Polly Leonard discusses the future of sustainable textile production


From the detergent in your machine, through the hands that stitch your clothes, to the treatment of toxic waste from natural dyes: ethical choices are a day-to-day necessity in a globalised world. So much so that words and phrases such as ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘fairtrade’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ have become a part of our everyday vocabulary and arguably have somewhat lost their distinctions and clout. trbf I can roll off a dozen clothing brands whose ‘about’ pages allude to ethical principles and fantasy realities in which nothing but goodness will come from your investment. And yet, out of that dozen, there are perhaps only two whose ethical mandate I can actually recall specifically, or more to the point, have some faith in. This isn’t, solely, because their claims are false; but because as soon as you begin to consider what ethical fashion and shopping really means, a very complex chain begins to appear. UniversalUtility We all want to be as ‘ethical’ as possible. But how do you reconcile providing income to makers in developing countries whilst also acknowledging the carbon footprint of your clothes? Or, how can you justify making more products when there is a charity shop full to bursting with deserted clothes next door? It’s a minefield for both consumers and producers. Could the solution be perhaps to choose and focus only on the causes that really matter to you? Or do you weigh up and thoroughly research the integrity of each brand and cause on an individual basis? Is it good enough to just avoid what you know is harmful across the scale, or not to buy anything at all?
ergv Make sure to catch Selvedge’s discussion Back to the Future: sustainability in contemporary textile production, speakers will include Polly Leonard – Founder of Selvedge, Safia Minney – MBE FRSA, Founder of People Tree and Carin Mansfield – slow fashion designer and Founder of Universal Utility and Lisa Whatmough, Managing and Creative Director of Squint Limited. Saturday 24 September, 4pm Book your tickets here. This is an extract from Grace Warde-Aldam's article in the Green issue of Selvedge.

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  • Suzanne on

    I’m a woven textile designer, based in Cape Town, was the talk be recorded or available for download at all?

  • Rikki Quintana on

    You have truly captured the complexity of “sustainable” textiles. I work with artisans in Tajikistan who are trying to revive ancient ikat weaving techniques and the use of natural vegetable dyes, with the intent of producing high quality, hand-crafted home decor and fashion products. If they can penetrate the western market, even to a small extent, they can build a future beyond daily survival for their small rural communities. Cotton is a major crop in Tajikistan, but the large textile producers in the country are not necessarily eco-friendly in their fabric production techniques. And many traditional eco-dyes are not available locally in Tajikistan. The big producers can afford to import eco-dyes, but only if they have a big order. Big orders for fabrics can’t be placed without orders for products from the artisan groups. And, as you point out, at what point to western buyers move beyond the “sustainable” label when they already have a closet full of “fast fashion” and a house full of home decor products? I guess I come down fairly close to your solution to “perhaps to choose and focus only on the causes that really matter to you?” In my case, it’s preserving cultural techniques and traditions, building economic opportunities for the artisans, and doing our best to protect the environment and produce products that are unique and have special meaning to the buyers.

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