Community arts spaces empowering people to engage in sustainable fashion

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People need to engage with – not simply discuss – the ways fashion can become sustainable.

Engaging in fashion sustainability and ethics is vastly different from conversing about it.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, it’s easier said than done. While more people are ready to discuss the wrongdoings of this opaque industry, the step from, “Look at what they’re doing,” to, “Look what I can do,” remains confusing. 

This is where the need for community arts spaces arises. Jasmine Corbett runs sustainable textile workshops at the Textile Art and Community Art Space (TACAS) in Heidelberg, and says these guided workshops help people take that step.

“The essential thing is to help people rethink their textiles use,” she says. “Even if they just change one little habit, or change one thought process and think ‘I could do this differently, or I could do that differently’.”

Community art spaces are taking on the responsibility to educate Australians about sustainable practices because it seems impractical to look towards to fashion industry for guidance.

Melbourne Fashion Week did try dipping a toe in sustainable waters. It ran off 100% renewable energy and was certified carbon neutral under that Australian government’s National Carbon Offset Standard.

However, a week-long commitment to renewable electricity and a 60% vegetarian menu does little to offset the fashion industry’s massive energy consumption, supply chain wastage and water waste (20 per cent of global water waste, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe).

All this ends in Australians throwing away 23kg of the average 27kg of textiles we purchase each year.

Even the action of donating used textiles falls short. We believe it’s an environmentally conscious deed, but as sustainability consultant Jane Milburn told the ABC, only 15 per cent of that gets resold in opportunity shops. It’s not an effective way to engage in sustainability.

This is something Corbett is conscious of. Extending textile lifecycles is a key way her workshops are helping people engage in sustainable practices.       

“I’m trying to salvage textiles from landfill,” she says. “There’s so many resources and energy that go into creating textiles, and for them to just end up in landfill is completely wasteful and ridiculous.

“I do a fair bit of opp-shopping, and sometimes I find stuff that’s ripped, or stained. And if it’s a nice fabric like silk or rayon I’ll always say, “I’ll take it,” rather than them throwing it in the bin, and then I’ll reuse it [in my workshops],” Corbett explains.

Silk textiles salvaged from opportunity shops is reconstructed in Corbett’s workshop. Photo supplied by Jasmine Corbett.

Generation Z have strong beliefs around sustainable fashion. A report by McKinsey & Company explains young consumers are more likely to purchase from companies that align with these beliefs, and that “nine in 10 Generation Z consumers believe companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues”.

However, that responsibility doesn’t only lie with big fashion chains, and a majority of young people acknowledge their own efforts are vital for creating a sustainable future.

Zoe, 20, says: “So many people have the mindset, ‘But I’m just one person.’ If we reversed that and everyone had the mindset, ‘My actions count,’ we could incite more change than we believe possible.”

Charlie, 17, also believes the responsibility falls on individuals as much as it does big fashion corporations. “If both parties are playing a role it’s easier to achieve [sustainability],” she says.

Still, bridging the gap between wanting to take responsibility, and having the confidence to engage in sustainable practices is difficult.

Shinae, 21, says: “My mum taught me how to sew as a child and I know how to use a sewing machine, but I don’t think I would attempt to fix my own clothes. I’d need some more practice.”

Taylah, 21, reiterates this sentiment, saying she knows how to sew and mend clothes “but not confidently enough to do it with all of my clothes”. This exemplifies how the “want” is lost without the self-assurance to act.

Generation Z hold strong values around sustainability. Photo supplied by Jasmine Corbett

But this is how these workshops empower individuals to engage in sustainable practices. Zoe says: “If I was taught easy tricks to reconstruct my clothes that I could do on a regular basis, I would. I don’t like the feeling of consuming for the sake of it, particularly when our planet is suffering.”

Going to community art space workshops to learn from experts is also vastly cheaper than buying ready-made – whether from an ethical brand or fast fashion chain. Louise Muller, a TACAS Facilitator, says this is another key value of their workshops.

“When I first joined the Textile Art Community, one of the ladies told me her philosophy around workshops was: ‘We’ve got a shop and people can buy stuff. But, if they can’t afford that they can attend workshops so they can make it for themselves,’” she says.

Not only does this make fashion accessible to more consumers by breaking away from the traditional fashion gatekeepers, it’s a great way to promote sustainability on an individual level.

“When something is constructed with love and artistry, that’s something that will last a lifetime,” Muller says.

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