Can my sewing hobby actually make a difference to poverty?

Do you ever stop to think about where your fabric comes from?

One of the reasons I started to make  clothes was because I wanted to reduce my environmental impact and stop propping up awful sweatshop conditions for garment workers. In short I wanted to stop being a hypocrite given my day job.

I’ve been in Ethiopia with my day job for the last week. My job is to conduct monitoring and evaluation of aid projects funded by the UK Government under a scheme called the Darwin Initiative. This Initiative funds projects that support both biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. My job is to assess the evidence of the impacts projects like these have on reducing poverty in these developing countries and supporting biodiversity conservation.

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So back to Ethiopia or more specifically Arba Minch. An area that is not only beautiful and chock full of important biodiversity (it’s one of the most important flyway for birds in the Rift Valley) but it’s also home to many Ethiopian people whose primary source of income is agriculture particularly cotton.

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Pesticide use is rife in Ethiopia. Part of the problem is when it was first introduced in the 1960s is the word given for it in Amarhic was ‘medicine’. Farmers were taught that this stuff was magical and it could cure practically anything. The pesticides used up until very recently ranged from the nasty to down right scary pesticides like endosulfan and DDT. They applied it by hand with no protective clothing – they even used the left over containers for storing food. The worst story I heard was it was applied directly to the skin or clothes to treat ectoparasites.

Thankfully there is this great project being funded that is demonstrating to farmers that pesticides are harmful to people, to biodiversity and, through excellent systematic research, to yields. Because you see bizarrely pesticides are causing famers to grow less cotton than no treatment at all!

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The project is also supporting these farmers to establish cotton farming cooperatives with the intention that they achieve organic cotton certification and sell their cotton on the international market. A triple win that will mean more money for the farmers, better health for the farmers and a stronger more biodiverse environment.

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They are in talks to sell their cotton to H&M and C&A once they achieve certification. Which is great isn’t it?

Except I started making clothes because I wanted to stop propping up this unsustainable clothing industry.

So what to do? Welcome the changes in operations in the garment industry and support this by buying clothes again?

I’d much rather buy organic cotton but find it very hard to buy from the fabric shops.

What about you? Do you ever think about where your fabric comes from? Is sewing your way of reducing your footprint on this world? Is there more I can do to support sustainable development through my hobby?

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8 thoughts on “Can my sewing hobby actually make a difference to poverty?

  1. Unfortunately, I think it’s very hard to do any given thing in a way that you feel is environmentally and socially ethical and sustainable 100% of the time. I think you’re going a long way just buy writing a post like this and attempting to educate folks on what you know. I think attempting to be educated and aware of issues like this and trying to do the best you can when you can is a healthier and more realistic goal than setting strict rules for your consumer behavior. Making what you can/want to make, trying not to buy more than you need or buy things that are excessively disposable, and supporting companies that you think are making positive changes in their environmental and human rights footprints all seem like great steps to me.

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    1. Yes its nigh on impossible to be ethically and environmentally sustainable living a western lifestyle. I’m trying though – just wonder if there is more that I can do. Probably buying old clothes from the charity shop and adapting them would be the best thing environmentally – but that doesn’t support poverty reduction in developing countries unless I only shop in Oxfam. And even then the value that would be transferred to vulnerable people in developing countries would be minimal. Trying not to be a hypocrite is a headache isn’t it?

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  2. I worry about my impact as well. As you say, just living the western lifestyle makes me feel unethical. It’s so hard to change! I’ve been trying to buy organic or fair trade fabrics but sometimes, I can’t find what I want or I fall in love with something else. Thinking about it (I’ve posted a little about sustainability on my blog too), I’ve come to realize that my fabric shopping doesn’t amount to a huge impact in the end. I read that in an article too once… I can’t remember where it was. In essence, the article said that the way we shop doesn’t make a much of a difference. What does make a difference is lobbying companies to change their practices and lobbying governments to change regulations. It made sense. My sewing though, it has another impact. My daughters see the time it takes to make clothing. I’m hoping that my sewing and knitting will teach them about the value of well made goods. I’m hoping it will teach them to reject fast fashion.

    And this isn’t related to sewing but it is related to the idea of reducing my footprint. I’m wondering if it might not be more useful to reduce my consumption of oil (gasoline, heating oil, etc.). I’m pretty sure the poorer people of the world will suffer from climate change before westerners do. If I can use my car less (would love to get rid of it!), move to a smaller home (less heating), use more local products (less CO2 producing transport), maybe I’ll have more of an impact than through organic fabric purchasing?

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    1. I’m trying to follow the mitigation pathway where practical – reduce, reuse, recycle. But like you say I’m just one of many many consumers out there who are fuelling unethical consumption unless I put my money where my mouth is and take a more ethical stance with the rest of the things I buy. Thankfully I know I make a difference through my day job – it’s just that now perhaps I need to reflect on my home life.

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  3. Thanks for explaining, I did wonder what on earth all the fuss was about – organic cotton? Here in Australia cotton crops are in the ‘bad books’ because they require so much irrigation, in a country that is for the most part desert. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I’m definitely motivated to try to purchase ethically produced fabrics though would I pass up something beautiful for something ethical? That would truly be the test. I have found its possible to compost old cotton sheets (no poly) and wool scraps and they make great weed mat for a while! Reduce, reuse, recycle hopefully its catching on! Thanks for the thought provoking post.

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    1. I think context is really important. I was recently told that when they introduced organic certification on cotton in Peru it served to reduce the economic value of cotton for poor small holder farmers. They were already using organic practices but the cost of certification and the fact that they didn’t get a higher return on their cotton sales hurt the pockets of the poorest farmers.

      In Ethiopia though there is clear return for poor farmers AND commercial farmers. Will take a look at Australia as its an interesting issue – international markets often fail to take into consideration the water footprint.

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