The fact that global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000 with devastating environmental and social consequences is one of the things that keeps many of us sewists motivated to stay off the high street and at our sewing machines. While sewing your own clothes can definitely be an environmental win, with the things we make tending to be kept and looked after for longer, we are of course not in any way ‘exempt’ from the environmental and social impact of the textile industry just because we have cut out the garment industry stage.
From sourcing the fibres (natural and synthetic), spinning them into yarn, weaving and knitting the yarns into fabric, and finishing the fabric through dying and printing processes, the textile supply chain – and by extension the garment industry – is made up of different and complex production stages with multiple levels of subcontracting fragmented across many factories and international locations (often located in the developing world). A lack of transparency and traceability is rife. Research conducted by campaign group Fashion Revolution into how much information 100 of the biggest global fashion brands disclose shows that none of the brands analysed publish their raw material suppliers so there is no way to know where the cotton, wool, or other fibres used in their textiles come from.
Environmental pollution from textile products occurs at the manufacture stage, the use stage and when clothing is discarded. From the hazardous chemicals used in the production processes to the dyes that give us all those deep colours polluting rivers, to toxic pollution from viscose factories and the huge amounts of water used to grow even organic cotton. Not to mention the climate impact of producing so much polyester and of shipping all these textiles around the world. Much of the work carried out in the textile industry – whether in fields or in factories – is carried out in low-income countries like Uzbekistan or Bangladesh, where there are often a lack of workers’ rights, child labour, and unsafe working conditions.
So while it is well known that we have a fast fashion system, it is impossible to separate the fabric industry from that – so I’d say we have a pretty fast fabric system too.
But before we get too despondent though, we should listen to the latest episode of the Love to Sew podcast on Sustainability and Sewing which presenters Helen and Caroline brilliantly kick off with a pat on the back for sewists. They remind us that making the choice to make your own clothes is in of itself an act of taking charge of your own consumption, and you shouldn’t underestimate that. I think this is important to keep in mind when talking about individual behaviour and how it impacts the environment as so often we get bogged down with the fact that what we are doing is not ‘environmentally perfect’ – as, you know, that involves not existing.
As someone who is really interested in protecting the environment and stopping climate change who also likes to sew, the topic of this episode is something I think about A LOT. In my last post I said I wanted to write more about this topic on my blog this year, and listening to the podcast spurred me on to gather together my thoughts.
I really liked the way they presented the podcast as it was not alarmist, preachy or judgemental. I think they did a great job at recognising that within the sewing community there is clearly a huge diversity of people – and some people might never have thought about sustainability much before, and that’s ok. Helen and Caroline focused mostly on what we as sewists can do to make our sewing practice kinder to the world by being less wasteful in our processes (with some great ideas for using fabric scraps!).
The supply chain
In the podcast Helen and Caroline also talk about being more mindful about the choices we make when buying fabric. They correctly acknowledge that there is no easy way to do this and that even natural fabrics have an environmental and social impact. This is a great read about hunting for fabric in a wholesale overstock warehouse that illustrates the difficulties fabric suppliers have finding information about where the products they source actually come from.
While I think it is important to support fabric and clothing brands that are leading the way by being transparent and trying to source as ‘ethically’ as possible, I do believe that we need political changes to ensure companies across the whole supply chain stick to binding rules about how fabric is produced – and how workers are treated.
I don’t in any way have all the answers or an easy solution to how to regulate this very complex global supply chain but I think we can’t rely on brands to act only when it affects their bottom line or to make incremental voluntary changes.
Helen and Caroline discuss two examples of such voluntary schemes: the organic certifications OEKO-TEX and GOTS. Both are voluntary sustainability standards for the garment sector and as this is an area I’ve recently been researching I thought I’d share this useful list I found, it is a non-exhaustive analysis of all the different voluntary sustainability standards in the garment sector (page 32-33) which was carried out for the European Commission. It’s really useful as it is essentially a comparison of how much each standard focuses on social, environmental, quality or ethics criteria. Spoiler alert: none of these labels are perfect and there are few voluntary standards that primarily focus on the environmental impact of the textile industry. For example, the OEKO-Tex label is actually only 27% environmental (1% social, 53% quality). The GOTS label is only 33% environmental (51% social, 5% quality, 2% ethics).
