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cathy-fabric-fullcathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

I read the email and closed my laptop. I figured I had better wait before writing a reply. Always sort out your feelings before answering something that makes you even a little angry.

What was the issue? I had gotten an email from an organization that diverts textiles from landfill inviting my congregation to participate. They claimed that this partnership could raise $500 to $1000 a month for the church. Because the congregation I work with is committed to environmental projects and because money is an issue for us as it is for most churches, I followed up.

I checked out the company's website. They pay their employees more than minimum wage and arrange for flexible work hours. That sounded good. They had pages for engaging kids and a plethora of enviro-facts. A useful site. The only thing missing was what they do with the cloth.

So I emailed and got a quick, courteous reply. That was when I closed my laptop.

Here is my problem: 80 percent of what they collect is sent abroad because poor countries "lack the domestic infrastructure for a clothing market."

What! I just came back from one of the poorest countries in the world where there are tailors on every block in the capital. They make beautiful clothes in no time at all. For people I was with several tailors made interesting dresses, shirts and perfect ties.

It is true that most of the cloth you can buy in Burkina is made in Holland, but some of the batiks are produced in the neighbouring countries of Ghana and Senegal. The distributers are all local small business people.

We also saw some traditional weaving for sale. In Burkina, the hand loom makes strips of cloth 30 cm wide. These strips can be sown together for dresses and shirts. Local cotton is spun for the weaving.

This country like most I have visited has a history of cloth making and a strong infrastructure for making the clothing that is appropriate to their climate and culture. As much as I support landfill diversion, sending used cloth abroad did not feel right. We need to interact with other countries in a way that does not just give away our excess but supports their infra-structure. Our "charitable" dumping of old clothes is not nearly as helpful as supporting fair trade initiatives.

I waited until my thoughts were pretty clear and wrote that I would not recommend participating in their company. I explained why.

I got back a thorough discussion of the problems with recycling post-consumer textiles. They would love to, but the regulations and expense make it impossible right now. They will keep working at it though, because they too think that sending cloth abroad is not the best. The owner has some hope that the Ontario Ministry of the Environment will make textile recycling a priority. She concluded, "Textiles is a tough one to tackle in a way that places value on the waste, allowing for progressive development for all in the supply chain."

This email burst my self-righteous bubble. The organization knows the issues but is not getting the support to make changes. We are happy to put our cloth in one of their bins and walk away proud we have done our part.

I did a quick google and found some pretty interesting companies that are recycling fabrics and using roll ends that might otherwise be discarded. Being a weaver and a sewer myself, I collect ideas for using pieces of fabric--necklaces made of strips of cloth, hot pads made of cloth beads, crazy quilt bags. These are not the kind of things you would manufacture, but they are crafts that people can do by hand.

So what did I learn from this? I was reminded it is important to be courteous with your criticism so that the conversation continues. We have to be thoughtful about our "help" so that we don't undercut where we want to support. And waste diversion takes commitment. We like to think we've done our part when we toss our stuff in the bin at the thrift shop. Living with respect in creation, walking softly in this world (and with other people) takes a bigger shift in lifestyle, a deeper commitment.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.


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