Sustainable Sewing: How your hobby saves the planet

What's Sustainable Sewing?

The whole idea behind “sustainability” in general and sustainable sewing in specific is that of leaving a minimal impact on the planet.  This idea incorporates issues like carbon footprint, waste creation and disposal, and labor practices.  Nowadays, producers and designers are always under public scrutiny and those who operate without eco-integrity face an onslaught of negative press, particularly in social media, given the connectivity made possible by the internet.

sustainable sewing

When it comes to fashion and sewing, among other things, sustainability means quality and durability as well as the incorporation of more timeless designs that can be worn for years rather than replaced or thrown away as soon as the style or fad changes.  A garment represents sustainable sewing when it is well-constructed (ie. made-to-last) out of eco-friendly natural fibre fabrics that will last longer than your standard disposable/cheap fashion.

Fashion industry is the second largest pollutant worldwide!

I was shocked to learn that according to Ecowatch, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter worldwide, after the oil industry!  That's really hard to imagine but appears to be true.  We wrote about some of these concerns, in our recent article Why Millennials Should Learn To Sew where we wrote about how 3.8 billion pounds of textile waste are being dumped into the country’s landfills every year.

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Additionally, a whopping 25% of the world’s pesticides are used in non-organic cotton cultivation.   But the real effects come after you’ve bought and finished using the garment, when it gets thrown away: that’s when two thirds of the damage gets done.

Just think of all the elements involved in the lifespan of a shop-bought garment: raw materials, textile manufacture, garment construction, shipping and retail, wearing and then disposal…now multiply this by three or four times because the item or the style was not designed to last and get replaced frequently.

Not only the pesticides, the terrible heavy metal poisoning from toxic dyes and the non-degradable, discarded items polluting ground and water but just consider the massive amount of natural resources and fuels which are used in the manufacturing, shipping and marketing of these short-lived items. More than 2000 gallons of water goes into manufacturing just one cotton t-shirt while in some countries women walk 20 miles to fetch just a couple of gallons from a drying well.

Shipping is one of the key culprits

Considering the fact that most raw materials are shipped around the world from countries like India, China and the US, to developing countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan where the clothing gets manufactured because the labor is cheap.  The finished garments are then shipped back to Europe and the US or wherever the clothing is to be sold.  The fuel costs and the carbon footprint must be immense.  One cargo ship expels the same amount of noxious gas in 1 year as 50 million cars. You need only imagine the kind of damage being done in the long term!

sustainable sewing

Surely it makes sense to sew items yourself, adding time, effort, quality and sentimental value to items you’d sooner pass down as heirlooms than discard.  Fill your wardrobe with a combination of sturdy basics and custom made favorites of which you’ll simply never tire and rest assured that you will minimize the impact you are having on our precious environment and resources.

Things to consider when sewing a sustainable garment:

You need to ensure that you’re choosing a sustainable fabric. This depends on…

  • The sustainability of the fibre source, i.e.: how water/pesticide/insecticide heavy is the farming practice for this source.
  • The sustainability of the textile manufacturing process, including the dying and the shipping process and…
  • The working conditions of the people involved in manufacturing it, surely you don’t want to advocate any enterprise which abuses or underpays the people who are doing all the hard work.
sustainable sewing

Burned Sweatshop Garment Factory After Fire Disaster

The best place to start is first by opting for natural materials, in everything from your choice of thread to your choice of buttons. Natural materials are all those which are not petroleum based.  Another option is of course the use of either recycled or upcycled fabrics…although these may limit your options and be more expensive to source.

You can learn some more about recent Amazing Eco-Friendly Fabric Innovations by checking out our article on the topic.

Sustainable Sewing:  Sewing for Posterity

Considering the fact that such a large percentage of environmental damage is related to clothing being so “disposable”, a sensible answer for sustainable sewing or eco-fashion is simply to sew for posterity.  Why not sew items you will treasure, keep and even hand down to other generations.  This means items made of natural fibres which are strong and resilient, in styles that will stand the test of time.  If you do grow bored with them, simply store them some place safe to either pass down or unearth a few seasons hence.

I know from experience that unpacking the storage closet can be a lot of fun and what’s boring now can be extra exciting after a time.  Absence, after all, only makes the heart grow fonder.  Better yet, when you sew sustainable items for friends and family you are helping them to support the environment too!

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5 Responses to Sustainable Sewing: How your hobby saves the planet

  1. Tanya says:

    Sustainable cotton and wool fabrics are making a comeback in the US; however, the color palette is very limited. Unless you eco-dye (like I do sometimes), your color fabric sources would have to include purchasing sustainable fabrics from overseas. Another national option is Spoonflower, which keeps sustainable fabrics in stock for eco-printing. It reduces the carbon footprint but it’s a bit expensive.

  2. kt says:

    I would love to see you share some sources for the more eco-friendly materials, if you have some. I work in a fabric store, where my allergies are heightened only in the building and leave when I leave, due to the chemicals from the treatments on the fabrics, as well as the dust created by the constant cutting of some of them. I rarely buy any of their fabric, as a lot is produced in China and other overseas places, where consideration of our ecosystem, as well as seemingly little regard for quality (i.e. crooked printing) is rampant.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Shipping fabric across the world in cargo ships would still be a problem if everyone sewed. In my own country the only fibres we would be able to produce if there were no cargo ships would be wool and linen. No more cotton.

  4. Linda says:

    Very thought provoking…never considered this before…

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