Consumer Choices Alone Won’t Craft A Green World, So What Do We Do?

save the earth
Don’t forget! The next Carnival of Green Crafts will be August 9th at BlogHer.  Send in your submissions now.

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?

[Image by sanja gjenero.]

Written by Skye Kilaen

Skye Kilaen began sewing at an early age and eco-rabble-rousing shortly after that. Many years later, someone finally told her that there are books about how to make quilts. Life was never the same. In fact, she spent more on her sewing machine than her car. Bringing her green and crafty passions back together, Skye is now happily discovering ways to create beautiful and useful objects using thrifted and sustainable materials. No, that's not just an excuse to visit Goodwill more often. Honest.


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  1. I think the biggest struggle for me, honestly, is whether the best thing for the environment is for me to craft in the first place! My two primary crafts are sewing and scrapbooking. The scrapbooks I can more or less justify from a consumption perspective, since my only other option is to store all my photos on my computer (which isn’t good if my computer should crash and I lost them all!) For years, I’ve tried to be careful not to waste any paper on them too–need to do some stashbusting, but I still have pretty much all my paper scraps to use. Sewing is a little tougher– everyone needs clothes, but I probably have too many of them, just because I love to sew them so much! So I can’t help but wonder sometimes if it would be better for the environment if I limited my crafting more. But that’s no fun!

    Anyway, thank you for such a thought-provoking article.

  2. In terms of biodiversity and crafting I think there are a few links. These are just off the top of my head but there are lots of behaviours which impacts biodiversity (for example, using phosphates in detergents that impact river biodiversity, timber and paper products from non-sustainable sources, lots of behaviours linked to gardening) I think the main problem is that they are usually included in general eco-behaviours without people highlighting in particular the biodiversity benefits. One behaviour that is completely relevant is supporting local sheep farmers and buying wool because certainly in the UK land that has been grazed by sheep attracts a particular biodiversity (for example certain spieces of butterfly will only inhabit sheep grazed land).
    Thanks for inspiring me to think about biodiversity and crafting further and for writing such a thought-provoking article.

  3. Wow, what a thought-provoking piece.

    I try to limit myself to mostly thrifted/recycled materials, for exactly this reason–if I am going to create something nobody actually needs (which is really all I am going to create), the least I can do is make it out of materials that are as environmentally friendly as possible.

    For me, though, your post brings up questions about the political impact of crafts. The biggest example I can think of off the top of my head is the AIDS quilt. At what points could crafting and actual political agitation meet?

  4. Reducing, reusing, and recycling what you have in your home already is the best way to save money! Who doesn’t love that.

    Don’t forget that buying local, crafts or anything really, is an excellent way to contribute to the health of your environment. Less transportation, thus less fuels used, less exhaust, etc.

  5. I think you’ve made some great points. It’s important to remember, especially, when people start to feel smug that they’re doing enough to help the environment. The truth is that we can always do more.

    Honestly though, to make a meaningful difference in the world, each and every one of us needs to change, not just the green crafters. If every single green crafter never again bought another tool or new piece of material, it would not be enough to make a dent in the problems we’ve created for our environment. I really feel that it’s important to share our knowledge of green practices that are easy and cute and cheap with as wide an audience as possible. And I’ve found that going extreme green puts the majority of people off, which, I think, actually hurts the green movement.

    I want to emphasize that I really do appreciate all the info you’ve been posting. And I’ve never been smug enough to think of myself as a green crafter because I’m aware of so many lapses in both my materials and methods.

  6. Thanks for the comments so far, everyone.

    Lara, thanks especially for pointing out the information about biodiversity.

    Angela, yes, and if we could get locals to buy local materials to make their crafts/whatever, then so much the better.

    Wendy, yes, I agree, individual behavior of crafters isn’t going to turn the tide – and yes, easy, cute, and cheap is a great way to get more people interested and thinking about green issues. But for those of us who are already on board, what do we do next?

  7. This is most definitely a great thought provoking article. It will certainly make me think twice about what I am doing. Currently I try to be as conscious as possible in all my projects, but I think another thing I need to do is educate those that purchase my products – as I know that there is always something more that I can do…

  8. I am all about the buy less stratetgy, I love to see how I can make something out of nothing, or at least from very little. I buy only organic scrap fabric or use thrifted clothes for fabrics. Whatever is left over is saved for something else. The thing is, i barely have any crafting or art supplies now – I actually use hand sewing needles that are from the 1950’s (found them in an old desk), i don’t have a ruler… i think an exacto knife or something to cut with is kind of needed though. People tell me about all sorts of crafting tools but i don’t buy them.
    One time I didn’t have enough clothes pins to hang my clothes to dry with and I got some branches on the ground and a knife and made a whole set- they worked great.
    I think when we buy buy buy we lose some of our primal creative energy a’ brewing – and sometimes it’s fun to make the tools we need.

