Most of us don’t set out to offend others, but somehow, when it comes to discussing sustainability, someone somewhere gets dumped on. That’s why most essays on the subject start with the dictionary – in terms of definition, it couldn’t be simpler: sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
If you’re into yachts, and you like a regular supply of yachts, and you can afford to service those yachts with the necessary regularity, then your ownership of yachts is sustainable. Likewise if you have an income to sustain four cars, a six bedroom house, a penchant for haute couture and holidays on your private island then you are, by literal definition, living a sustainable lifestyle. (Please don’t slap me just yet.)
Of course, these days nobody considers a lavish lifestyle sustainable; there’s that wee snippet of small print now, and it refers to the depletion of natural resources. To be sustainable, in modern parlance, is to exist in equilibrium with the environment. Like going for a walk without leaving any trace that can’t be washed away by the next downpour.
Except modern life, in ecological terms, isn’t much like a harmless walk in the park.
People talk a lot about sustainability, but there’s also a lot of cherry picking: making ‘sustainable’ choices in one area (say, riding a bike instead of driving a car) and then quietly recouping the saving elsewhere (long-haul flight to Bali, anyone?).
Human beings would find it hard to exist without cognitive dissonance – in a world where choices are so varied and contradictory we would implode from the pressure of trying to make the perfect decision all the time. While some do try, humans in general struggle with asceticism, however powerful the motivation.
To be fully sustainable in any real sense, I suspect you would have to be living in the woods like a bear. And even that would be problematic and, quite literally, unsustainable (I will refrain from spelling out the implications of the cities emptying out into unsewered spots of natural beauty).
Who sews what?
This isn’t the place to get into the nitty gritty of living a truly sustainable lifestyle. For most of us it is little more than aspiration. Being 100% sustainable is, I would wager, an impossibility: human beings (in a consumerist capitalist society, at least) are not sustainable.
This is not to say we should throw the towel in, it is more a word of counsel to those who seek to attack the lifestyle choices of others – usually people they know little, if anything, about in any genuine sense. We could all be more sustainable, so let’s not throw stones when we live in glass houses.
What does this have to do with sewing? In the online sewing community, the stones are in the air! Last year, Vicky from Sewstainability wrote how viscose (a confusing material made from natural byproducts, but chemically manufactured) had become the latest battleground in the quest for green cred.
As Vicky points out, the issue of budget is consistently overlooked in these debates. Sustainable fabrics are some of the most expensive on the market, which puts them out of reach for many.
We are implored to buy second hand fabric as a solution, but which is more environmentally friendly in the long term? The dress made from the ugly curtain you realise you can never wear, or the beautiful viscose you would happily wear for years?
If your local charity shops are anything like mine, they are full-to-bursting with throwaway fashion made from cheap plastic fabric, and the curtain and bedding section is seldom replenished. I have struck lucky on occasion, but I couldn’t depend on that source alone. And then there is the issue of people buying up larger sizes to cut up and refashion – plus size women say there is already a very limited range of clothing available to them, and this only makes the situation worse.
Attacking people who sew for not being sustainable enough is most likely missing the point. You can sew with the latest expensive ‘eco’ fabrics and be hugely wasteful – there is nothing, per se, sustainable about sewing, however much we would like to believe that’s the case. If humans are not sustainable, why would sewing be sustainable?
Many brands that claim to be sustainable do an excellent job at PR. If something is sustainable, we want it, we feel better about our consumption: we are going for that walk in the rain. But let’s not forget what goes into fabric production, and getting fabric from producer to consumer. ‘More sustainable than’ doesn’t sound as sexy, does it? But that’s all you can really say about any of these goods. And that’s before we even glance at labour issues.
In the end, it’s what we do with fabric that dictates how sustainable it becomes. Most things wear out eventually. Even if we turn them into rags to wash the floor with, it’s hard to escape the impact of our consumption when we stop to think through each step.
When it comes to sustainability, no decision is a simple affair – and it’s difficult for anyone looking in on the outside to genuinely guage what is and isn’t sustainable for someone else.
Sewing versus ready-to-wear
It’s not worth getting into a dispute about who is most sustainable, if you sew, because everyone and everyone’s sewing activity is so different and, as I said in part one of this series, everyone is trying – throw them a bone! But then consumers of ready-to-wear vary hugely too. There is a reductive trope within the sewing community that somehow sewing is intrinsically better than ‘fast fashion’. But is it really so simple?
