Archive for March, 2012

Sharing, specialisation, sustainability

Over the past four years I have been gathering images and stories of – among many other things – garments that are shared. This has been part of Local Wisdom, a fashion research project exploring satisfying and resourceful ways of using clothes. Sharing – one of a broad suite of mechanisms of collaborative consumption (others include swapping, bartering, trading or renting access to products) – happens more often than we think. There will be very few among us who will not have borrowed a garment from a flatmate or sibling or who don’t have things that are shared through the generations, transferring their ownership as pieces are handed down within families and between friends.  [Read More]

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Local Wisdom Oslo

Join us in Oslo, Norway this Sunday for the next community photoshoots run as part of the Local Wisdom project. Come along to DogA between 12 midday and 4pm and share stories of how you use your garments and have your portrait wearing them taken as part of an ongoing fashion research project from London College of Fashion.

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Product Life Extension Conference

For two decades fashion and textiles has been ‘borrowing’ design for sustainability ideas developed in product design and transposing them onto garment and clothing systems. Now ideas are flowing the other way. The Product Life Extension two-day conference looks at knowledge transfer around durability and obsolescence between clothing and electronic products. I’m speaking on Day 1 on Clothing, Durability and Design. Download a programme here.

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The Language of Fashion and Sustainability

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The theory of linguistic relativity suggests that language shapes thought: that words influence how we perceive and imagine the world. It goes some way to explain how, for example, the Inuit, who with their many words for snow, perceive variations and possibilities in snow types that speakers of other tongues have never considered.

It seems that the language we speak shapes our view of reality.

Sustainability becomes a supply-side concern because we talk about it only as a production issue

So what does the over-riding language of fashion and sustainability do to our ideas about fashion and sustainability? What do words like traceability, certification and process optimization suggest about our garments, our industry, our workers, our potential? And what sort of ideas of future possibility does a lexicon of ten point plans, technical improvement, production efficiency and ‘science-based material scores’ (like the Nike Materials Sustainability Index) generate?

From where I sit it shows us that we are drifting. We are floating without power into a way of thinking, sensing and seeing sustainability that is shaped mainly by the words used by today’s industry. These words describe the systemic, multi-faceted and multi-located problems faced by our sector; and it’s a pretty stinted outlook. The language of transparency, traceability and certification leads us down the route of thinking that sustainability is a supply chain information problem. Speaking in terms of materials and process efficiency and optimization suggests that these are the things that matter. Giving quantitative data primacy makes us think only in terms of things that can be numerically measured. Sustainability becomes a supply-side concern because we talk about it only as a production issue. Technical-, numeric- and management-speak create a sustainability reality dominated by technology, indices and global value chains.

It’s not that these things don’t matter, but more that such words sluice our thoughts about sustainability down a channel of problem minimization.

Other language leads us to alternative ideas about fashion and sustainability.

So what is this language? And what are the stories that these words tell? They speak of things like ‘empathy’, ‘process’ and ‘interdependence’ (I will be blogging more about these over the coming months) and the stories they tell are of satisfaction and resourcefulness. They convey material, individual, social and political creativity and action. Much of the lexicon of opportunity in fashion and sustainability is emerging in places other than industry boardrooms and CSR conferences. Some of this language is rising up from the streets, from ordinary people and everyday fashion practices, like those captured by the Local Wisdom project, where the speech is of loving, imagining, connecting and sacrifice. These are not the terms of problem minimization. They are the words of creation. They speak of the qualities that foster what Aristotle called eudaimonia. This is the language and ideas of flourishing. Let us also make it the language and ideas of fashion and sustainability.

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Bamboo ShamBoo!

Half a decade ago, the president of a company called ‘Bamboo Textiles’ wrote a short essay extolling the virtues of his company’s product (Delano, 2007). It was a classic piece of PR: ‘Even before they touch the silky bamboo fabric, people get excited, perhaps because of its association with pandas. Or Zen.’ (ibid: 160) The fibre, in a masterful feat of union by marketing, became portrayed as environmentally friendly as the cute endangered species whose diet consists solely of the stuff. The association had its roots in an easy (though simplistic) assumption that natural is good, on poor understanding of how fibres are made and a liberal dose of hyperbole.

Bamboo is a rapidly growing grass that can be made into textiles, nearly always by the viscose process. As a plant it is a vigorous, annually renewable crop, by all account grown with few or any synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Yet what the bamboo fabric marketing pitch fails to tell us is that the predominant way bamboo becomes textile fibre is to reduce it to an anonymous source of cellulose in the production process for viscose (other sources include beech trees and discarded cotton clothes). And that this process has both high impact waste emissions to air and water. Nor does it say that, while viscose manufacturing has a greatly varying resource and pollution profile from factory to factory, viscose fibre production (in broad terms) is more energy and water intensive than polyester and more energy consuming cotton and as similarly water consuming as rain-fed cotton. Panda food simply becomes a generic input into a manufactured textile’s supply chain. And for manufactured fibres, it is the process of making the fibre, not the raw material substrate, which determines what it is called. So it is viscose, a regenerated cellulose fibre.

Bamboo fabric has also other claims made about it, not least its antibacterial properties, special UV protection and an ability to shed dirt (ibid: 161) among others. There is no evidence for any of these claims. In the case of the assertion about antibacterial qualities, cellulose (the building block of bamboo) has no inherent antibacterial action and there is nothing in the viscose production process that confers this onto fibre. As to protection from UV radiation; as a viscose product made from cellulose, fibre with origins in bamboo grass, would protect as much as other cellulosics – with no special status for bamboo. As to the claim about shedding dirt, the same argument applies. It is as self-cleaning as other cellulose-based products, i.e. not at all.

Yet there is a bigger point to be made here that goes far beyond bamboo. It is about the power and influence of (mis)information to support or damage decisions we make on our various journeys towards sustainability. It is about the importance of asking questions and a fostering a mindset of critical enquiry that asks more about the story we’re being told.

The hype around bamboo also highlights our huge appetite for new and different solutions to sustainability problems. And perhaps particularly for solutions that are easily accommodated into existing ways of doing things. Yet irrespective of the type and tenor of our engagement with sustainability, it seems that we are eager for things to change. And this is good.

Delano, R. (2007), The Lowdown on Bamboo, Future Fashion White Papers, New York: Earth Pledge, 160-167.

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