Recently there have been blog posts popping up about the greatness that is ethical fabrics, eco friendly fabrics, sustainable fabrics. I am not going to be militant on definition as these terms are ultimately all variations on a sustainability theme – textiles that are good for the environment, good for people, good for the economy. All sounds well and good when you consider the oft quoted line that the textile industry is globally the second most polluting industry after oil. But here is my (possibly controversial) view:
There is already too much fabric in the world. Eco fabrics in their current form are band-aid rather than long term fix.
Pretty horrible stuff eh? Whilst this may not directly apply to you and the way you sew or live, unfortunately there are enough people out there for whom it does apply. Throw away culture is a double edged sword – consumers are buying more clothes and keeping them for shorter periods of time.
A circular economy – a viable alternative?
Circular economy – an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. (source: WRAP UK)
- Production and manufacturing (point 1)
- Consumer use (point 2)
- Post consumer recycling and reuse (points 3 & 4)
But the point is that this is aspirational and we do not have a circular economy. Therein lies the problem with reliance on eco fabrics as the solution to fast fashion’s problems.
Why I don’t think eco fabrics are the answer
- At the moment, eco fabrics are more about manufacturing. There are more virgin than recycled materials being used to make textiles. For example, organic cotton labelled with GOTS (the gold standard organic certification) still relies on cotton being grown, albeit with a set of growing and manufacturing standards which minimise social and environmental issues. But it does not, and cannot, address how a consumer discards clothing. Unfortunately 73% of clothing globally is still landfilled or incinerated once disposed. Which leads me to (2).
- The technology does not yet exist for a complete circular textiles economy. Two examples: (a) the technology to turn polyester back into polyester is in its infancy. The infrastructure for producing recycled polyester is based on plastic bottles and this is not without its problems (see here). For context, at this point <1% of all clothing is turned back into clothing of a similar quality (b) Shoes often end up in landfill instead of being recycled because it is too difficult to separate the component parts (no kidding! I’ll write more about that another day). Because of this…
- Eco fabrics are still using up resources, albeit potentially less than non-eco fabrics from a manufacturing perspective. I mentioned advertising in an earlier post and how it really came into its own in the 1950s with TV and the post WWII era. Today we have internet, and advertising is probably even more prevalent than before. Coupled with the messaging that more stuff will make you happier, it is bad news for the planet.
The counter argument
Of course you can at this point say that I am being a bit doom and gloom. The converse argument is that we have to start somewhere and any small change better than nothing. I am in agreement with this too! If we all sit back, do nothing and demand nothing then it follows that nothing will change. In my view it is only a good thing that there are so many people that care about sustainability (or even work in these industries!) that think about how we can do more with less and be more circular in our approach. A couple of my favourite brands doing great stuff:
- ECOALF uses the plastic bottles that fishermen pick up in their ocean trash and turns it into recycled polyester.
- Freitag produces compostable clothing using lower environmental impact fibres (linen, hemp, modal) which is grown within a 2500km radius of the factory in Zurich.
So are you an advocate of eco fabrics?
Yes. I am an advocate for eco fabrics as they are less likely to have less of a footprint than the conventional ones we would typically see and buy. For example, organic cotton over conventionally grown cotton, tencel over viscose, linen or hemp or bamboo etc. (I will be writing a series on the goods and bads of different fibre types shortly).
What I am saying is that while we can feel good about buying eco fabrics from a fabric shop, lets not pretend that it has no environmental impact – it is still fabric that has required resources in order to be produced, whether from virgin or recycled materials. As ever, the best thing that could be done is to buy nothing at all and wear a capsule wardrobe until they are in tatters and no good for anything but furniture stuffing. But this is at odds with our sewing hobby which is good for mental health; so maybe the initial step is to be mindful about what you are sewing. Replacing your stash of conventional fabrics with eco fabrics is not sustainable; neither is sewing all the clothes so you can get rid of your RTW.
I have so much admiration for those of you who practice your sewing hobby via thrifting, remaking and upcycling – it is something I would really like to aspire to. Let me leave you here with my final thought of the day:
The most eco friendly fabric is the one that already exists.
(noting of course that we still have a micro plastic problem with polyesters!)