If you want to compare yourself to a non-sewist, you could plump for a YouTube influencer with never-ending fast fashion clothing ‘hauls’, but how would you fare sized-up to someone who buys one or two garments from ‘fast’ fashion retailers every year, and makes them last a decade? The business model of fast fashion is undoubtedly environmentally and ethically suspect and unsustainable BUT that doesn’t mean its consumers are likeminded. As I note here, for many this clothing is affordable, not cheap. I have ‘fast fashion’ purchases from ten years ago still in circulation. None of this is as clear cut as it is sometimes made out to be.
And if we move beyond fast fashion, as emotive as it is, what about the individual who buys a few higher-end well-made garments a year and makes them last a lifetime? How does their consumption compare? And which sewist are we comparing them to? The slow fashion avid recycler and fabric optimiser, or the sewist who makes every new pattern under the sun? Most of us fall somewhere in between these extremes.
Of course if you used to be a fast fashion addict, and now you make fast sewing, is that better? Now we start to split those hairs: where did you get your fabric? Do you know the conditions under which it was made? The environmental impact? The treatment of workers throughout farming, printing, dyeing, weaving, cutting, rolling and transportation? How far was it flown to reach you? What about the patterns you buy? Who tested them? Were they paid for their services? What becomes of all the garments you sew? Do they all make the grade?
Sustainability and accountability
I have no interest in beating anyone over the head about their sustainability credentials. I raise all these questions because they are questions I’ve asked of myself about my own practice. I’ve found I come up short on pretty much every level: I buy (or accept for free) fabric that is either not sustainable or I have no idea where it came from (fabric provenance is a P.R.O.B.L.E.M. – find out more about that here); I sew (or did until late-2019) in an excessive and sometimes directionless manner; I have made too many garments I then found either didn’t feel or look right on; I have a growing pile of offcuts and ‘maybes’ neatly packaged into poufs, the longevity of which I am doubtful.
I don’t make any judgement on those who sew more or less than I do: I don’t think people who sew fewer garments are better, and those who sew prolifically are wanton environmental wrecking balls. I see the all too familiar comments on the Instagram posts of people who do sew a lot – how full is your wardrobe? It must be bursting! – to know that the lack of nuance in so many discussions of sustainability causes unnecessary pain and discrimination.
People sew for many reasons, as I’ve touched on here, and for many of us maintaining consistent output helps keep us on the level. For many sewing is a lifeline, a spirit raiser and a means to manage mental health and illness. Sewing brings joy to our lives, and to ration that enjoyment, or enforce rationing on others, seems puritanical and, frankly, a doomed enterprise – the answer is not to stop sewing, the answer is to ask questions and decide for ourselves – and ourselves alone – where and how we will draw the lines.
Further, for people with difficulties cutting, standing for long periods, sitting for long periods, or other disabilities that affect the way they sew, a discussion about wastage is ableist. Likewise for those with financial restrictions, the idea that one can ‘sew better’ if one spends more is an insult.
The truth is we will not, as sewists, be perfectly sustainable, but in small ways we can begin to move our practice in the right direction. Behavioural economists call this the nudge.
While the more efforts we make as individuals to improve our own lifestyles – in whatever ways are available to us – will undoubtedly help, it is a drop in the ocean compared with the enormous scale of environmental vandalism undertaken by multinational corporations and the persistent failure of governments across the earth to prioritise anything above economic growth. I believe that those in possession of commercial and governmental power need to create circumstances (production transparency, green incentives) that make our individual decisions work for rather than against the environment.
To those who would rather crusade the internet picking fault with the choices of others, I would recommend harnessing that energy to take on the bigger fish. Push material manufacturers to disclose their production processes and treatment of employees. Look to where materials are grown and harvested and the environmental impact of production. Don’t make assumptions and be ready to have your preconceptions challenged. If the onus was on producers and distributors to improve standards and technologies, rather than on the consumer to decide with their wallet, we would all benefit.
I don’t think I’m particularly sustainable. I can see the light but I am fallible and imperfect. I’m not about to stop clothing myself in one way or another, so it may as well be the way that brings me creative joy. I know this is a privilege. I still sew a lot: it’s my job and my hobby. But, like many of us, I’m trying, in my own small way, to be more considered about what I sew.
At the risk of trampling on everyone’s feelings in one way or another (because let’s face it, this is a murky swamp of subjective interpretation), I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences in the hope we can engage in an honest conversation – as uncomfortable and embarrassing as that may turn out to be. I’m no expert, I’m not set in my ways, and I am always open to having my mind changed with new ideas and viewpoints. Please let me know your take on sewing and sustainability in the comments below.
In part three, I will be discussing a few gentle gestures we can all undertake to nudge our sewing practice towards less waste.
Click here to read Sustainable sewing, part one: magic or myth?