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Making dressmaking more sustainable

Jacqui Smith examines ways in which the sewing industry can become more environmentally-friendly

In this day and age, consumers are only too aware of the damage textiles can potentially do to the environment, either during manufacture, through repeated washing or in the case of natural fibres, when being grown. It's a confusing situation for consumers who want great looking garments, but also care about the planet. As a store owner, you're in a position to offer these customers advice, but what are the choices?

In terms of lower impact, people will instinctively place natural fibres above synthetic alternatives, but the issue is not clear-cut. Consumers can opt for organic cotton which is grown without pesticides and will certainly reduce the runoff of harmful substances into water courses, but all cotton uses a large amount of water to grow, often in areas where it is already in short supply.

Problems with plastic

Synthetic alternatives offer durability but fibre migration during washing means literally billions of what is in effect tiny pieces of plastic end up in our seas. Of course, there are many other textile fibres like hard-wearing bamboo and Rayon, which is derived from cellulose pulp that ultimately comes from wood, bark or leaves.

The dying process also brings with it potential concerns. In recent years, new standards such as OEKO-TEX have ensured that levels of harmful substances in dyes have been reduced or eliminated. It's worth looking for this benchmark or asking if the fabrics you order for your store meet any environmental standards.

For shops selling materials used in dress-making, perhaps the most important piece of advice you can offer is to buy quality products that will stand the test of time after many washes. Your customers treasure what they've made so they'll want to keep clothes longer; this alone is one of the best things they can do to help become more environmentally-friendly.

Teaching new skills

The movement towards sustainability in sewing is a great opportunity for shops to gain a competitive edge by giving good advice. You might consider providing customers with washing instructions that help reduce energy consumption and waste as well as highlighting the ways to minimise fibre migration during cleaning. Equally, why not give classes on alteration, fitting and recycling? Equipping crafters with the skills to make great-fitting clothes will ultimately keep them engaged in sewing, which has to be good for you as a retailer.

Consider also the products you sell alongside fabrics such as threads – perhaps now is a good time to think about running a small number of organic options alongside your regular range? Finally, if you're looking to give customers a reason to visit your shop, why not have a collection bin for fabric scraps, which can be donated to schools or other good causes? This means increased footfall, sustainability and a helping hand for the next generation of stitchers.

Jacqui Smith is director of Hantex. hantex.co.uk

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