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!
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.
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.
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Kate, you’ll be missed! Except we won’t let you get away that easily, and hope to keep having you back for posts in the future! 😉
I love the way you’ve written this piece – thoughtful, thought-provoking, and gentle. I’ve felt a better understanding of the sustainable sewing movement myself this year, and I’m seeing ways that I can participate without giving up my beloved poly and fast sewing! Can’t wait to see where the sewing community has shifted to in another year!
Thanks Gillian, I’m REALLY happy that you liked reading this and got something out of the sustainable sewing thing. This year my education has been opening my eyes to the challenges that people face – whether its feeling included, overcoming medical or other issues for example – and we are all somehow linked together by a common love of sewing. Its just brilliant and I think I have become a kinder person for it. Thank you!
You know, I grew up incredibly poor, like too often my mom got food from dumpsters poor. I don’t think I’ve ever lived that sustainable again. We used stuff until it was threadbare, shopped thrift stores, mended and repaired. It’s that twenty years of my life that taught me most important things. I’m trying to get back to that, minus the eating from dumpsters, because thinking about sustainability might be a thing for more affluent people, but living sustainable is another ball game and one I was much better at before I started earning better wages.
Hi Wilma, you know I have heard this kind of story before. Of growing up with nothing and then almost overcompensating for it when you get a job that pays and suddenly you can buy all the stuff. Growing up in a Western society taught me (perhaps subconsciously) that what is valuable is owning a lot of stuff. Which is totally contrary to my frugal parents who still wear sometimes wear my old sweatpants from when I was a teenager. I am trying to find the balance; good luck with yours! X
I actually don’t buy all the stuff as I’m pretty frugal, which is why I’m quick to feel uncomfortable when I have a lot of fabric as that’s the one thing I do buy more often!
It was clothes for my daughter that first got me thinking about all this; I can’t stand the thought of such a wonderful little person running around in clothes that have caused harm in the world in any small way. But when both time and money are tight it is hard to know what I can do for the best. I like what you say about honoring the small steps, without aggression or judgement. Right now, small steps are my only way in, but if we take enough of them collectively we stand to make a big difference.
Hello Amy, thanks for your comment. I know the feeling of not wanting to cause harm. It might sound like a cliche but it is true that when I had my little boy, my perspective on the world definitely shifted and I think it made me a kinder person overall. The small steps are definitely worth remembering – just imagine if all of us for example reused a plastic bag or brought our own!
This topic is something that sits in my mind pretty frequently. It does seem like most advocates of sustainable living on social media are constantly consuming–buying expensive clothing, eco-friendly cleaning supplies, jewelry, etc. But consumption isn’t the point of sustainability, and the whole culture of it with its rich, thin, white participants rubs me the wrong way. Sustainability doesn’t look accessible or desirable to people who don’t fit those categories.
Additionally, the whole business rubs me wrong because while there is a lot we as consumers can do to be eco-friendly, much of the problems in the world like water pollution, carbon emissions, smog, etc, aren’t directly perpetuated by consumers. They happen from a handful of companies in industry, which is much harder for the average consumer to change.
Anyway, I have to agree that inclusive sustainability differs from what we see much of the time.
Hi Louise! Thanks for your comment. I totally agree that it so often seems like sustainability is no different from exactly what we do now except that the stuff you buy is potentially more sustainably produced. It frustrates me immensely!
As for industry change, we absolutely need it as well as the grassroots movements and in the fashion world I have met so many people who push for change from within. But I don’t think that we can forget that the louder the consumer voices become the more impetus there is for change. Having said that one of the challenges I am told is that it is easy to give lip service to sustainability but the buying behaviour doesn’t reflect it…
Hi, Kate. That was a very lovely post. It was thoughtful, substantive, and gentile at the same time – not an easy balance on this topic.
There was a very similar progression through the slow food movement a few years back. Proponents of slow food advocated for lower income households to prioritize eating fresh food, preferably around the family table. However, what they couldn’t initially grasp is that despite its drawbacks (of which there are many), fast food was an affordable way for working parents who could not devote the time or resources to cooking to feed their kids. Making people feel badly for feeding their kids fast food, when they didn’t have other viable options, just made them feel badly about themselves. It’s important for us to remember that sometimes people are just trying to feed and clothe their families.
Those of us who do have options and resources should consider ways we can make better choices for the environment. With everything, while we should do what we can and continue to strive to improve, we should not let perfect be the enemy of good. Taking our own bags to the grocery store is better than not doing anything.
Thanks for a great post!