I also think it is really important to go behind these labels to find out what they actually represent beyond what they promise. This is exactly what a group of French investigative journalists recently did by investigating the Better Cotton Initiative label. In the documentary ‘Coton : l’envers de nos tee-shirts’ they show that the lack of traceability along the supply chain means that products sold under the Better Cotton Initiative label may in fact have been made with ‘conventional’ cotton – which could have been grown in Uzbekistan or other countries where child and forced labour is rife and the use of harmful pesticides is unregulated. If you understand French I really recommend this documentary! It is an even more in-depth look than True Cost and it really shows that in the textile industry country of origin labels are in many cases meaningless.
I’m not highlighting this to suggest you shouldn’t buy fabric with these labels – on the contrary, the fact is that these types of schemes and labels are essentially all we have! My point is that they need to be improved so they truly stand for what they appear to, and for that to happen I think governments around the world need to put laws in place to make the global textile supply chain truly transparent.
It’s quite shocking when I look at my fabric stash to think that I have no way of tracing where the fibres were grown to make all the fabric I have or where it was spun etc. Even if I had kept a track of all the shops where I had bought my fabric from over the years, I don’t know how far I would get trying to find out through them where they source from.
Dealing with the excess
At the other end of the supply chain there are lots of initiatives that are trying to deal with textile/clothing/fabric waste/surplus. Two examples from Belgium are the upcycling brand Wear a Story and the clothing rental brand Tale Me. I’m not aware of any specific initiatives in Brussels or Belgium that offer solutions to textile waste for sewists in the same vein as Fabcycle in Vancouver which was discussed in the episode on the Love to Sew podcast. I definitely want to learn more about this project, it sounds really interesting!
However, as the technology to deal with textile waste is still not fully developed I do believe that any ‘end of the chain’ solutions must be combined with regulation to reduce the sheer quantity of fabric and textile production altogether and ensure brands get hazardous and toxic chemicals out of the supply chain (which will make them more suitable for recycling). In the same vein, I think that while it is good to have solutions such as laundry bag filters to help stop the microfibres in synthetic clothing ending up in our oceans, at the same time we need to regulate the upstream fabric production processes that use these dangerous microfibres in the first place.
Given the overall environmental impact of the industry, as long as we don’t have fully developed textile recycling solutions, I also think that the fact that you can donate/reuse/recycle old clothes/textiles should not be used as a blank cheque to keep consuming such huge amounts of textiles. The world is drowning in textiles. One example of this is how much of the clothes we donate end up flooding markets in low income countries. I recommend this radio documentary and this excellent documentary (in French) about the impact of donated clothes from Europe on Africa.
Sewists have the power
At the moment textiles might not yet be at the forefront of many people’s minds when they think of the most polluting industries that we need to rein in – even among ‘environmentalists’ – and that is why I think it is really important for us as sewists to sound the alarm and raise awareness about the world’s unsustainable textile supply chain.
In a recent post, the Fold Line set out the many benefits of sewing, from how it allows us to be creative to how it can help with mental health, and I agree with every one of them. To that list I would also add that sewing is a practical way to actively reflect on the impact an activity that we as humans do everyday – clothing ourselves – is having on the only planet we have – and lots of people.
Sewing is our gateway to think about how the world works. Sewing is politics in action!
As for my own sewing sustainability situation: as I’m slowing at a very slow pace at the moment I have plenty of fabric to last me for a good while and I don’t see me suddenly needing to buy more fabric, I certainly don’t need any! I am going to try and be more informed when I do buy new fabric and I would love to learn about dyeing my own fabric too. I’m not going to set any strict rules on myself as I just know that is unrealistic, I’m sure I’m likely to buy some cheap fabric of unknown origins at some point in a near future….In terms of dealing with my waste – I have FOUR big boxes of fabric scraps that are destined to be pockets, facings, yokes….but again I think it is going to take me a while to get through them…to be continued…
If anyone has any good resources for reading more about any of these topics or if you know of any interesting projects in Belgium please get in touch!