As much as I love to bring you pretty things, today I have something weightier to share. Grab a cup of coffee or something, pull up a chair, and when it’s done, please let me know what you think. My thoughts on this topic are definitely a work in progress, and I welcome your thoughts. (Thanks to Yoel Knits for inspiration for the first section’s title, by the way.)
Greening The Craft World
As far as I can tell, there are four main “green” strategies currently circulating in the crafting world.
The first strategy is being thrifty with materials. Very few crafters are made of money, so we cut fabric carefully, re-use materials, and give away or swap supplies we don’t need. This would fall into the Reduce part of the reduce-reuse-recycle waste hierarchy, and would also encompass stashbusting and “use what you have” type projects that decrease or postpone additional consumption. Nicely for us, this is also better for the environment than being wasteful.
The second is recycling existing materials. One example of recycling that I love is Becky’s post at Sew and So about creating a blouse from a thrifted men’s shirt. She specifically describes how she recycled the source material:
Almost every single piece of the original shirt was used, and there weren’t very many scrap pieces left over. I left the collar completely as-is, other than removing and later re-sewing a button. The buttons are all the original ones from the shirt. I even used the cuffs, as the shoulder bits.
The third is moving away from factory production. I have mixed feelings about assuming that Buy Handmade is always greener than mass produced, for a variety of reasons which would probably fill their own post, but we can all agree that this idea is put forward as a green strategy within discussions of crafting.
The fourth is buying sustainable. This isn’t limited to green crafting, of course. Across many categories of daily living, we’re basically trying to shop our way out of an environmental crisis. Buy these organic curtains, buy this recycled lamp, buy these fair trade doodads to sit on your coffee table, and you can save the world! Jokes aside, any time you buy an organic, sustainable product instead of its conventional counterpart, it is better for the planet. It also sends a signal to industry to shift their practices. The work in progress Eco Crafters List of Demands is an example of an effort to send that signal more quickly through direct communication, but it’s still focused on buying.
The Elephant In the Room: Consumption
Another strategy may be emerging, but it’s not likely to be as popular. As Kelly said in her stashbusting post earlier today:
Consumption is a sometimes tricky issue to tackle, because no one wants to be told that we buy too much stuff. But we do and we need to be doing less.
This would be a fifth green strategy: Buy less.
This is where crafters kind of luck out, since buying old things and turning them into new things is essentially exempt from the “buy less” solution since it’s eco-friendly and performs a public service by sucking up items that would otherwise be wasted. (Although if people took “buy less” seriously around clothing, we would at some point hit some limits of available textiles.)
But do you really need that extra plastic ruler, or can you really work just fine with the one you have? Do you really need a new rotary blade, or can you sharpen the one you have? Do you really need to use that petroleum-based, energy intensive fusible web or toxic vinyl?
Can we distinguish need from want, and prioritize accordingly – while honoring our need for beauty and a need to create?
Can we stop buying things we know we don’t need, or shouldn’t use due to their environmental impact, instead of just buying some organic fabric in addition to our regular purchases and then congratulating ourselves?
Moving Beyond Consumer Solutions
What the five strategies above have in common is a consumer focus. A consumer solution to any environmental problem is limited in its power. They’re like personal efforts to save energy by changing out light bulbs. Important, but without a comprehensive national energy policy that favors renewable and clean sources and/or a concerted effort by industry to change its practices, I personally can’t buy enough fair trade doodads to do a damn thing about global warming.
We’ve got to think bigger, people.
In Green Is Not Just A Color, quilter Cheryl puts it like this (emphasis mine):
But what about all the selvages, the thread clippings, the batting scraps, the empty spools, the used patterns, the freezer paper, and all the other garbage left over? [...] On top of all this, there is simply the matter of the energy used in production of the materials we use and the creations we ourselves put together.
The part of her post that I emphasized starts to hint at a fifth green strategy for the world of crafting. It starts with a concern for what happens before we get to the fabric store, and even before the fabric company gets their cotton and dyes. The way I see it, the fifth green strategy for truly sustainable crafts (and everything else) involves political action on all of the following:
- Agricultural policy. Crop subsidies, international tariffs, GMO issues, irrigation conflicts, and regulation of standards for terms such as “organic” influence the price and availability of sustainable fibers.
- Regulation of manufacturing and/or market-based mechanisms (as you prefer) to reduce waste and emission of toxins from textile and other factories.
- Labor policy around protection of workers, both in developed countries and the developing world. Do you really want to sew a baby blanket with that fabric knowing that someone’s 10 year old daughter worked in a factory to make it, or someone’s father was poisoned by the dyes that created the print?
- Energy and water policy. Energy and water are inputs into everything we use, and even in areas where water is plentiful, it still requires energy to purify it for human use.
I found Cheryl’s post so inspiring because I have rarely come across much deep interrogation of crafting and its environmental impact. Usually I see green crafting written about as essentially “how to cute your way to a healthier environment.”
I’m not saying it’s wrong to find pleasure in lovely things, make better consumer choices, or consume new craft materials. I am saying that we need to ask harder questions about the impact that our hobbies and/or livelihoods have on the environment, going beyond our individual acts to a critical look at what it takes to make this stuff.
This type of questioning has happened in the world of food, where even people who are passionate about cuisine are starting to ask where their food is from, how its grown, and what it takes to get that food on their plates. Even though foodies see a good meal as a worthwhile thing and they celebrate its creation and consumption, many of them aren’t exempting their food from critical analysis anymore.
We do want a craft industry to exist to employ creative, hardworking people and produce lovely things we can all enjoy. We also want to continue living on this planet. Buying a skein of sustainable yarn does transmit information through market mechanisms about what the public wants the world to look like.
In my opinion, though, that information is moving too slowly to force the macro changes that are currently necessary. The only way to make those changes in a timely fashion is through the political process, or mass pressure on corporations that have social and environmental impact as large as or larger than government entities.
What do you think?
I’m not trying to cram all environmental issues under the heading of green crafting. For example, I can’t think of a direct link between biodiversity and crafting. The five areas I’ve listed above, though, seem to be to be intimately entwined with the production of our materials. In some areas or crafting disciplines, there may be additional areas of focus. Metalsmiths may need to concentrate on mining and mountaintop removal. Scrapbookers and collage artists may need to advocate for better paper recycling if it’s lacking where they live.
If we truly want to feel good about what we do, except for those of us who only use recycled materials, can we avoid dealing with these larger issues? And how do we use our craft to help make those changes?