I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for durable, small-scale, community-based economies–because that’s the only way we’re going to survive in this age of climate change. And I’ve been wondering, what does that mean for fashion? What would a sustainable system of clothing production look like?
Clothing swaps and bargain shopping events are a major step in the right direction. But new clothing still has to come from somewhere.
I really like The Social Skin’s vision of a sustainable textile industry. In it, fibers are grown locally whenever possible, including from animals like sheep and rabbits; local fabric shops create various types of cloth while paying their workers a living wage; people sew simple items at home, and take fabric to tailors for more complicated garments; and people care for their clothing carefully, using it until it wears out or selling it at consignment stores. Also, hats come back in style, providing work for local milliners–an idea which I can get behind 100%!
The way clothing would get made sounds wonderful:
You collaborate with the dressmaker on your garment design and in choosing your trimming and notions. She contributes expertise in fabric drapery and cut, suggestions on styles she has seen work before, and information on current fashion trends or historic styles as appropriate. You contribute your preferences on the style, cut, colors and fabrics that work for you. You might bring in pictures of clothes you’ve seen to be copied, with whatever adjustments you want, or your favorite old dress to be recreated in fresh fabric. All of your clothes fit you perfectly, are exactly the right length, height, and width in every place. The colors are always flattering to your complexion, the cuts always flattering to your figure, the style always exactly what you feel most comfortable and lovely wearing. What a dream!
There would be so much more room for creativity, and people of all sizes could get clothing they love, rather than being left out by corporations that don’t want their clothing seen on fat people.
All of these beautiful, natural fibers, fabrics, clothes and soft furnishings are more expensive than the old industrial, synthetic, polluting, sweatshop-produced textiles, because they are produced sustainably by people living near us. Therefore most of us cannot afford the large amounts of clothing and household textiles people were accustomed to in the dirty times. However, the quality is so much better, and everything is custom made exactly as we prefer, so the fewer items we do have are so much more satisfying than the piles of never-quite-exactly-right things we used to make do with.
How do we get to this kind of future from our current fast fashion system, in which both workers and natural resources are treated as disposable?
There are many people currently developing alternative types of clothing and ways of making clothing. Some of them are really promising, and I’ll be writing about a few of my favorites soon!
But in addition to such innovation, we also need structural social change on multiple levels:
1.) The price of clothings need to reflect the true costs of both the labor and fossil fuels that go into them. Then it would no longer be profitable for companies to constantly produce large amounts of low-quality clothing, made by poorly-treated workers and shipped around the world.
2.) We need a living wage for all, so that people can afford the upfront cost of buying more expensive, longer-lasting clothing. Right now, most people can’t afford to buy high-quality, ethically-produced clothes, let alone have clothing custom-made. Until we end the staggering inequality inherent to our economic system, sustainable fashion will only be something that makes well-off progressives feel good about themselves, rather than an option that’s accessible to everyone.
This is complicated, and it’s definitely easier said than done. But there are many ways to work against poverty and inequality, and they’re all important.
3.) Here in the US, we also need a shorter work week and more vacation time–that is, the European model (which could also help slow climate change). This way, people would have the time and energy to sew some of them own clothes. And if sewing isn’t their thing, they could trade something else (baked goods? computer help? car repair?) with their friends in exchange for sewing.
4.) Another thing that Europe does better than the US: universal health insurance. If we had it–or some other way of making healthcare affordable and accessible for everyone–then people wouldn’t have to worry about finding jobs with benefits. And that would make it a lot easier for people to become tailors, dressmakers, milliners, weavers, alpaca/sheep/rabbit-raisers, or other professions that contribute to a local, sustainable textile economy.