Thursday, January 12, 2012

But I still have to buy the fabric!

A while back I was perusing online videos and came across this one called "The Corporation". I started to watch it and then stopped about halfway through due to its rather depressing nature. Essentially they compare corporations to sociopaths. Unless you've been living under a rock, you might have noticed this goes along with the zeitgeist of our times.  But, I'm not going to get into all that. I'm gonna focus on one element. Cheap manufacturing of clothing brought to you by cheap labor. But here's the link if you feel like getting into it yourself.

So, fast forward a couple months and I get into a conversation with some friends that are definitely activists. They mentioned how they thought it was so cool I make my own clothes and not supporting an evil empire. Which yes, that is certainly a great side benefit but I came back with "Yeah, but I still have to buy the fabric".   This caused them to pause a moment and consider the implications of that. The manufacturing of fabric is just as problematic in the social justice and environmental arena as any other massively consumed goods. This caused me to ruminate a good bit on the topic.

I don't have a loom in my living room. Or my own sheep, or silk worms, or cotton fields. And speaking of cotton fields, that's a fairly touchy subject in the south. The above photo was used for promoting cotton clothing (Jezebel did an article on it). Beautiful photo, right? Yeah, it was rather upsetting to a certain demographic of people here.  Have you ever walked through a cotton field before it was picked? Those things are thorny nasty little bugger. If they didn't produce such an amazing textile we would have killed it as a weed.  And recently a friend sent me this article about Victoria's Secret cotton coming from Africa picked by underage girls.

Then there's that wonderful thing called Lycra whose patent is owned by The Koch Brothers (They're no Bill and Melinda Gates, but any stretch of the imagination).  Going further back, there was the Threads #149 article "No Waste Allowed" that had a fairly harrowing pictures of what the back side of a textile manufacturing plant looks like. Found a photo here if you want to look. And then going back to the above movie, the fact that the workers (usually young girls) get paid about $.06 per t-shirt made from those textiles. No idea what the actual textile workers are paid. I'm sure its not so awesome either. Though there are many arguments that employing people in developing nations is actually helping to raise their standard of living.  I'm certain that can be true, but many of the nations we're talking about do not have governments willing or capable of enforcing environmentalism and human rights.

So, what does that all add up to? For me it adds up to the fact I feel guilty every time I purchase fabric, or clothes at the store. I know that many other sewing bloggers have talked about, or at least mentioned, this issue. People have suggested buying thrifted items, or upcycling old tablecloths/curtains/whathaveyou and all the rest. I think these are all fantastic ideas. Heck, I made my son's costume out of an old bed sheet that had all manner of holes through it. Some of my favorite pieces of clothing have been thrifted. But for the most part I have trouble imagining a table cloth into work appropriate clothing.

Which brings us back to the title.  "But I still have to buy the fabric."  How do you, dear reader, feel about these issues? How do you reconcile the cognitive dissonance that comes from knowing these things intellectually?  I feel that every little bit helps, buying natural fibers, buy local, or buy 'made in my country'.  I feel its somewhat inevitable that we are going to run up against these issues in a globalized community, but it means making smarter choices whenever we are able.


  1. I know I struggle with this one lately I've been trying to only buy 'organic' fabric. The price tag is hefty though and I can only trust that the manufacturers are keeping to their word about their processes. There are labels out there, just as for food, but I don't know how much these things are supervised.

    However, this still doesn't address the workers' conditions, how they are paid, their environment, etc. There are some equitable labels for food, meaning that the laborers were supposedly correctly paid, but I haven't see this yet for cloth. I hope it comes soon!

  2. I think ultimately this is a problem that can't be solved by us as consumers---it will require regulation, mostly in the countries of manufacture. We absolutely can be thoughtful about what we buy, where we buy, who we buy from, and how much we use, and we can do our best to make sure that our own governments aren't contributing to the situation in developing countries.

    Personally, I have some reservation about the label "organic"---as I understand it it's not well regulated at all, and I'm not convinced that, for example, organic fertilizers produce runoff that's any better for local waterways than manufactured fertilizers. Both contain phosphates, nitrogen, etc. (I'm open to being convinced if the research is there, by the way. I am absolutely an environmentalist. I just want to know that our solutions are actually solutions.)

    Fabric manufacture is intensive and complex and really is not practical in the home environment except for a fairly limited range of fabrics---specialized spinners and weavers have existed for thousands of years, for very good reason. The solution, rather, is to improve regulation and processes everywhere. (This would also make local production viable again...) The downside, of course, would be increased prices. Personally, I think it would be worth it...

    After all that, I'm a really lousy activist. I buy second-hand when I can. I try to avoid the main businesses I know to be evil, but that doesn't mean that the ones I'm patronizing instead are actually better. I'm willing to eat locally when it's convenient, but Canada is really not the place for it in the winter...

    1. I am in agreement that it is not going to come directly from the consumer. We CAN, however, apply pressure. Though, most of my activism these days its directed toward education reform. I only have the energy for so many things so that is where I decided to direct mine.