifting, and other forms of recycling
- Home sewing and fabrics, and
- The social impact of (un)sustainable clothing.
I’ll talk about how I approach each aspect, but also how I see that fitting into a larger, societal context. Sustainability is at it’s heart a societal issue, so talking about isolated efforts misses the point and the big picture. There’s way, way more written about this than I can cover, and I’m sure I’ll miss stuff along the way, so, as always, please chime in in the comments. I’m really curious to see how other people approach this issue, and I’m curious to see what resonates with other people.
* I got this trick from my Aunt, who apparently used it to smuggle a camera in to golf tournaments in her purse. Orphan socks make excellent camera (and other small electronic device) holders — they’re squishy enough to give some protection, fold up very small when not in use, and if you have memory sticks or extra batteries or what have you they fit in too. And plus it’s comical.