Who made your clothes?

Sounds obvious, but how often do you think about the fact that someone made the clothes you are wearing. How often do you think about or appreciate the work involved? Where are the materials from? How far has it travelled? Earlier in the year, I vowed to be a bit more thoughtful about the clothes I wear and the clothes I buy. It wasn’t an easy task, and I came across a few dilemmas, choices and hurdles. As is the theme of most of my blogs,a making the ‘right’ choices takes time and effort.

First, I buy new clothes better

Much has been written about the environmental impact of clothing. There are clearly materials to avoid (cotton uses a lot of water, synthetic fibres use oil), but others are hard to categorise as either good or bad. For example, I’m a big fan of merino wool – it’s a renewable, natural fibre and keeps me really warm, but breeding animals is notoriously carbon and methane intensive.

When I do buy new, I want to do good. I found that this is possible, but expensive. There are some great companies out there that have made great commitments on the environment – Patagonia for one. I found an ethical company that tells you where your clothes come from. Everything they sell is traceable using a code printed on the label, so you can understand the stories behind the items you buy.

The second point is about fast fashion. Too many of the clothes we buy are single-use. Christmas jumpers, for example. A report earlier in the year accused the fast fashion industry of being ‘the largest industrial polluter after aviation’. Over time, the number of clothes bought has risen, and the average length of time each one is worn has decreased. So I’ve vowed to pay more money for fewer things that will last me a long time, than buy something cheap and wear it once before I throw it away.

Trouble is, buying better is not cheap. I discovered Veja, a company that makes shoes from recycled plastic bottles, Amazonian rubber & organic cotton. My favourites (in case my mum and dad are reading and want to get me something for my birthday) come in at £90, much more than my usual budget for shoes.

Until the companies feeding the fast fashion frenzy get some eco-conscience, or their consumers ask them to, then it’s not likely much will happen in the global fashion space. Cheap clothes flood the market, and ‘buying better’ remains the choice of a privileged few. This is evidenced by the fact that at even companies engulfed in scandal because of poor environmental or human rights practices still make a profit.

Second, I buy second hand more often

My local Transition Group organises regular thrift sales of second hand clothing. I live in a student town, so it’s a neat way of getting fashion advice from people who are much more likely to know their stuff than me. They also use the website Depop to sell second hand clothes. I completely missed #SecondHandSeptember, Oxfam’s excellent campaign to encourage people to buy second hand and pledge to shop only second hand for 30 days or more. Why not try it!

I’ve also discovered that you can buy recycled clothing. I own a neoprene wetsuit (bought second hand), and recently discovered that you can buy recycled ones too (at some cost). I found a Dutch company where you can buy or rent jeans for a monthly fee. If you rent, you swap the old ones for new ones. Again, at some cost.

Third, I make things more often

This was a lofty ideal, but it turned out to be hard work. Earlier in the year, during the spring lockdown, I signed up to make some scrubs for local NHS staff. It was an extraordinary project bringing NHS volunteers, an art school and a textiles supplier together with people with sewing machines to make thousands of sets of scrubs. I happily volunteered, thinking it wouldn’t be too taxing. A number of late nights later, with strained eyes and a painful back, I was fed up with the job.

I clearly had no idea about hard work. Or physical labour. I also learned that I had very little idea about the work involved in making things. Every time I see a picture of someone in scrubs on the television, I am reminded of the fiddly ‘V’ at the neck line, the struggle to get the pockets lined up, the struggle with the trouser drawstring, the hours of finishing off and tying up loose threads.

I also tried to made Halloween cape for my eldest. Faced with the option of buying a single-use, synthetic (yet very cheap and convenient) option at the local supermarket, I decided to go to the bother of making one myself. I spent over £8 on a charity shop dress and about 4 hours of my spare time on my sewing machine making a unique, hand-made cloak for my little vampire, who wore it out of politeness and told me after school that his friend’s (shop-bought) costume was better.

I was very proud of myself, but my choice may have made good environmental sense, but poor economic sense. If you factor 4 hours of my time plus the cost of the raw materials, I had created the most expensive Halloween outfit in the entire neighbourhood. And admittedly, the £4.99 version from Morrisons looked better. What is one to do?

The solution is, of course, to really think whether you need what you are about to buy. I still remember one writer describing fast fashion as ‘like gorging on junk food; bad for us and bad for the planet’. She’s right. The less we buy, eat, wear, and have, the less our impact overall. At the very lest, we should think a little more about what we do and if we really need to do it at all.

As ever, let me know your thoughts!

What YOU can do

  • Consider not buying at all – ask yourself if you really, really, really need it!
  • Make things more often – if you have the skills and equipment
  • Buy more second hand – charity shops, ebay, gumtree, depop
  • Buy new better – choose companies whose values you support, and materials that have less environmental impact.

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