Sustainability, Privilege, and Inclusion

What comes to mind when you think about sustainability? For me when I first started looking into it, I was thinking eco impact. And when it came to sewing, I thought about fabric production. But as time goes on and I delve deeper it becomes impossible to ignore the wider social context when it comes to clothes. Whether that is the relationship between consumers who shop vs the garment workers in the global south, or seeing inequality on my literal doorstop (more on that shortly), or the way that we measure economic growth … the list goes on.

But is sustainability inclusive? I think it might have an image problem. So often it is seen in media as being about buying into expensive sustainable fashion brands, or in the case of the home sewer, worrying about what kind of fabric you use or how much sewing you do (and I do this as well). Comments about eco burnout, feeling overwhelmed about where to start are common. Or simply being made to feel guilty can make people feel like they are excluded from being able to participate.

A Sustainability Bubble?

Every time I’m on social media and check out what my friends, sustainability bloggers / podcasters etc. are up to, it feels like a bubble. Maybe it’s the people I follow, but I have not encountered a huge amount of diversity in the sustainable fashion community – and I don’t feel like I’m fashiony enough to fit in, either. I don’t think I’m entirely alone in having this lack-of-diversity view; for example this magazine article on Why I think ethical fashion is a privileged white girl thing. Whilst I’m not suggesting we should directly transpose this kind of view onto the sewing community, we know that inclusion is an issue in sewing. Just look at all the articles on this website!

Proud to be a Sewcialist like many others here!

Is Sustainability a Privilege Issue?

It is a privilege for me to have the time and headspace to think about sustainability. Where I live I see inequality everyday outside my house. Not so long ago I went to buy milk from the corner store and there was a homeless person on my doorstep. It was confronting to say the least; of all the doors on the street she had chosen mine. (I live in a tightly packed row of terrace houses with no front yards). She immediately apologised and said she would move on; I didn’t know what to say so muttered some reply I don’t remember and hastily walked down the street.

A few minutes later I came back and she was still there. I asked whether she would like a glass of water or something else. She said she would love some clothes and if I had old sweatpants and a sweater that would be fantastic. So I gave her a Sewhouse 7 toaster sweater that I never wore and some old RTW sweats. She was grateful and went on her way.

Is this person going to be thinking about sustainability? I’d say not. Whilst it might be a bit of an extreme example I’m sure you get my point. When it comes to clothing, I am privileged that I had clothes to give to her with out giving anything up myself. I am privileged that I can buy dressmaking fabric from small boutiquey stores. I am privileged that I can call sewing a hobby that I feel like doing when I want to. And that’s just the beginning.

Collage sweater made by Time to Sew
Sewing a kid’s sweater with leftovers from other projects

I believe that the sustainability movement (or sustainable fashion, sustainable sewing, slow fashion – whichever bit you are interested in) needs to expand its horizons and have better engagement with the average consumer. There needs to be a bit of a message refashioning – being judgey and quoting endless statistics about the state of the fashion industry is not that inspiring. If anything I find it can be off putting and at times aggressive.

Making Sustainability Something for Everyone

We need to ditch the idea that privilege and affluence is the only way to be sustainable. Buying hugely expensive clothes/fabric or ditching things you own in favour of a new sustainably produced replacement – isn’t inclusive. What is more inclusive is celebrating the small actions that are accessible to everyone. For example, every time someone thinks about saving their scraps from the bin/recycling, buys something secondhand, makes something and loves it forever until it falls apart.

It’s been great to see the conversation around sustainability gaining interest and traction. The sustainable sewing theme month was chosen last month due to popular demand (nothing to do with me!), and there were so many great stories, projects and inspiration.

I’m ending here with an anecdote from from Sarah Corbett (founder of the Craftivist Collective). At a traditional placard waving protest outside a Primark, a lady asked Sarah if the fast fashion messages and statistics on the placards were true – the lady shopped there as it was where she could afford to buy gifts for the kids and grandkids. Stopped in her tracks, Sarah felt awful at the way that the campaign had made the  lady feel. So she gave the lady a card with the details of charity Labour Behind the Label, explained it and told her that consumers had power to ask for change. Whilst there is no way of knowing what the lady did in the end, Sarah did believe that the lady seemed quite purposeful and would have given the card with her receipt to the Primark store manager as Sarah had suggested.

Whilst this memory for Sarah continues to be a reason to encourage Craftivisim and the “gentle protest” movement (you can hear more about it on the Conscious Chatter podcast), at its heart I think this is about inclusiveness and making sure that we can all get involved and make a difference in our own way.

So if you are interested in trying to live (or sew) more sustainability, I’d really encourage you to look at the different areas of your life and seeing what changes you might be able to make. Any change is better than no change and it all adds up. Lets get started!

This is my last post as a guest editor of the Sewcialists. Thank you to everyone in this community for being so open and for sharing their personal stories, and especially Gillian for allowing me to lend my voice to this blog. Its been a humbling experience and long may the Sewcialists continue! If you’re interested in chatting more about sustainability matters I’m over at Time to Sew. Love, Kate.