I belong to some non-consumer and upcycle sewing Facebook groups which are inspirational and practical.There’s a lot more to the linkage between privilege and sustainability that we need to explore and cut through. Thanks for writing this!
Thank you, Kate for bringing some clarity and common sense. People want to see absolutes–all right or all wrong–maybe to make decision-making easier? I don’t know. This entire “new” concept of sustainability is a bit baffling to me, since humans have been conserving and reusing resources since we learned how to harvest food and make clothing. It’s odd to think there is an inclusion problem because sustainability is rooted in scarcity. All of the vintage aficionados here are familiar with making clothes from flour sacks during the Depression years and the Make Do and Mend methods of WWII. When you have almost nothing, sustainability is no longer a choice. It is the only way to survive.
But I do get what you’re saying about the social media bubble. It seems very faddish and “must-do but only in this particular way that I’m showing you in my perfect flatlay”. The weirdness of this new mentality was really brought home to me when a young relative called me for advice on her clothes. She wanted to get rid of all of her “bad” clothes (Forever 21, H&M, etc) and buy a completely new wardrobe of sustainably produced clothes. That’s just one young woman’s reaction to the fad, but multiply that by thousands or millions and we’ve got a problem.
I was thrilled to see people at so many different points of the sustainability continuum during the Sewcialists’ sustainability month. It reaffirmed my opinion that sewers are more astute and more deliberately thoughtful than the population at large.
Barbara kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior is a great read and it gives good food for thought concerning the different ideations of what it means to be sustainable and affluent versus sustainable and poor. I highly recommend it. Thanks for a great article.
Great article. I have often pondered similar concerns with the new ‘veganism’ trend. I know I battle guilt and confusion often at the supermarket. Even buying a block of chocolate… Is it fair trade, organic, locally made, high in cocoa? In the end I usually buy what’s on special!
Important stuff. I think sustainability is a privilege issue, but only because that’s the only way anyone can make money from it, so we see companies like People Tree marketing lovely clothes that are made in a sustainable way, and people come away with the impression that there’s just one route to sustainable fashion – shopping. In reality, the most sustainable lifestyles are lived by those with less money, simply because they watch the pennies.
[Whoops – pressed enter too early, sorry.] The win-win comes when we can find a way to incentivise people to do the right thing, whether that’s by making it easier or cheaper – or, ideally, both!
I have been wrestling with similar thoughts to this – thank you for putting it into words. Great post!
Sustainable sewing? It’s an interesting conundrum. The elitist bubble is definitely an issue. Sustainable fabric is like organic food, expensive. I choose to have a small wardrobe, and I sew all of it from quality natural fabrics and it lasts for a long time. But they are expensive fabrics. I don’t sew with polyester but I must admit I sew with Gutterman polyester thread, never thinking that it’s not sustainable .For those of us who are politically active there are many, many issues these days. I Sustainable clothing is a small, small part of our environmental problems, at least on the level of the individual sewer. We do what we can, but it’s hard not to see this as elitist.
I appreciate the ideas of sustainability in the world and sustainability in the sewing room. I can’t afford the beautiful, sustainable things featured in glossy magazines and websites. I can’t afford to shop sustainably on a tight purse. But, I stopped buying fast fashion and I’ve been sewing or buying second hand clothes as much as possible .I have a small budget for crafts. My approach to sustainable sewing is to reuse materials. This could be reusing a dress I’ve grown tired of and making a blouse out of it…….or buying items such as a linen tablecloth at a second hand shop and dyeing it and using the fabric for a project. I save scraps for patches and quilty things. Mend, reuse…….it’s an old school mentality. The creativity involved in REvisualizing things is extremely satisfying to me as well. I do what I can and have fun with it. Love your website……I find the inclusivity very inspiring!
Hi Cleopatra, thanks for your comment. I think it’s really important that people realise that sustainability isn’t a new thing and isn’t about buying all the expensive things in magazines – so thank you for sharing your approach!
[…] Before I dig into the discussion, a brief mention of diversity. Having been to a few sustainable fashion events in London in the past year, I do notice the crowd is a bit of a bubble with a lot of familiar faces to say hi to. Whilst this is no bad thing given a lot of people work extremely hard within the fashion industry to effect change, I do wonder when (or if) these events will start to see more diverse attendance? The demographic is 95% women, all quite well dressed, mostly white. Age wise there are many in my age group. The next biggest group seemed to be those in their 20’s (students maybe?) and there was a scattering of people from my mother’s generation. Whilst it didn’t feel like an exclusive event, the narrow demographic was noticeable (my views on sustainability and inclusion can be found on the Sewcialists blog here) […]