The Ethics of Craft
In light of the Bangladeshi factory collapse there has been renewed attention on the manufacturing of mass-produced, high street clothing. Brands like Gap and Bennetton have come into the firing line for producing their clothes under poor working and pay conditions. This has resulted in moral condemnation and a few op-ed pieces on sustainably and ethically sourced clothing, with an outcry for better regulation and legislation to protect garment workers.
Meanwhile those who make their own clothes have sat on the sidelines, comfortably assured of their position on the moral high ground. If you make your clothes yourself then you can be sure that the conditions under which they were produced, right? The only worker who was harmed in the process of making that dress was you, as you battled to finish it before that all-important wedding or party.
But can we in the crafting community be so sure that the clothes we make have pure origins? I began to think about this after reading the horrific stories of workers trapped for hours under the rubble, all in the name of making a cheap t-shirt, and I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that I couldn’t be that sure that what I made at home had any better provenance than a pair of jeans brought on the high street.
I’m not innocent in this debate and as I write this I am wearing a Gap vest top bought for a grand total of £5. In the last month I have brought clothes from brands who I know, or at least suspect, have less than perfect manufacturing standards and that does not even take into account the environmental impact of the clothes I buy. But being honest with ourselves about the goods we buy and the clothes we make is the first step to changing the world for the better.
To try and better understand the impact of the clothes I had made I thought I would look at some of the designs I had come up with and see if I could find out more about how they were sourced. My first port of call was the Taking Liberties dress that I made last year. It didn’t take much research to discover that Liberty Fabric is made in the UK at a factory in Lancaster. They have even posted a video of the fabric being printed on their website.
So far so good. But this doesn’t take into account environmental impact of this particular cloth, more on that later.
The fabric only forms part of the garment and the thread and its origins are just as important. In this case I used Guttermans Sew all Thread, which their website proudly declares is made in Germany. In both cases both Guttermans and Liberty make it easy to find out where their products are made of but there is still the question of where the raw materials come from.
I had a similar problem when looking into the provenance of the materials for my current knitting project: a Lion Brand Yarn pattern, entitled ‘My First Sweater’ (yes really!). This pattern calls for Lion Brand Wool-Ease Chunky in Wheat. On the Lion Brand website they make it quite hard to find out where their products are made. The ‘About’ section of the doesn’t list this information but if you dig about a bit you will find a blog post dating back to February 2012 listing the Lion Brand Yarns which are made in the USA. Wool-Ease isn’t on this list so that it doesn’t answer my question, and I don’t have the original packaging to see what they have declared on the label. Furthermore on the Lion Brand website it states that the fibres used to produce their yarn come from “all over the world”. What exactly this means is unclear to say the least, and it is hard to say where the other yarns in their product line come from.
The obvious answer to this would be for Lion Brand to add this information to each product listing online as done by Liberty and Gutterman. I think it would be a really positive move if a company like Lion Brand had the confidence in their supply chain to do this. Right now it looks as though they have something to hide.
Both My First Sweater and the Taking Liberties Dress were relatively easy to trace as I used products from brand name suppliers. However the majority of home sewing projects are made with fabrics that have no brand name attached to them. An example of this is my Administrative Pleasure Pencil Skirt project which was made with a polyester checked fabric purchased at Mandors, Edinburgh. When I bought this fabric the label didn’t specify where the fabric was made, something that was common to most of the materials in the shop and most suppliers in general. I have never questioned this before now but as we try to build a more sustainable society this situation is unacceptable. We no longer think it is ok to be ignorant of where our food is produced and the same rules should be applied to fabric production.
This takes me to the second issue around craft and making, which is the environmental impact of the materials we use. Polyester and Cotton, the two materials used in the projects mentioned above both have a hotly contested environmental impact. Cotton is one of the most pesticide intensive crops in the world and, even when produced organically, requires large amounts of water and energy to produce. Meanwhile Polyester is made from petrochemicals, is non-biodegradable and again requires large amounts of water and energy in its production.
One option when faced with this dilemma is to only make things using sustainably sourced materials, like my Fair Isle Wrist Warmers which were made with British wool from an ethical producer. That is an expensive option and one that doesn’t solve the larger issue of transparency in supply lines for all craft products.
When faced with this information it can be hard for one person, working on a small number of projects, to have confidence in their choices. For me the first step is to be more aware of where the materials I am buying come from. Just because you made it yourself doesn’t mean that the piece is ethical, sustainable and environmentally sound. We all need to be more aware of the impact of our decisions and demand transparent supply chains from manufacturers and clear labelling on all craft products.