PS. If anyone has recommendations for second hand stores in London with the crafty type sections, please let me know! So far I have only seen curtains and sheets in my local ones. Despite a few repeat visits I have not found something I would want to make and wear.
Another thought-provoking post, Kate. I am certainly guilty of owning more clothes than I need, but it does make me happy to have choice and to make similar things so I can wear one if another’s in the wash. So I think in the interests of happiness rather than mindlessness, I am OK with how much I make… but I do fail in this sometimes and make something too quickly or make something I don’t love, and that’s what I personally need to work on.
Hi Helen, you are not the only one guilty of owning more clothes than you need, I am definitely in the same camp and I am sure that many others are as well. In general we probably all own much more than we need. Do you remember when an iPad was laughed off as a silly idea when it first came out? Now its pretty much a fact of life. There is that constant battle between mental health and happiness vs stuff so if you buy its good to buy green. All I’m trying to do with this post is remind everyone that its still stuff!
You have it spot on as usual Kate, it’s so thought provoking and you’re right we are at saturation point so companies that invest in reusing what is already in existence seems the way forward. Coupled with our need to snap out of the self soothing with new purchases be it RTW or a nice fresh bit of cloth. I was wondering if you’d heard of scrap stores in London or the surrounding area? I have been using the services of one up North for many years. They are a great resource for fabrics and notions that are discarded in industry, they also have crafting supplies for kids and activity groups. Stocks are very random in terms of what is donated to them. Generally fabric comes from end of rolls from UK manufacturers and isn’t glam or pretty, so that’s why I over dye and decorate a lot as it’s generally furnishing linen that I go for. There’s a directory on scrapstoreuk.org that gives a list of what is in your area, though I appreciate that not all scrap stores are the same and the one I go to luckily has a good mix of all sorts. For example, my Mum has decorated her whole house with paint pot samples that would have gone into landfill – it’s from a local manufacturer as are most of the textiles available. You pay per basket, it’s £7 at the one we visit or fill a trolley for £12. They stock all sorts, carpet tiles even! All things that are manufacturing discards. Like I say though, all scrap stores are probably not created equal but the idea of pooling crafting resources on it’s own is a good one. I donate stuff there too. Hope this is of interest and there’s one you could maybe check out.
Hi Josie, thanks for the detailed explanation of what a scrapstore is and the links – I’ll be sure to check it out. Sounds like it is worth a trip to one of them for the experience even if I don’t buy anything. I particularly like your term “self soothing with new purchases” – it really is isn’t it?! The other week I had a bit of a personal disappointment and so I put some fabric in an online shop basket as it was marked as eco and also last chance. But then I just left it there as I thought about when I would possibly have time to make it and whether it would actually make me that happy. A couple of weeks later I still haven’t bought it and I’m trying to keep instilling that kind of discipline. Have also been reading about some craft and clothing swap events near me so I think I might go to one of those soon and see if anyone wants any stuff (and try not to pick up anything). Thank you again for posting the documentary Machines. It really makes me even more determined to stick with minimalism and no waste attitude, and keep on writing these sorts of posts to raise awareness.
Just a suggestion re finding second hand clothes to upcycle, is to order them online – ebay, etsy and other second hand clothing sites have loads to offer. Buying fabric from other people’s stash and thrift shops or from fabric sellers who sell fabric that is “left over” from the garment industry (re: Allie’s post on IndieSew about “overstock” fabric https://indiesew.com/blog/what-is-overstock-fabric) is actually more sustainable than buying eco-fabric. We have to be so careful these days with anything marked “eco”, “sustainable”, “environmentally friendly” or even “organic” because marketers have been quick to jump on this catchy wording. Bamboo for example is a disaster for the environment and was marketed as an “eco” fabric for years!
Buying cheap fabric is probably the worst because like fast fashion, it won’t hold up under regular washing and is often a poly of some sort. As sewists who love the hobby we need to learn to embrace the SLOW sew, make garments that are very well made out of high quality fabrics to last many, many years to be truly sustainable. I read a lot online about how “easy” this or that garment is to make and I ponder how is this beautiful hobby falling into the same old trap of, if it’s easy it’s good? If it “sews up fast” that’s good? What the heck is the rush? Why do a hobby that is easy? I wouldn’t think that’s the point at all.
