In the barn-conference space at the recent MEND*RS symposium nestled in the age-old Lake District hills and with families of swallows nesting overhead, I was struck by how important scale is to sustainability. Listening to Tom of Holland talk about his on-going mending project for which he darns, knits and overstitches to add physical robustness and aesthetic character to loved but failing clothes, I saw clearly how strikingly understandable – and beautiful – sustainability is at the micro scale.
Also at MEND*RS, I spoke about macro-scale ideas related to post-growth fashion which explore the potential and shape of a fashion system in a world that develops qualitatively rather than in quantitative size. Other similarly scaled ‘whole system’ ideas include new models for education that aim to shift how we think as well as what we know. These ideas – like those at the very small scale – unswervingly convey the essence of sustainability. They are liberating, resonant and inspiring.
In the zone of ‘no scale’, the compelling elegance of sustainability at the level of the very big and the very small is absent.
But at places other than at both ends of the ‘scale’, it seems that such feelings and understanding are all too rare. Between these scales there is confusion about what should happen. In the middle zone, so many projects, so much activity, fails to achieve either beauty or difference. Perhaps it is because such work occupies an indeterminate region, heavily influenced by prevailing fashion priorities, where scale is an unknown and yet-to-be-imagined shaping guide and tool. Here work is rarely individual or collective. It is not skills-based or conceptual. Neither is it supportive or provocative and its timeframe is not ‘now’ or ‘forever’. In this zone of ‘no scale’, the compelling elegance of sustainability at the level of the very big and the very small is absent. What we are missing is an appropriateness of ideas and actions to context, place, time, people and size.
Put simply, scale needs to be factored in.
With an attention to scale, fashion and sustainability activity can be schooled and shaped by a sense of appropriateness; by an honest awareness of what it is we are actually doing – and whether that is ‘good’.
With an attention to scale we can preside over the teasing apart of amorphous fashion and sustainability activity so as to make it more a more effective lever of change. With it, we can ‘pixelate’ our activities into thousands of interactions, thoughts, experiences, design opportunities, commercial exchanges and ideas about what is valuable.
As a process, building awareness of scale and appropriateness reveals our actions as part of a system of many connected and moving parts. It raises often-ignored ethical questions about the value of that system. It also shows it as moulded by an older context of history and a bigger story of inter-relationships in our sector. The linked ideas of appropriateness and scale help us to direct our efforts to the right place, at the right time, in the right way. They sinuously connect us to the integrity of big ideas and the practical wisdom of the individual, everyday experiences with our clothes. They are our allies. Big brands take note: scale will breed a new type of responsibility.
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