Making Stuff is a big part of the eco-movement at large. It’s a way of symbolically buying out of the mainstream economy with its panoply of human and environmental costs, and of reasserting older values, from a time before we expressed ourselves primarily through the things we bought. It’s astonishing to consider–astonishing to me, anyway–that not so long ago, consumer products were a mark of distinction because most people could not afford to buy things; they made them all, out of necessity, and as a result had a dizzying array of practical skills. Once upon a time (a very recent time), buying things was special because it was rare. Now it’s all we do.
So making things, for modern-day enviro-folks, is an attempt to be anti-consumerist, and that is part of why I participate as well, for sure–but I know full well I’m still consuming. I’m consuming at a different level, yes, and the industrial food chain required to deliver those goods is shorter, but it is still an industrial food chain that delivers consumer goods.
Cotton is still grown, on farms that very likely (unless they are organic) deposit large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides into our water, and very likely deplete aquifers. Sheep are still raised on lands that may or may not be suitable for grazing, and goodness only knows what happens to their wastes. Harvesting still takes place, using human labour that may or may not be well treated or paid. Fibres are still shipped to factories for processing, dyeing, carding, weaving, printing, and packaging, and those packages are then still shipped over greater or lesser distances to the stores where I eventually buy them. Missing from that chain, really, is only the stage in which the fabrics are shipped to factories employing workers who may or may not be well treated or paid who then assemble the fabric into clothing which is then shipped to a local store.
After all, fabric does not grow on trees–and if it did, someone would still be hired to pick it.
There are manufacturers that try to deal with those problems by raising fibres organically, not using third-world labour, and producing locally so that shipping takes place over shorter distances. But let’s face it: we don’t raise cotton in Canada, so if I want to wear cotton, it’s not going to be locally grown.
Also missing from this equation is any consideration of economies of scale.
I mean, what about the fabric wastes I produce in my personal sweatshop? The excess, much of which ends up in bags to be stored for later projects, and which may or may not ever be used? Clothing factories can make much more efficient use of the fabrics they buy and waste much less. I’m not sure whether or not they do, but I imagine that they take greater care with the fabric than they do with the people. What about the embodied energy of the five sewing machines in my house? My own personal crochet hooks, sewing needles, books, bobbins, scissors, pins and mats? Does it balance out the “savings” of producing things for myself? I haven’t a clue. I’m not even sure how to find out. But, however much I might like to, I don’t think I can claim with certainty that making clothing for myself is better for the planet.
So, no. I’m actually being quite selfish. The fact of the matter is that I sew (and crochet etc.) because it’s fun.
It’s a technical challenge: I’m always learning new things. It’s aesthetically pleasing: even when my projects don’t turn out as planned, the fabrics and fibres are always pretty and it’s fun to play around with new combinations. It’s tactile: after a day of working with my head, it is such a relief to work with my hands–as relaxing as watching TV (moreso, for me), but with the added benefit of being productive. It’s an ego boost: I’m pretty well surrounded in all of my environments with the things I made, meaning that I am never more than 12″ from a sense of accomplishment. Very useful. And there’s a tangible sense of progress: unlike scrubbing the toilet or mowing the lawn, which need to be done over and over again and are the same every bloody time, when you make a shirt or a purse or a quilt, you do it once, you see it coming together, and when it’s done, it’s done. (Then you get to wash it over and over, which is always the same every time. This likely explains why I have no trouble spending hours ironing itty bitty fabric bits for a quilt, or to press pleats for a skirt, but once a piece of clothing is laundered and needs to be ironed to be worn–forget it. It’ll sit in that pile for a good long time before it ends up on my ironing board.)
Making things is wonderfully, literally creative. It can be as taxing or as easy as you want, depending on the pattern you choose (or whether or not you choose a pattern). It can be as quick or as slow as you want, depending on the craft and method–say, stumpwork vs. loom knitting. It can be as practical as canned tomato soup or a new pair of pajamas, or as frivolous as a bright-pink cotton shirt with pleated undersleeves.
But I can’t pretend that my hoards of glues, threads, flosses, needles, fabrics, yarns, battings, paper cutters, scissors, craft knives, paints, glitters, markers, stamps, buttons, magazines, books, patterns, hooks, pillow forms, papers, waxes, dyes, scents, molds, pots and wicks (whew!) is somehow environmentally friendly.