I'm going to take a break from market research on sustainable apparel to write about . . . sustainable apparel, from the textile art-design-craft-authenticity point of view. I've been reading about this market for three months now, and there are some very innovative and committed designers, entrepreneurs, artists and crafters; there are also some who just seem to want to jump on a trend. They're making exaggerated claims and counting on consumers not to scratch too deeply. This is pretty standard for an industry that's suddenly a runaway train, and a train people will pay more to be on, but until there are more consistent and clarified standards we all have to educate ourselves; Organic Clothing is a great blog if you want to dig into this.
Right now, there are just a few resources for those who want to buy organic or other sustainable fabrics by the yard in small quantities. Yarn is a little easier; there are beautiful organic cotton and wool yarns in many colors, and I'll post about those separately. For fabric, here are some online retailers:
- NearSeaNaturals specializes in organic and sustainable fabrics and notions. This is a good place to buy Harmony Art organic cotton fabrics by the yard. It would be fun to do some beading or overdying or color printing on this one, or use as is:
- Rawganique, a clothing manufacturer, has European hemp fabrics by the yard
- Aurora Silk has beautiful wild, muga and peace silks (wherein the silkworm is not killed, and I'm confident Cheryl is very conscious about ethical treatment of human workers too).
- ModGreenPod has decorator-weight organic cotton prints -- bright and lively.
- Silk Road Fabrics in Austin has organic cotton chambray and flannel.
- Hart's Fabric, a fabulous store in Santa Cruz, has a selection of eco-friendly fabrics. Some of these are more eco-friendly than others; see below.
- Dharma Trading has some organic cottons and blends of soy, hemp, and bamboo that can be dyed, and organic cotton t-shirt blanks.
- Hancock's of Paducah has organic cotton sheeting in muslin and gingham checks.
- PurlSoho has O-Wool's truly gorgeous organic wool melton (be ready for sticker shock: $65/yd) and a few other selections.
- Equilter.com has organic sheeting, cotton fleece, and eco-felt. Note that their "organically dyed cottons" are not actually organic cotton; they are conventional cotton dyed with nontoxic dyes. Still a good step. They also offer organic cotton batting, as do many other quilting suppliers.
I'm happy to add to this list if you have other sources. Most of these are not inexpensive, and if you need something quickly or need particular colors, your choices are limited. This is going to change -- I'm sure of that. There is far too much interest and growing awareness of the need for reform in the textile industry. And that brings me to my list of Some Things I 've Learned about sustainable garment and textile production.
- It Matters. The textile manufacturing industry, a $500 billion global behemoth, is highly polluting -- from enormous quantities of pesticides used on cotton to harmful treatments and dyes. It also has a track record of very poor social responsibility and ethical treatment of workers. We've outsourced it all to developing countries so we don't see the mess, but it's there. Our global culture can do better.
- It's Not Just the Fiber. Growing or sourcing fiber responsibly, whether man-made or plant- or animals-based, is just the beginning. As mentioned above,the dyes, finishes, and treatments that turn the fiber into the glorious fabrics we love can be highly toxic. There are alternatives; we don't have to sacrifice color or texture. But the textile industry does have to invest resources into developing those alternatives and putting them into widespread use.
- Tell It Like It Is. What does "sustainable" mean, anyway? Not much. It's supposed to mean that all resources will be replenished, and there will be no net cost to the environment for future generations, but it's come to mean -- well, just about anything that is vaguely eco-ish, or even the palest shade of green. Thus we have a lot of claims being made and things being called sustainable that aren't, so much. To me the worst offender for exaggerated claims is bamboo. The process used to turn bamboo into fabric is similar to that of rayon, and quite chemical-intensive. Claims are made that no pesticides are ever used on bamboo; not true. And the claims that it is both antibacterial and biodegradable contradict each other. I haven't seen anything that convinces me that fabric made of bamboo is antibacterial. Soy- and corn-based fabrics are also flawed; they're made from genetically modified crops, leading to more pesticide use and decreasing biodiversity. Now, these are still better than some of the other choices available. Bamboo is a highly renewable crop that doesn't use pesticides in the way that cotton does. Soy and corn, even GMO, are probably better than petroleum-based synthetics (though petroleum is the base for the pesticides used on these crops). So nothing is simple; there are many shades of gray. This is why, for me, organic fibers, and especially the new GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label for processed textiles, have the most meaning and credibility. Yet organic cotton (and much textile processing) uses a lot of water, so that's a consideration; there are always multiple factors at play.
- We Buy Too Many Cheap Clothes. Planned obsolescence is at the heart of our current system of fashion. Styles, colors and trends change radically from month to month, and you can just go to Old Navy or Wal-Mart and buy something new and incredibly cheap. The Slow Fashion movement says: change it. Buy fewer clothes, and buy better-made clothes so they'll last longer. Choose colors that will go with what you already have. This kind of investment dressing or European-style approach to clothing has long been recommended by style experts, but it's up to us to put it into practice.
- Take the Long View. The fashion and textile industry is not going to change overnight. But just as the industry has to start making incremental and meaningful changes, so can we. Replacing your wardrobe isn't the answer -- nothing is sustainable about that. But at the right time, just one purchase of an organic cotton or wool fabric or batting or yarn, or one item of clothing that is well-made from appropriate fibers with non-toxic processing and ethical labor practices, helps support change in the industry.