As months go, January is probably my least favourite. The days are short, dark and cold. The social diary thins out after the jolly gatherings of December. Work in the garden grinds to a halt. Slushy snow means running is lethal. And then there is the deluge of adverts and mailers urging me to shop in the winter sale, or better still, treat myself to something from a new spring collection. Marketing thin dresses and strappy sandals in January… I ask you!
Not only did I ignore the industry’s siren call to buy new stuff, I did the absolute opposite. I spent January mending and reinvigorating existing stock. And as winter is synonymous with cold feet to me, where better to start my first Wartime Wardrobe Challenge update.
It is no secret that I quite happily darn my cardigans to the extend their life. As socks are more mundane, it is admittedly harder to muster quite the same level of enthusiasm for darning them. As a result they often wear through fully before I get my needle out. So, faced with some very sad looking specimens and extremely cold toes, I decided to kick off my year of rationing by repairing my ailing socks and even indulged in what tomofholland calls ‘visible mending’. In the process, I realised that darning socks is actually extremely gratifying. In thirty minutes I can see, or rather feel, the cosy fruits of my labour.
A desire for warm toes has also prompted me to return to what I once shunned, a rediscovery that is already paying dividends in my pursuit of a more sustainable wardrobe.
As a 12-year old, I could not wait to wear nylon tights. Of course, I did not realise then I would face years of ladders and spend a small fortune keeping myself in these delicate garments. And the environmental impacts? As a girl emerging into teenage years, fossil fuels and embedded energy were not really on my mind. How things change…
Although the cost of nylons has plummeted, I still wince when a pair is wrecked beyond repair. Environmentally speaking they are a double hit: fossil fuel inputs at the start of their life cycle and landfilling a fibre that takes millennia to bio-degrade at the end. Tights are not unique in this respect but they do have a particularly short lifespan. And whilst I am all for repurposing, there really are not that many things you can do with laddered nylon tights.
Fortunately woollen tights seemed to have made a comeback. The merino woollen mix ones I have found are oddly desirable, and not just because producing wool requires four to five times less energy compared to nylon. Furthermore, woollen tights do not ladder with the same frequency, which means fewer pairs overall. And best of all, they are a whole lot warmer!
Shoes – environmentally complex
If sourcing sustainable clothes involves dilemmas and trade-offs, it is doubly challenging where footwear is concerned.
As with clothing, my preference for natural materials does not really help in my quest for sustainable shoes because leather comes with a hefty environmental footprint. Tanning involves numerous chemicals, including the heavy metal Chromium, volatile organic compounds (VOCs – the type of compounds that have been removed from paints for health reasons) and sulfides, which are toxic to humans, the soil and our water courses. And even if vegetable dyes are substituted for ones containing Chromium, there are hundreds of other chemicals involved in the tanning process.
Then there are the soles. These days very few are made of natural rubber (or even recycled tyres) but of synthetic rubber, which is manufactured from petroleum-based substances and in the process creates a shocking amount of liquid waste.
And as for my running shoes (mostly used for walking admittedly)? With their synthetic rubber soles, PET fibres, PU foam, EVA cushioning, adhesives… they are fossil fuel, energy and chemical intensive and responsible for pretty toxic emissions to air, water and land.
Whilst most of the environmental footprint of a pair of shoes is associated with the manufacturing process, there are also other considerations: the CO2 emissions in the transportation chain, end-of-life disposal and, of course, ethical concerns about working conditions!
Solutions: pragmatic and holistic
So where does that leave somebody aiming for a lighter environmental footprint? Even with a grasp of the materials, processes and impacts, knowing what you are actually buying is tough. It is not like buying a pack of cereal: shoes do not come with a detailed list of ingredients!
For my part the solution lies partly in looking for more sustainable materials and manufacturing techniques. Kitting myself out in clogs with hemp uppers or shoes with natural rubber soles (like Green Shoes’ ecotan leather sandals) may be fun but realistically these only work in the short summer months or for casual days. Therefore my main focus is to invest in quality products and make them last.
Polishing shoes, taking them to the cobbler before the heels disappear, stuffing them with newspaper to keep their shape… all stunningly unsophisticated measures in an age of technology driven solutions but effective nonetheless. I have even tried my hand at dyeing a pair of badly scuffed shoes to get another year or two out of them. The coverage was not as even as I would have liked but apparently regular polishing will help that. And in any event, I am calling the look ‘distressed vintage’.
As for my running shoes. Viewed as shoes alone, there is no way I can make them environmentally virtuous. However, as I walk and cycle everywhere, I reckon the environmental brownie points from not driving help outweigh some of the sustainability black marks associated with these shoes.
So where do I stand at the end of the first month of this Wartime Wardrobe Challenge?
I also finished knitting a sweater I started last autumn. As I used yarn that I had in stock, no coupons were needed. And although I still have a few random skeins of wool left, any major knitting projects this year will eat into my coupon allowance.
Deprived or enriched?
Do I feel hard done by for not having indulged in any sales shopping? Do I feel I have sacrificed valuable time with my ‘make do and mend’ efforts? Neither. In these winter months, spending time curled up in the sofa with the wireless, a cup of tea and some knitting or darning is no hardship. And not wasting time (or money) tramping around shops means I have lots of time to spend on enjoyable activities, like making marmalade, music practice, strolling in an atmospheric Greenwich Park…
Sources and links
Interested in the life cycle analysis of shoes? Take a look at this paper, which explores the impacts of different materials and manufacturing processes for a particular brand of shoes.
This report explores the total energy use in producing and processing New Zealand merino wool (but note the research was jointly funded by the government’s Sustainable Farming Fund and the merino wool industry).
As I am interested in how we square human’s innate desire for innovation and novelty with a finite planet, I was interested to learn about Amy Twigger Holroyd’s research. She is exploring the “relationship between fashion and well-being, and how these are affected by practices of making”.