It wasn’t 50 years ago when I started sewing. Complicated, challenging, involved was good. Pattern companies never used the word “easy sew” to sell a pattern! They were unapologetic about it’s challenges or the amount of time it was going to take you to make this dress. Giving you minimal directions, the pattern company provided a pattern in your size and away you went to head scratch how to make this garment and how to get it to fit. No hand holding there. Now with the internet and plethora of videos, blogs, “sew-a-longs”, tutorials, classes, sewists are seeking patterns that are fast and easy too? This notion that everyone can make their own rtw, fast fashion at home is frankly bizarre and simply more of the same old.
A couple of hard-to-swallow realities about this wondrous hobby: Sewing your own garments is HARD. It takes YEARS of practice, patience, and determination to get good at it. No, not EVERYONE can sew. Sewing is EXPENSIVE and time consuming. I think this would be a good place to start. As a collective we need to suck it up and stop falling into those environmentally outdated marketing tricks of easy, cheap, and fast.
Oh Kathleen, I enjoyed reading your comment very much – Fast fashion at home, what a great term. Yes I agree that often it feels like the sewing is going the same way as fast fashion, especially with the marketing of “easy sew” and what not. And the attitude I sometimes see of people thinking they are doing the right thing by making their own clothes, but forgetting in reality that their fabric is also made in the same place where fast fashion comes from. Also the term “handmade” – actually most things are handmade, just by someone else in a factory faraway place under unknown conditions….
It has taken me 5 years and a LOT of sewing (and a lot of waste) to be able to make garments that look shop bought. I really like tailored coats and jackets because they are such slow projects. Otherwise I choose very simple projects that would typically marketed as quick to make, because then I KNOW I can achieve the perfect fit and finish. But honestly I have not been sewing much (compared to say a year ago) and channeling my energy into blogging instead because I have enough stuff. Baby clothes and gifts being the exception.
Thank you for the eBay and Easy suggestion. I have typically not done this because it has been easy for me to browse through a fabric shop’s curated selection, but next time I’d like something I think I just need to suck it up and work harder at finding something second hand. Having said that my 3 boxes of fabric would actually keep me going for the next 2 years if I actually managed to sew all of it.
Anyway, thank you for taking the time to read and provide an opinion. I’m due to catch up with a fashion designer friend soon about overstock (she does a lot of production management work) and will keep you posted on different views on the matter.
Great read, Kate! Totally agree, buying eco is still buying more stuff. You mentioned iPad, and just a thought, while digitising media and publications is a wonderful thing to save paper (and money), now there’s more problems with mountains of unwanted, old devices, as a result of consumers wanting the newest and popular, and also technological advances making old devices slow or defunct.
Anyway, with textiles and fashion industry, I think the majority of the population in developed countries are still pretty much in a throwaway culture 🙁
Slow sewing and fabric diet is how I’m going to play my part, and not buying what I don’t need.
I did buy some bamboo jersey a while back, thinking it’s natural and therefore eco…can’t wait to read about your later post on those fabrics!
Thanks Sil, yes the mountain of growing old electronics… sad, sad and at some point we will start being short of the precious metals that are needed for device manufacture. From what I read we are not too far away from that. But there are lots of rules in the UK around electronics recycling and companies like Dell have a take back scheme (can you tell I spent time to look this up?! I was disposing of a 6yr old computer that didn’t function anymore and no refurbishing place wanted to take it from me). I totally support the slow sewing and fabric diet. Good luck with making the stash! XX
Once again you have hit the mark with your post. So many great responses makes me realize that there is hope for a responsible , sustainable future in the sewing world.
Thank you Diane, it makes me do a happy dance when I see people engaging with me on the comments and providing their own opinions! I particularly enjoyed one of the comments which implied that sewing can often be “fast fashion at home”. Just brilliant!
Another thought provoking post Kate and making me think about my fabric purchases. Although on a fabric ban in the bid to use what I have and take my time, I still covert fabric and have been looking a certain eco fabrics with a view that once my stash is depleted eco fabrics will be my focus buy to live a more sustainable sewer life! However, the realities are that buying eco just is the band aid you describe and i’m clearly not thinking it through properly. With each post I become more empowered to make the right choices for my hobby to ensure I can minimise the impact to the environment my sewing hobby creates.
