S For Sustainability and Sewing

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

Sustainability has always been a concern for me. When I was in high school, I went on a trip entirely focused on sustainability for 2 weeks. However, this only concerned renewable energy sources. When I was at University, I realised how all-encompassing the word sustainability truly is. My dissertation researched sustainable medical implants something that had never occurred to me before!

Human society is built on natural resources. These are in danger of collapsing due to unsustainable practices. If Earth’s history was 1 calendar year, humans have been on Earth for 37 minutes and used 1/3rd of Earth’s natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds, The World Counts.

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What Sustainability Means?

There is a plethora of sustainability definitions online. This lack of a standard definition makes it really tricky to not only define what sustainability is, but also measure how sustainable something is.

An individual's background or views highly influences their understanding of the word sustainability. An ecologist may focus the idea of sustainability on protecting ecosystems whereas an engineer's focus may be to make a process more efficient.

The Brundtland definition of sustainability is “… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, World Commission on Environment and Development 1987. However, this is not measurable and how can we prove this? That’s why I prefer a broader definition of sustainability as “an act which produces a prolonged and continuous benefit to an individual or systems”. Let's break down this idea:

  • Act – means an action. This can be done at an individual level, company level, local level or even a global level. The action can be however small or big.

  • Produces benefit – this is where the definition becomes vague and we must think what is benefited and where the benefit is seen. Benefits can be seen across a multitude of areas.

  • Prolonged and continuous – a benefit which is able to be sustained for a long period of time. A clear example is solar energy which, as long as the sun shines, the benefit of solar energy is continuous and prolonged.

  • to an Individual – benefit produced to an individual for example good working conditions.

  • or Systems – this benefit can be on both human and natural systems. For example, the ecological system may be benefited or a benefit seen through the tax system.

3 Pillars of Sustainability

Sustainability is often considered an environmental problem only. This is driven by the media and a global push for renewables which use readily available natural sources. But sustainability encompasses more than just the environment.

Sustainability has 3 pillars: Environmental, Social and Economic

Environmental Sustainability

Focuses on natural cycles and practices which affect the environment we live in. Issues can be specific to an area or global. On a global scale, climate change is a huge concern. However, on a local level, water pollution from plastics may be the main concern.

Some consider the environment on the brink of collapse due to our continued excessive use of non-renewable resources, deforestation and industrialisation. If we continue at the current global warming rate, the world would reach human-induced global warming of 1.5°C by 2040, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This means that the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed up by 1.5°C since pre-industrial times. This can have a potentially severe impact to human life. We are currently seeing some negative impacts with increased natural disasters. Less visible changes have occurred in nature with plants flowering earlier. Environmental sustainability looks to reverse these problems and create a more stable environment which is able to cope with future hurdles.

The importance of global warming has been recognised with 197 countries signing a legally binding treaty called The Paris Agreement which aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. So far zero-carbon solutions represent 25% of emissions thanks to The Paris Agreement. This is predicted to increase to over 70% of global emissions by 2030, United Nations Climate Change.

Economic Sustainability

Has a few potential meanings. It can

  • Be defined as practices that support long-term economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental and cultural aspects of the community.”

  • Refer to the way an economy operates in a sustainable manner protecting both social and environmental pillars.

Number 8 of the UN sustainable development goals is decent work and economic growth. Despite some views that economic sustainability comes at the expense of people's jobs and a countries economy this is not true. Good economic sustainability can result in a multitude of benefits such as:

  • Increasing Gross Domestic Product per person resulting in increased tax and improved local services.

  • Individuals wanting to invest in sustainable practises is increasing. Therefore, economic sustainability can increase investments in a company or industry.

  • Reducing operational costs reduces long-term liabilities.

In order to achieve economic sustainability companies and individuals need to more efficient by reducing the number of materials required for the process or to make use of resources not currently used or rarely used. Finding ways to do this can enable economic sustainability.

Social Sustainability

Has gained traction with governments and people becoming increasingly aware of what social sustainability is and its impact. Social sustainability is a complex topic with consideration needed for an area's cultural values. In a scientific paper Missimer and colleagues, proposed 5 principals that people are able to access and obtain freely without structural obstacles if social sustainability is met. These were health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning-making.

