Slow Clothing Eases Textile Pollution

Jane Milburn of Textile Beat in a white up-styled dress. Photo by Fiona Lake.


By Sustainability Consultant, Jane Milburn

Few people make their own clothes these days because factory-produced options are cheap and plentiful. But fast food and disposable clothing choices are not necessarily good for us or the ecosystem in which we all live.

Concern over textile pollution could be the push we all need to turn to natural fibres and make or up-style our own ‘slow clothing’.

Over centuries we’ve progressed from hunter-gathering food and wearing skins to sourcing daily needs from industrialized food and clothing supply chains.

Sewing, cooking and gardening are life skills often devalued in the drive for higher-order thinking and technological advance for contemporary lifestyles and improved living standards.

Loss of autonomy

Although we have embraced this outsourcing, globalization and specialization, we are beginning to see it has come at the price of exploitation, burgeoning waste, poorer health, a loss of autonomy and self-sufficiency.

We are moving back into our gardens and kitchens, and preparing meals for ourselves, because we’ve learned that the fast options – although convenient – can be unhealthy and unsatisfying.

Disposable fashion

The localization and self-reliance now visible in our food story has a mirror image in our clothing story.  When we outsource our clothing needs, it is often to global brands churning out cheap, disposable fashion made in sweatshops, exploiting workers, which leaves us feeling uneasy if we stop and think about it.

No matter how much of this cheap stuff we buy, we can still feel we have nothing we want to wear because it is not made for us: it does not reflect our personal kansei and we have no attachment to it.

Two generations of women and men in Western societies have missed out on learning the basic life skill of sewing. This has come about for many reasons, including feminism, busyness and availability of affordable commercial options.

Yet until we actually make something for ourselves to wear, we cannot appreciate the resources, time and skill that go into the clothes we buy.

The clothing wheel is turning full circle though, as feminists and opinion leaders such as Tara Moss rediscover and embrace the autonomy of making their own.

‘When we outsource our clothing, it is often to global brands churning out cheap, disposable fashion made in sweatshops, exploiting workers…’

In a recent blog post, ‘Why I’m (finally) learning how to sew’, Moss said that over the years, it became clear she needed to learn how to mend and make her own clothing.

“I downplayed the importance of these skills in my younger years in part because sewing, mending and dressmaking have been considered ‘feminised skills’ in the 90s: my younger self would have been embarrassed to be seen with a sewing needle,” she said.

Moss now believes that to be fully functional, humans need a broad range of skills which may have once been regarded as being the exclusive domain of one gender or another. She said: “It is ironic, in a way, that a feminist woman would avoid things precisely because they are considered feminine, and in doing so, become less self-sufficient.”

I established Textile Beat in 2013 as part of a journey into creativity, empowerment, sustainability, ecological health and wellbeing – woven with threads of childhood, education, professional expertise, networks and nature.

Creating personal style

My professional background is in agricultural science and rural communications, while on the home front I’ve raised three children, enjoyed cooking and creating my personal style by making clothes from natural fibres.

After doing leadership study with the Australian Rural Leadership Program through James Cook University, I began exploring our clothing story and how it impacts on our everyday lives.

‘Slow clothing is… about thoughtful, creative and sustainable ways to enjoy the garments we wear while minimizing our material footprint on the world’

I came to appreciate that our clothes do for us on the outside what food does inside. They protect and warm our body – and influence the way we feel.

As the clothing conversation usually revolves around seasonal fashion, the quantity and quality of what we wear has undergone a transformational shift in recent years.

The way we now buy, use and discard clothing has seen the global average apparel fibre consumption double in the past two decades from 7kg per person up to 13kg each – while the Australian average is twice that at 27kg per person.

Micro plastic particles

While food waste returns nutrients back to the soil, clothing waste is adding plastics to oceans and landfill because two-thirds of clothing is now made from synthetic fibres. These synthetic fibres are derived from petroleum, which research has shown to be shedding micro plastic particles into the environment every time we wash them.

In the global context of limited resources and climate change, there is growing interest in these clothing impacts from teachers and schools, with local governments, community and sustainability groups.

Textile Beat is a platform to discuss ethical issues around contemporary clothing culture which include: escalating consumption; changing fibres; waste and pollution; modern-day slavery; and a loss of understanding and knowledge about how clothes are made.

Joy in ‘slow clothing’

As a sustainability consultant doing values-based leadership work, I am pioneering a slow clothing philosophy as a way of thinking about, choosing and wearing clothes to ensure they bring meaning, value and joy to every day.

I present talks and workshops and explore upcycling options to influence a more sustainable clothing culture based on natural fibres and applying traditional skills in innovative ways.

I’ve created a framework to help individuals survive and thrive in a material world based on a Slow Clothing Manifesto that identifies 10 critical actions: think, natural, quality, local, care, few, make, adapt, revive and salvage.

Slow clothing is the opposite of fast fashion. It is about thoughtful, ethical, creative and sustainable ways to enjoy the garments we wear every day while minimizing our material footprint on the world.

Discover your creativity and live directly in the world by spending time playing by learning about stitching and sewing – or gardening, making, baking, creating – where you produce what you need with your own hands and heart.

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