Hi Sarah, please don’t beat yourself up about your fabric choices! There is always a difficult balance between the sewing hobby and what you need / what is better for the environment. I think as long as you recognise it then you will automatically be more conscious. I find there is a bit of a disconnect to be marketing eco fabrics on the one hand but then buying loads of stuff on the other and sewing up a storm of stuff that you might not need or love! Of course business is business (i.e. sell more) and I get that, but I just wanted to point out the disconnect in this post xx
Really interesting article! I have just started browsing charity shops in my area for 2nd hand clothes and stuff that I can alter to fit, or make something new. I also realised when reviewing my sewing projects for last year that my least favourites (and therefore least worn) are the items I made with cheap fabrics! If I am going to spend the time and effort it is worth paying for better quality fabric so that the item lasts longer. Having just found your blog I am looking forward to more thought provoking articles.
I totally agree that fundamental system change is what’s needed – tweaks to the existing system won’t do it. And also that buying MUCH less and using what we have is key, and not replacing things just for the sake of it. BUT for those *hopefully rare* times when we do buy something new, choosing genuinely eco-friendly fabrics (preferably independently certified) instead of non-eco ones is miles better (“bamboo”=viscose, btw, and recycled poly still sheds those microfibres which may be more damaging to the ocean than whole bottles!). My worry about buying overstock fabrics is that maybe it actually supports wasteful practices in industry – why do companies keep producing more than they need? I’d say that being able to sell those leftovers on is a kind of “band-aid” on a bad way of doing things. And perhaps the same even goes for buying from other people’s stashes – there’s a risk you’re just supporting someone else’s over-buying habit. I have got some great second-hand fabrics on Ebay, but I try to go for things that are really old, and always natural fibres to avoid microfibre pollution. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
Hello Nina, thanks for your comment. Its so great to see that there are people on the same wavelength! I have had these same concerns about overstock and been doing some digging into it – will post about that some stage. I blogged about recycled polyester previously and there is a temporary solution – see here. But yes until we have a cultural shift into buying and consuming a whole lot less, I do believe most things are just band aid. But as with any change there has to be an incentive for industry or consumers to change en masse, and whilst there are a lot of us jumping up and down there are also a lot of people who don’t care. I try and do a little by my writing this blog and attempt to change my lifestyle – but I definitely appreciate the real activists out there who actually protest and make themselves heard to politicians and media etc.
Interesting to read your take on rPET, thanks for the link. I have to say I don’t think it is unrealistic to avoid polyester completely! I’m close to zero poly myself, I’m pretty sure the only things I have are a shower curtain, the filling of duvets and pillows (will be replaced with natural fibre versions when necessary), and possibly the elastics on underwear, plus some nylon: a 100% recycled nylon rain jacket and small % nylon in some socks. I use polyester thread because I got tons of it as a free gift with my sewing machine, but replace with organic cotton as it runs out.
Wow that’s great that you have managed to mostly stick with natural fibres, well done! I think my moving away from polyesters and plastics will be a gradual one. Like you I’m not in favour of throwing things out if they aren’t worn out just so I can replace them with more eco options
Love this! I got have shifted all my fabric purcases to second hand over the last year, and in Sydney we have a massive charity craft shop. It’s literally called the Fabric Cave. If not there, I generally find stuff at big charity shop warehouses, or deliberately go op-shopping (thrifting) in areas with high disposable income. But I am a bit envious of being able to shop Oxfam online as I see you have in the UK. I am continuously envious of the beautiful second hand fabrics they have.
Hello Lauren, thanks for the comment – in many ways I’m sad I never did any sewing when I lived in Sydney (I’m Australian) – sounds like the Fabric Cave lives up to its name. Here I also go thrifting in high income areas, especially for kids stuff. Its so sad to see things being thrown away because people just have too much stuff. I must admit I haven’t shopped much secondhand online, but I am going to check out Oxfam when I lift my self imposed shopping ban 🙂 thanks for the tip!