You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves

My reading went through a Russian period when I was about 16.  Pre-revolutionary authors, dissidents (I read all of Solzhenitsyn), and biographies, several of Stalin.  His quote, you cannot make a revolution with silk gloves references Lenin’s earlier  quote that you cannot make a revolution with white gloves.  In other words you  have to get your hands dirty.  Whilst that may be true for political upheavals and both Lenin and Stalin had rather filthy hands, it isn’t necessarily true of all revolutions.

This week is Fashion Revolution Week.  Not the bloodbath kind of revolution but running for 10 years now, probably the largest fashion activist movement. Fashion Revolution Week has instigated campaigns on fair pay for garment workers, transparency in supply chains, championed small brands, encouraged better care and repair of our clothes.  Probably the perfect revolution for silk gloves.

When considering a sustainable wardrobe there are so many things to consider.  Ethical Consumer has seven categories against which it rates fashion brands: animal welfare, climate policy, overall company ethos, cotton sourcing, use of sustainable materials, tax conduct and treatment of workers across the supply chain.  But it’s sustainable materials I am particularly interested in here.

What constitutes a sustainable fabric should be fairly straightforward.  Not petroleum derived but natural fibres is presumably the best choice.  But like all things in life, it is by no means so straightforward.  Like the seven criteria Ethical Consumer uses to rate fashion brands there are a number of intersectional factors to consider when defining the sustainability of a fabric and it all gets rather complicated.

Easier perhaps just to give up and leave it to somebody else?  Please don’t.  Nobody can change the world single handedly, with or without silk gloves,  but together we can make changes.  Five years ago most fashion companies might have had one eye on the sustainability agenda, but for most it was only fleetingly.  Now, although the issue is one of greenwashing, they are fully aware that we care about our clothes, where they came from and how they got to us.   Consumer pressure is king in a capitalist society.

So cotton and silk rather than polyster and rayon?  Second hand rather than new?  Recycled or upcycled?   Good on You is an excellent source of information on sustainability and fashion.  Not perhaps always 100% on the ball but a good place to start.  Essentially fabrics can be divided into animal based (largely protein), plant based (largely cellulose) and man made (largely pertroleum derived). The first two are all biodegradable, the latter most certainly is not.   These then can be broken down to second hand and recycled.  The former retains the original form, such as second hand silk gloves whereas the latter is a new product made from processing a previous one.

Cotton is not quite the great natural fibre many of us think it is.  It’s a thirsty plant and a sensitive one at that.  It needs lots of water and lots of pesticide, not good for the planet. GOTS certified organic cotton is a gentler option and often considered the gold standard of new cotton.  That all rather blew up in its face when the New York Times exposed some rather dodgy and murky certification schemes which were opaque and open to fraud.  If you want to wear cotton, stick to second hand.  There is plenty of it out there,  it already exists, wear it.

Bamboo was briefly the golden child of sustainable fashion.  Quick to grow, hardy and doesn’t need much in the way or water or pesticides and a great absorber of CO2.  However its sustainability is dependent on the production process.  As this is rarely shown on the label it can be a bit of a minefield.  The majority of bamboo clothing is made using the viscose process which uses harsh solvents harmful to both workers and the planet.  The process is not closed loop so most of these chemicals are not recycled and make their way into the surrounding environment.  Bamboo Lyocell uses more gentle chemical but more importantly over 98% of those chemicals are recycled.  The most sustainable bamboo is bamboo linen, made through a purely mechanical process creating a more rough linen like fabric rather than the soft silky fabric with which we are more familiar.  Unsurprisingly, as this is a slower process it is also a more expensive fabric.

Hemp and linen are both robust plants that require little water and chemical assistance.  Both use almost all the plant and produce strong and popular fabrics.  Look for organic to ensure no use of unnecessary and environmentally damaging fertilisers

Surely we can’t go wrong with wool?  Personally I think not if you choose carefully and if you live in the UK not to mention some of the much colder parts of the world, lovely though linen and hemp are, they are not up to the biting winds and sub zero temperatures of winter.  The two main objections to wool are the methane production by the sheep itself and the welfare of the animal, in particular an extremely unpleasant procedure called mulesing which is used in some countries to reduce the risk of flystrike.  While there is no denying that ruminants (including cattle, deer, goats, buffalos and giraffes) do produce methane, by far the greatest contribution to methane in our atmosphere is the result of our own activities.  Perhaps we would do better to make ourselves extinct rather than the ruminants?  As for mulesing, most countries except Australia have banned its use, but it still appears to be a grey area  Four Paws produced a list of over 400 brands which do not use wool from sheep which have been mulesed.  If you are unsure then again, stick to second hand, it already exists you can’t unmake it.

Whilst moths might not be as visually appealing as fluffy lambs, they are still living creatures and the traditional manufacture of silk requires the boiling of the pupa whilst it is  still alive in order to unwind a long single unbroken strand of silk. Futhermore the production of silk is far from sustainable requiring huge swathes of mulberry trees which themselves require  vast amounts of  methane producing manure and fertiliser.  Working conditions are rarely good with  serious burns when working with the boiling water one of the most common industrial injuries as well as reports of widespread forced and child labour.  There are alternatives.  In India  muga, tasar, tussah, and eri silk textiles are made from the abandoned silk “shells” found on the forest floor although the supply chains for these silks are far from transparent.

No fabric is completely ethical nor sustainable.  Our very existence and demand for products of all kinds from clothing to cutlery requires inputs that will affect the planet and the people involved in the manufacturing process.  However, we can make informed choices based on our own moral values.  We can ask questions, we can boycott manufacturers and products whose production goes against our own moral compass.

My choices?  Almost entirely second hand.  There is no instant satisfaction and you can’t always find exactly what you want.  But the hunt is part of the experience.  I’m currently in the market for copper coloured cotton corduroy trousers, loose straight cut size UK 16 if you happen to come across any!  After that, I try to shop from small companies or independent makers with transparent policies.  My shopping was not always thus so my wardrobe is not a paragon of sustainable and ethical clothing.  But I am trying to ensure that what is is added to it is.




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