Where does your rope come from?
A backstory: I began String Harvest with a vision to create a beautiful online store, full of strings and yarns made with natural fibres coming from all over the world.
I believe strings and yarns themselves are a thing of beauty, a bit worthy of reverence.
I believe in good materials. They should be made under safe working conditions and adequately paid for. When we value the work, cost and resources that have gone into textiles, I hope we can all appreciate how that is reflected in the selling price. Knowing where something is from informs our perception of its value, its markup, and how much we’re willing to pay for it.
I believe in knowing where your supplies come from and disclosing the country of origin to your customers. Honestly, it’s not a remarkable request; so I often wonder why it seems the exception rather than standard practice among many rope and fibre craft suppliers in Australia.
[image: recycled cotton from Barcelona, Spain]
Following on, it’s also my belief that when you make values-based claims in order to sell textiles then you have to substantiate them, and a country of origin is a bare minimum requirement. Unfortunately it’s not a legal requirement to disclose country of origin unless a textile is woven into something. But just because you don’t have to declare, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
[image: recycled cotton 3mm made in Barcelona, Spain]
Macrame has become something of a mainstream craft movement. And in a short space of time, lots more rope sellers have appeared, macrame supplier and macrame maker is the new home-business-hobby, and collectively the country is importing tonnes of cotton (mostly from the same few factories overseas) and entering it into a marketplace with its own macrame-speak-lingo. So it’s not surprising that when some claim to be ethical, others jump on board. It happens all the time across retail sectors, and might to some degree be expected but I want to say a little more on that because I’m not OK with what’s happening, and in 2019 and now 2020 - we need to be better than this.
I’m reading a lot of product descriptions on various websites about cotton ropes being ‘ethically sourced’ 'rolled onto recycled cones' 'grown sustainably' and more or less environmentally friendly. You might be convincing yourself that your macrame or rope consumption is actually beneficial to the planet and that is straight up greenwash.
I recently learned that most of this product (not sold by us) is imported individually shrink wrapped - that's just double greenwash.
What I’m not seeing is proof, evidence, supporting claims. So can we pause for a second, and question this? The problem is that whether these statements are legitimate, we can’t be sure because a. we have no disclosed information on where it’s made (which may not be where cotton is from, by the way), and b. we have no evidence of how, and in what way the cotton is environmentally friendly, sustainable, recycled, etc.
[image: 130ply recycled cotton and recycled cotton/linen blend 120m. The volume of cotton per roll is the equivalent to several items of clothing]
Greenwashing - yes. It’s happening here, in the local macrame cotton rope market. It’s true, cotton is natural and biodegradable but so is photocopy paper and that doesn’t make it inherently good for the planet! We don’t need to detail the facts about cotton - or do we? Cotton is the most water- hungry crop on earth. Covering 2.4% of all cultivated land, it uses 6% of the worlds pesticides and 16% of all insecticides . Broadly speaking, cotton farming keeps a lot of people in poverty, and the pollution from sprays and chemical dyes makes many more sick. So when you begin making any sort of virtuous claims, you had better have some solid basis for distinguishing it from conventional cotton.
Global standards for better cotton exist that cover a range of quantifiable standards - these include the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) , The Better Cotton Initiative  among others. Organic cotton accounts for around 1% of global production and fetches a premium  - if you are buying organic macrame cotton (I am highly skeptical about the veracity of this and I'd encourage anyone buying organic cotton to ask for certification). Sustainability is a big word when it comes to the worlds largest fibre crop. On one hand, Australian cotton uses substantially less water to produce than the global average , but we are still a long way from defining the industry as sustainable. The environmental impact of cotton farming is far reaching and draws on our increasingly limited water resources.
Eventually this too will impact the price per kg and general availability of local cotton for macrame. I sell Australian cotton, and the only real ethical factor there is that I know that it wasn’t produced with modern forms of indentured labour. I make no claims about it being sustainable; I don’t know enough to say so.
There is a lot of hype and buzz on social media around selling macrame rope, but because the appeal of macrame is that it’s handmade and therapeutic, conspicuous imagery of ‘stocking up’ on supplies is slipping under the radar as a good thing when it might just be another form of mass consumption. I find this interesting, because of all the fibre crafts, none churn through volume and weight of cotton like macrame does.
So, back to language and marketing. Greenwashing cotton rope and macrame supplies has flow-on effects because handmade is so popular right now, and makers are using claims about the cotton they use as selling points for their own work. This is compounded by the simple fact that macrame styles now in vogue are both chunky, and typically big. Unlike a knitted sweater, which might use 400g of wool and take 30 hours to make, large macrame pieces may use several kilos of fibre (or more) and can be completed in a fraction of that time. So it’s quite possible that a novice macrame maker will consume more weight in cotton per week than a knitter might use of wool over the course of many years. To think of it another way, how much does your wardrobe weigh? The same volume of cotton that gives us 300m of rope would otherwise make at least a dozen t-shirts.
So, where to from here? My aim is not to make macrame makers guilty as charged. Please don’t take my words this way. But saying nothing because I have skin in the game and ignoring what I know to be true is no longer an option. We all need to be more transparent in the textile industry - not just the fashion labels. I too play with macrame, I think it’s a wonderful craft with many possibilities that doesn’t necessarily require the same skill and diligence as other textile arts - hence why it’s easy to teach and learn, and wildly popular in workshops.
My suggestions: Experiment with different fibres that do not require irrigation and water for processing, such as hemp, jute and linen - and focus more on a quality over quantity approach to making. Figure out your own hierarchy of values and use reclaimed / regenerated /recycled or local fibres where possible - but overall, I encourage readers to thoughtfully consider what supplies you’re buying, and from who - and ask yourself if you’re simply being told what you want to hear.
Understand where things are coming from when they claim to be ethical, sustainable, organic or recycled. Hold your suppliers accountable.
Other resources and reading: