On textiles, consumers and sustainability
April 21, 2021
It’s Fashion Revolution Week this week, commemorating the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 that killed over 1000 garment workers, mostly young women, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, Fashion Revolution has sought to demand action to increase transparency in the global textile industry and to end the industry’s exploitation of people and the environment.
To highlight these themes of transparency and sustainability (economical, ecological and social) in the textile industry, I’m writing a few blog posts about the topic and this is the first one. I thought I’d start by talking about textiles from a consumer’s viewpoint.
Me, a consumer
In addition to working with textiles myself, I am also a consumer. I’m a consumer who knows quite a bit about the textile industry, and still (or maybe because of exactly that) I feel inexplicably small when I’m trying to navigate the field and make sustainable choices as a consumer.
The realities of the global textile industry are harsh: overproduction, environmental issues, unsafe working conditions, low wages and the general lack of transparency among others. Being aware of these issues certainly gives me anxiety, and so I wanted to share a few strategies that have helped me overcome them at least a little bit.
The following is of course not an exhaustive list of measures to take nor are the strategies in any particular order—rather, it’s a collection of the strategies I make use of in my daily life when it comes to wanting to become a more responsible consumer.
Strategies for consuming sustainably
In terms of sustainability and textiles in my own life, I have five main strategies. I mainly talk about clothing here, but I apply these strategies to interior textiles and other products as well—shoes, furniture, you name it!
- Shop less
- Shop second hand & recycle
- Buy from local, transparent companies
- Make it yourself
My biggest strategy for consuming textiles in a sustainable manner is that I deliberately avoid shopping. I feel very strongly that fast fashion has tricked us into believing that we constantly need new clothes to stay relevant and in style, and in my opinion that’s really not a sustainable way to live. I do follow some fashion brands on social media in order to keep up their collections (mainly out of professional interest), but I don’t buy new clothes just because they are trendy.
The simple decision of not letting myself go into stores to be tempted to buy clothes keeps me from buying new things on a whim—especially because I practically never buy clothes online. Rather, I deliberate over every purchase, often over the course of days, weeks or even months. This is a habit I’ve had for several years: I always aim to buy clothes because I need them, not because I simply want more of them.
When I really do need to shop for clothes, I always ask myself: do I really need this item? Is it going to last in its intended use? Is it versatile and compatible with the rest of my wardrobe? Does it add something to my wardrobe, or is it a near duplicate of something I already own in form or function? And, of course, I ask myself if I can find the item used!
Shop second hand
Buying used clothing is something I’ve started to do more and more regularly during the past few years. Whenever I need something for my wardrobe, I think about whether I could find it second hand—either in a thrift shop or in a local online marketplace (these are quite common where I live). Likewise, if I don’t use a garment at all but it’s in good condition, someone else might use it so I try to sell or donate it. Giving garments a new life in someone else’s wardrobe is always a good idea!
However, I must note that the fact that second hand stores exist is not an excuse to buy more and more clothing. At least here in Finland, second hand stores receive so much clothing as donations that they cannot process it all and some of it gets sent abroad. This is hardly a desirable outcome, even when the underlying thought of circulating used clothing is a good one in itself. I myself prefer donating or selling any used clothing straight to an another person, because I believe that this way the clothing actually gets use.
The thing with buying second hand is you can never quite know what you’ll find, and so sometimes finding something specific takes a few visits to different thrift stores (and even then you might not find exactly what you’re looking for). This is why I find it easiest to shop second hand when I don’t plan too strictly. For example, if I need a pair of jeans, I try to avoid having ideas on the cut or on the colour, and just try to keep an open mind to see what’s available! What helps me a lot with second hand shopping is that I’m not particularly picky about my clothes being trendy—rather, I like my clothes practical, comfortable and long-lasting.
Buy from local, transparent companies
When buying new items, I pay attention to the company’s ecological footprint, the place of production and the materials used. I prefer companies that are very transparent about these things and have the information available on their website in the form of a sustainability report or the like.
Very few textile companies are actually perfect when it comes to sustainability, so instead of expecting perfection I think it’s important to look at the overall picture and evaluate how much the companies are doing for sustainability. I try to think about sustainability as a spectrum, not as an “ON/OFF” situation where a company either is 100% sustainable or not sustainable at all.
Also, I think it’s useful to focus on what I myself value the most: when choosing which company’s products to buy, is my top criterion going to be local production, environmentally friendly materials, or maybe something else? It can be hard to weigh all the different factors and to know whether product A is more sustainable than product B, so I find that deciding which aspect is most important for me helps me make a decision.
Repairing/mending broken clothing is definitely a good habit to adopt. Some basic sewing skills go a long way in repairing a broken zipper, a hole or a broken seam, and that little repair can give your garment a whole new life!
Your most ecological garment is the one already in your wardrobe, so use it gently, wash as instructed and don’t let a minor flaw keep your from using it. If you don’t know how to repair your clothing, ask a friend or a family member to teach you, or ask a local tailor if they do repairs!
Make it yourself
Making clothes by yourself takes a lot of time, but I find that once I make a piece of clothing myself, I really do wear it often! It’s like a reward being able to wear something that you worked so many hours for, and I wouldn’t think of throwing away something I made. Plus, you can make things that really fit you! If you want to combine DIY and second hand, making clothes from second-hand fabric can also be a rewarding experience! You can use vintage fabrics to get a really unique look for your garments.
The perfect consumer doesn’t exist
I’m of course not 100% perfect as a responsible and sustainable consumer, and I occasionally end up buying things that don’t match the criteria I’ve discussed. I get annoyed at myself for buying items that are not the most sustainable; however, for me it’s important to think about these choices in my daily life and to try to make purchases accordingly as much as possible. And with time I do get better and better at making those choices! It’s really about the little steps, which become habits over time.
That’s my two cents on how I navigate textiles and sustainability as a consumer. In what ways does sustainability direct your consumer behaviour and habits?