Social sustainability requires proactive management of the impacts of business on the employees, community and customers. Poverty, inequality and poor law systems provide barriers. These can also hamper operations and growth of a company. Positive impacts for a company meeting social sustainability include:

  • Increased employee moral/ enthusiasm

  • Attraction of new customers

  • Increased productivity

The United Nations Global Compact is the world's largest corporate sustainability initiative which strives towards a global movement towards sustainable companies. The UN Global Compact supports companies to do business responsibly and has 10 principles. The first 6 of which all focus on social problems relating to human rights and labour. Gender equality, children and indigenous people are some groups which are covered by human rights.

Currently, UN Global Compact has 17,838 participants globally with 15,258 actively communicating, UN Global Compact Database. That is only 41% and 35%, respectively, of registered domestic companies globally (43,248), The World Bank. Which in my opinion is not enough!

But who does the responsibility of social sustainability fall to? Primarily this should fall to governments however, due to the corrupt nature of some governments, this cannot always be relied upon. Businesses should be doing their part too. In addition to respecting human rights and promoting a positive, inclusive environment, businesses are able to drive big change through partnering with other companies and only using companies respectful of social impacts within their supply chain. Consumers can also have a positive impact by asking questions, not buying from unsustainable practices and actively having a conversation about social sustainability to promote change in policies.

This is Where it Gets Tricky!

Each pillar of sustainability is complex and dynamic within their own right but in society these 3 pillars all interact with each other. This can produce great challenges and trade-offs. Companies, governments and individuals have to weigh the benefits and costs to an action and decide if it meets their needs and what sustainable benefit it provides.

Brief Fast Fashion Case Study


The fast fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Pollution from the fashion industry includes but is not limited to water pollution, harmful addition of chemicals and excessive amounts of fabric sent to landfill due to cheaply made garments with a short life span.


The fast fashion industry has a huge impact on global economy. The apparel industry which consists of companies designing and selling clothes, footwear and accessories is worth 1.5 trillion US dollars in 2020, Statista. This is expected to increase to 2.25 trillion by 2025. This shows the demand on the industry both in store and through e-commerce. The apparel industry props up many governments and allows survival of many individuals worldwide by employing 300 million people. The fashion industry is a substantial driver of global GDP,


Manufacturers keeps wages low to cut their costs and have poor working conditions. One extreme example of this is the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. An eight-story building collapsed killing 1134 garment factory workers. By far the deadliest clothing accident in history. In Bangladesh, factory owners trust their customers and receive payment on delivery of garments. In 2020, when the global pandemic hit, customers pulled out of paying for orders which had already been made and in some cases already shipped. This leaves the factories and their workers extremely vulnerable resulting in job uncertainty.

This brief case study barley touches on the impacts of the fast fashion industry.

Why Sustainability is Important in Sewing?

Sustainability is important in every walk of life whether that be your sewing or your food shop! Sustainable clothing through sewing is just one way you can positively impact the world we inhabit and I think that is as good as any reason to incorporate sustainability into your sewing.

How to Incorporate Sustainability in your Sewing?

There are lots of ways you can make your sewing more sustainable. These are a few ideas to get you started or give you a chance to consider what is important to you and how best to approach your sewing.

  • Buying dead stock fabric

  • Using recycled materials

  • Refashion clothes

  • Shop your stash

  • Buy local

  • Use your scraps

  • Using zero waste patterns

  • Make your clothes last

What Sustainability Means to Me and What Does it Mean to You?

This blog post hoped to clear up what sustainability means and encourage you to think what sustainability means to you.

As a scientist, my focus on sustainability may be different to yours. In the workplace, I want to make the scientific processes I perform more sustainable by reducing waste in terms of chemicals and plastics and using less harmful chemicals all whilst ensuring this is cost effective for the company. However, at home and in my sewing, I am more concerned by textile waste both in my sewing and from the fashion industry hence why I often buy dead stock fabric.

My priority may be different to your priorities. You also don’t have to prioritise any individual component of sustainability. Trying to make your sewing a little more sustainable goes a long way. What is your priority, if you have one, and how will you incorporate this into your sewing?

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