Textile production has negative impacts on the land, waterways, air, ocean and human health. Efforts to reduce the impacts on the environment and create a fair and equitable system of global production often focus on commercial production. As makers of our own clothing, we might consider ourselves removed from the fast fashion system, but as consumers of cloth our choices are still very much a part of the global textile market. We can make choices that are lighter on the earth. We can make choices that empower workers of farms and mills and we can influence an industry to change from the bottom up.
Here is a quick guide to doing just that. Once I have decided that I have a genuine need to source fabric for a project I prioritise sourcing based on these principles:
I like the old stuff better than the new stuff
Making new fabric of any kind uses resources. Your first option should always be to look at textiles already in existence, and if you happen to save them from heading to landfill, then that is a double win!
My favourite places to find second hand treasure include the back corner of charity shops, my own closet (remaking is a fantastic creative challenge), craft and fabric swaps and fairs, estate sales, online stores and friends and families closets (no one is safe!) If you have a stash of fabric, shop it, and regularly pass on anything you no longer need. Start a fabric swap in your area as a great way to share resources.
Something grown can ultimately be returned to the soil as compost. Think linen, organic cotton, hemp, wool, alpaca and silk.
When you wash or dispose synthetics they break down into microfibers that we are fast discovering are proving problematic for our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Polyester, acrylic, nylon microfibers have been found in the guts of marine life and recent studies show cellulose fibres: rayon, lyocell, viscose (modal and bamboo are made in the same way) have also made their way into food chains. It is also difficult to recycle polyester, with just one recycling plant globally, so until you are sure that your cloth will not end up in the ocean or landfill, it is best to buy natural fibres that break down readily.
Where possible, also try to think natural in regards to colour. The application of synthetic colour is high in energy, water and toxic chemical use, often resulting in waterway pollution and community health problems. Fashion designer Orsola de Castro summed up the problem in the movie the River Blue saying
“there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers.”
Aside from buying undyed fabric, the only way to check how the colour was applied it to look for certified fabrics by OEKO-TEX or the Global Organic Textile Standard, often marked as simply “organic.”
Washing and ironing has a surprising large impact on the environment. When seeking out your fabric think about how often you will need to wash and iron. Denim and wool are excellent easy care fabric choices that can be worn multiple times before needing to be cleaned. Fabrics that crinkle easily can ultimately do more harm than good if you like a clean pressed looked and need to iron before every wear. Knowing how you will care and use a fabric is the best way to minimise the energy and water used in washing and ironing.
Source: Fashion Revolution
Finding information about the workers involved in fabric production is difficult. Very few retailers will tell you where your fabric was milled, processed or farmed, let alone if the workers in that supply chain were paid fairly. Fair trade certification is fast becoming the global benchmark for all kinds of products (not just food) and in recent years, fabrics are also becoming certified. Seek out locally produced products (Fibershed has a growing list) or suppliers that are transparent their supply chains and have a connection back to the community that made them.
If you cannot find out anything more than the countries of production, you can look up the living wage for that area (here or here) and make an assessment.
If you cannot find anything suitable using the first two principles, aim for quality. A quality fabric that will last can be an investment in your future wardrobe too. We have the skills to mend, unpick and remake a quality fabric as long as it holds together, so save your pennies by buying less new fabrics and investing in quality. If the fear of cutting into precious goods is holding you back, use the second hand fabric to make a muslin so you can approach the cutting with no fear.
It’s got to be love
If you adore a fabric and can see yourself stroking it’s fine fibres in years to come, you are more likely to tenderly care and mend it over time. Find something you love and make something that fits you fabulously.
Just as buyers of fashion can change the approach of brands to disclose information on their processes, one of the best things we can do is use our voice. Ask the supplier about the fabric, does it have any certifications? where can I recycle this fabric? can you do a burn test ? where was it made? It is likely that you will not get many answers the first time you ask, but the more we raise our voice the more accountable suppliers will become.
If you want to advocate for change so that you don’t have to be a detective to find out about the impact of your fabric sign up to the Greenpeace Fashion Manifesto to detox fashion.
I hear you that some of the steps above are easier to follow than others. Never fear, as part of this series I will be digging into each topics to arm you with more facts, figures and retailers that take the hard work out of sourcing for you. Go for secondhand or natural certified fibres first, and if those don’t work for your project think about how you’ll care for it to have a long and happy life in your cupboard.