Looking into Sustainable Textiles, Part One

Wherever you fall on the diet spectrum, you can find loads of information about the food you eat.  If you survive on junk food, you are surrounded by warnings to change your ways, and once you decide to switch to healthy habits, you can find information on preventing disease from Alzheimer’s to yellow fever. No matter how specialized the category, you can figure out from food labels if that food fits your requirements.  You can find fair trade, non-genetically modified, organic, gluten-free anything if you want it, and you can find out its country of origin too.   A bag of dog treats has to tell you what’s in them and where they came from.

But when it comes to textiles, there is nothing like this level of information available.

All I want to know is, where was the cotton grown, what chemicals are in the dyes, where was it spun, woven, and printed?

Manufacturers have to tell you fiber content, but beyond that, you can’t find out much.  I want the fabrics I buy to be processed in environmentally and socially responsible ways.  The fabric mills are not actively promoting their fabrics as ethical — does that mean they don’t know its importance to their customers?  Or does it mean they would prefer I don’t know how bad their processing practices are?  (Back to the food label comparison — the dog treats that are made in the USA have big stamps on the package proclaiming that; the ones made elsewhere bury the information in the small print beneath the ingredient list.  So I feel like if the fabric mills were proud of their practices, they would make sure to tell us about it.)

For the last few months, I have been trying to read about sustainability and responsibility in the textile industry.  The problems are so overwhelming and so interconnected, that I can only stand to read a little at a time.

You probably have some idea of the problems wrapped up with the textile industry:

  • cotton is one of the most irrigated crops
  • 25% of the insecticides in the world are used in cotton production (Organic Trade Association)
  • most of the people applying pesticides to the cotton have no protection from them and face horrible health problems as a result
  • the chemicals used can build up in the soil and water
  • there are high energy costs from transporting textiles to different countries for each step of their processing
  • millions of workers face unsafe conditions, including being locked into their factories and being forced to work overtime
  • millions of garments are worn just a few times, then dumped, or passed on to a donation center — and 90% of those are baled up and sent overseas to be resold, undercutting local textile industries

I am specifically interested in the textile craft industry.  I know there are a few products out there that are organic and fair trade, and of course we have literally tons of material available we can re-use.  But as far as new materials — what are the human and environmental costs of quilting fabrics, weaving thread, knitting yarns?  Are there any organizations or websites that have established standards, where we can quickly determine what companies and products (if any) meet our own standards?

Are these fibers and fabrics as safe as they look?

Most of the information I can find concerns the fashion segment of the industry.  I know all of you are concerned about these issues too, so I thought I would share what I’ve been learning in a series of posts.

For an overview, I recommend the video The True Cost.  The film makers did an excellent job of putting a human face on each of these aspects.   The Bangladeshi garment worker Shima Akhter in particular is so animated and well-spoken — there are 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh, and Shima represents them so clearly.  (If you do watch the video, be aware that there a few brief violent scenes, so you may not want to have children viewing with you.  And if you aren’t inclined to watch the video, you can pick up most of the same information on its website at the link above.)

But although the video does an excellent job of presenting industry problems clearly and concisely, it doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of solutions.  Primarily, the filmmakers suggest buying fair trade clothing from upscale designers.  It seems to me that the video’s target audience is the small segment of the fashion market that is female, between sizes 2 and 18, who can afford to spend $200 for a plain white cardigan or $680 (no, that is not a typo) for a pair of shorts.  Here’s why I say that:  there are several segments showing young shoppers shallowly bragging about all the bargains they have scored in a day’s shopping, and how cute they are going to look, but there is not anything in the film that addresses those young fashionistas directly, saying, “Here, let me show you how to express yourself in a way beyond shopping.”

Maybe you could embroider your own design on something.

Maybe you could embroider your own design on something.

There is a lot of talking about the evil heads of large corporations, and how they misdirect attention from larger issues and make young consumers feel they have to shop — “I can’t afford a house, but I afford 4 t-shirts.”   (My thought was, “Really?  The connected generation is powerless to recognize the manipulation of a GAP ad?”)

The website associated with the video has an extensive list of resources for further reading though, and I am looking forward to following those links.

Next up:  Five Books on Sustainable Fashion and What I Learned