The textile industry is the second most polluting industry on the planet after oil and gas. We are surrounded by its products, in our houses, on our bodies, but hardly ever give the people and the plants that keep us warm and looking good a second – or considerate – thought.
In our current issue we put the spotlight on fashion and fabrics and discuss ways in which Transition initiatives can ‘downshift the wardrobe’ from running sewing cafes in Lancaster to rethinking the runway in Crouch End (next Alternative Clothes Show happening on 22nd March)
Textiles in Transition
by William Lana
Textiles is a truly global industry. In many ways it was the starting point of the industrialisation of the world, kicked off in the 18th and 19th centuries by Britain’s cotton industry and trade. Labour-intensive garment production was one of the earliest to adopt the ‘logic’ of globalisation and in the last 50 years has been moving from the high-wage countries to lower and lower wage countries in a so-called race to the bottom…
The globalisation of the textile industry has meant that companies have shifted focus away from production and instead ‘bigged-up’ brand and marketing. Production is merely supply a management issue. This has led to a systemic exploitation of workers, including excessive hours, lack of job security, poverty wages, ill-health and denial of trade union rights.
To a transitioner this feels very unsatisfactory. We want to know where the raw materials have been grown, raised or made. We want to know what the energy input has been, how far the garment has come, and what toxic outputs have been created through its production. Who has made it and under what conditions? Quite apart from the concern that our bum doesn’t look big in it.
When we opened our Greenfibres shop in the mid 1990’s I remember some people walking by, saying “Organic textiles?! You don’t eat your socks!”. Apart from being incorrect (60% of the cotton harvest is cotton seed used for animal feed and vegetable oil) it made me realise just how disconnected we are from our textiles. They are all around us (literally), internationally employ over 26 million people (not including over 100 million farmers who grow cotton and other materials), and yet we have a very distant relationship to them.
How far have we come in 20 years? Hmmm…. not terribly. I’m heartened to see the real growth of the make and mend movement, that £13 million worth of organic textiles were sold in the UK in 2012 and that documentaries about the industry (such as Dirty White Gold investigating the high suicide rate of Indian cotton farmers). But it still feels like early days. Who’s asking questions about energy use? (one t-shirt requires approx. 1.7 kg of fossil fuel and generates approx. 4 kg of CO2). Can we even return to a less energy intensive textile industry? Who remembers how to ret or scutch flax? Where are the businesses who know how to process these fibres? Why is 95% of the cotton grown in the US from GM seed?
So what if we wanted to start bringing fibres and fabrics back home, what might that look like? Well, for starters …
- we’d get busy planting some hemp (and make it easier to get a licence – mine took 18 months)
- we’d re-introduce basic sewing into the primary school curriculum
- we’d pass legislation requiring historical information to be included on the barcode of garments, e.g. where the raw materials came from, and where the garment was made (a pair of Lee jeans can travel 40,000 miles from field to shelf).
Meanwhile what can the average transitioner do to side-step fast fashion? We can swap clothes with friends, purchase outerwear from charity shops, and if we do buy new items (for example underwear) consider an ethical supplier. If you buy textiles that you love and respect, you’re much less likely to add them to the 3 million ton annual pile which ends up in our bins. In a nutshell, we should be buying fewer textiles, of better quality, which can be mended. Now back to my tasty organic cotton socks.
William Lana co-founded the organic textile company Greenfibres in 1996 and is a trustee of Transition Network. He was Chair of the Soil Association’s Organic Textile Standards Committee from 2001-2012 and helped found the Organic Trade Board in 2008.
Images: seamstress for the fairtrade clothing company, People Tree : Transition reskilling; naturally dyed wools at the Guildhall Museum, Suffolk part of The Dye Garden Project 2014
For further reading: John Thackera on Routledge’s upcoming Handbook on Fashion and Sustainability http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-01-07/a-whole-new-cloth-politics-and-the-fashion-system