  9. I love this post! IMHO I think that we are at the verge of a major consumer shift…

    The whole “better living through more stuff” hasn’t delivered on its promise. Our closets, storage units, drawers, etc. are all full and we feel burdened rather than inspired by our things.

    My belief is that the new paradigm will be “better living through thoughtful (NOT MORE) things”. That’s were crafters and everyone else come in… by thinking before buying. Militant eco is definitely going to turn people off… but one on one we can make small decisions that collectively shift our world. I think it is happening and like inertia it gets easier to make bigger changes more consistently. Suddenly things that seemed like a challenge (cutting out plastic water bottles complete) become easy and automatic. The more you think about your hundreds of every day decision, the more we move in the sustainable direction.

    The gifts you make like a cool fabric shopping bag (made out of an old dress?) to your mother who always chooses plastic, and the scarf you knit so you can leave the thermostat down a few degrees… these may sound simple, they are… but the potential impact I think is huge.

    We didn’t get into this mess overnight and we won’t get out of it that way either…. but I am very hopeful that thoughtful consumerism is our answer. Thanks for letting me jump on my soap box. 🙂

  10. I’m glad I was able to get your mind going, Skye. Since that post I have been doing more research and coming up with deadends everywhere. I’ve just about calculated my energy use in my own quilt manufacture, but it is exclusive of the manufacture of materials. Shockingly, the manufacturers don’t want to share that information (please note the sarcasm there).

    One place we can start is with the retailers themselves. The more questions we ask of them, the more they will ask of their distributers and suppliers. This will help tackle the consumer side of things.

    And I’m going to say something that will certainly make me sound like a quilt snob (it is my only craft hobby, really) and a lot like I am anti-craft. But we need to stop making some stuff just for the sake of making stuff. I know we could go in to the art for the artist’s sake argument, and honestly I’m not sure entirely where I stand on it. But I’ve been on etsy and I’ve been to enough craft shows and crafter’s homes to see that there is a lot of useless crap produced in the name of craft. I could argue that my quilts are generally usefull at keeping my family and friends warm, but do I really need as many as I have in my own home? Nope, but it won’t stop me from making them. But what I should do is give more away. But I want to hang on to the design or the history of that quilt. Selfish me. Back to art for the artist’s sake.

    I think the outline you have is right, but having worked in the environmental field for a decade now my advice is that each of us has to start somewhere – from our consumer choices to the questions we ask both our retailers and politicians. And along the way the right person will stand up and it will inspire more. For example, if a popular designer were to take a stand about their fabric or paper or other products then a lot more people would notice. But everytime one of us does something right, it is better than it not being done that way, even if it is a small action. It’s the same way I look at exercise. Going for walk may not be as good as a run, but it is better than not getting out at all.

  11. I found this very engaging post and subsequent comments while looking for a community of people who would support reduction of consumption as a political act. I was listening to Amy Goodman (Democracy Now) this morning, and her (conservative) guest noted that in the past, wartime was met with efforts to conserve (Victory Gardens, rationing, and the like). Whereas this time around, our President urged us to go shopping. I’m looking for a group that advocates buying as little as possible as an organized protest against our excessive way of life. Does anyone here know of such a group?

    Becky and Cheryl, I enjoyed your comments. I try to limit my crafts to personal spiritual items and gifts. Donations to the less fortunate are even more significant gifts. Thanks for that idea, Cheryl.

    Thank you all.

  12. Keeping in mind our corporate society is ROI driven, and ROI is totally dependent on sales, ie., cash out of your purse! we are totally in control! No company will ever do anything but fight tooth and claw for ROI! We can influence ROI with what we buy, where we buy, when we buy, who we buy,why we buy, The ball is in our park! We the consumer already are totally responsible for the greatest force on earth, corporate greed, and the huge staff they employ for ROI gains! Now, influencing the general population to buy green, frugal and sane has not always been the advertisers goal! Given a large campaign of ground roots pressures from the proletariat – that’s us! The peons with the purses! the corporations will do as we wish, of go the way of GM to be replaced by competing corporations, like Toyota, Honda and Hyundai! Yes! We are so in control, just poorly organized and misled by the advertising gnomes! Get together, send emails, copy this dissertation, use the net, the cell-phone, gossip, spread the word! We want greem, sane sensible quality, no more planned obsolescence, shoddy workmanship, throw-aways, huge packaging, and processed to death foods! If we tell the corporations what we really want, they will devote themselves to ROI, in getting exactly what we wan right to our front doors! and, in America, thats the way it is! Organize Ladies, Organize! Make Demands, Use your assets! the net, email, cellphones, purse-clasps! Shop til you drop, but buy green only!

  13. I agree with the majority, this is indeed a thought provoking blog that challenges me do a little more for all that Mother Earth has done for us.I often remind our crafty customers that one mans trash is another mans treasure, this goes for fabric scaps too. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

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