David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd in conversation, #2: on sustainability

Thursday, May 8, 2014

This is the second in the series of three conversations between David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd, which we are posting each Thursday, during May 2014, on our respective blogs (davidgauntlett.com and keepandshare.co.uk).

We are discussing some of the things we find most curious and exciting. Before this one, you might like to read the first conversation, ‘On design, and systems’. Next week we will publish our third conversation, ‘On small steps’. This one is about sustainability, in relation to design and making.

ATH: This time, I wanted to talk to you about sustainability. Now, I’ve been involved in design for sustainability stuff for over ten years, and really see that as the big underpinning motivation and context for all of my work in design, making and research.

In the past few years I’ve become particularly interested in how craft and amateur making can contribute to sustainability, and of course, you’re very interested in amateur making too – that’s one of the areas where our interests coincide. However, I don’t think I've really heard you talk explicitly about sustainability. I wondered whether it’s a motivation for you?

DG: Oh yes it’s a very strong motivation. Making is Connecting – which describes my main argument, the whole thing I’m most interested in – is about sustainability on multiple fronts, I think! I hope it’s not too buried in the text. It’s certainly the central thing in what I think of as the most important bits, but I suppose those bits are probably a few single pages of a book that’s 280 pages or whatever it is, so maybe they end up with less prominence than I might like. So I’ll say them now!

The first one, is the vitally important thing, the thing I always say, that making and creating is not just ‘a nice thing’. Obviously it is a nice thing, when someone does some small creative act – they write a song or poem, or make a funny video, or knit a hat – but it’s much more than that as well. All these acts of creativity, they are all cases of somebody doing something a bit different, expressing something of themselves, and choosing not to just buy something made by someone else, but to make it themselves. They’re making their mark, they are saying ‘here I am’. It’s the John Ruskin point about being able to see the spirit of the maker within the thing they have made. It doesn’t have to be the most finely polished piece of art, it can be all rough and home-made, but you can see in it the passion of a person who wanted to make something. This applies just as well to a wood carving or a YouTube video. All these little acts, if you look at them one by one, can seem small and sweet and insignificant, but if you take them all together, they add up to something big and something political.

These are people who want to sustain a creative, engaged world, not a world of mass consumption. In all the environmental and sustainability literature, the main enemy is mass, reckless consumption, isn’t it.

ATH: Well yes, certainly in the so-called ‘developed’ world.

DG: Yes. And what Making is Connecting celebrates is the opposite of that mass consumption model, basically. So for that reason I think the connection with sustainability is obvious throughout, but maybe I could have spelt it out more.

Other things are also spelt out, though. One is just the whole point of Making is Connecting, that in making things you feel more engaged with the world and more connected to your environments. And therefore, more likely to care for that world, rather than being the sit-back, switched-off consumer.

Then there’s the point, which links back to Ruskin again, that a society where people don’t have regular opportunities to exercise their creativity is like a tree cut off from its roots, which will wither and fail.

ATH: That’s a lot of sustainability-related points!

DG: There’s also the point that I make, which is similar but slightly different, which is that I don’t know what are the solutions to the various environmental challenges that we face, but what I do know is that we will need lots of creative people, and people engaged with their world, to be able to solve those problems, and I know that we can develop such people if we use different modes of learning, based around making and tinkering and experimenting, and with widespread everyday creativity based on a culture that embraces the homemade joy of creative practice more than it loves mass-manufactured entertainment. (You can have a mix and a balance, of course – this is not about stamping out Hollywood movies or anything like that. But we need a mix of things and especially platforms for the sharing of diverse, personal stuff made by individuals).

ATH: Ah yes, so that’s about the importance of creativity to how we might transition to sustainability.

DG: Would you say that all this is similar to, or different from, your own ideas about sustainability?

ATH: Oh, pretty similar, I think! I’ve always been of the view that sustainability really needs a massive diversity of approaches – there isn’t one magical solution, but a galaxy of tiny, contextually-relevant solutions. I think we’re in the same bit of the galaxy.

DG: Oh yes I like that. A galaxy of diverse approaches. The reason I’d be nervous about talking to sustainability people is basically the fear that they would think that there was just one proper solution and were not tolerant of other solutions. But I have no particular reason to think that they’d be like that!

ATH: By the way I should say that I think it’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t just about ‘the environment’ – it’s about social stuff, and some people, including me, would argue it’s about culture, too. So lots of the points in Making is Connecting also relate to those other aspects of sustainability.

DG: Ah yes – good!

ATH: My personal approach as a designer has always been about tackling the issue of overconsumption, and exploring the potential contribution of craft to that. So, I think a lot about the emotional connections and sense of satisfaction that can be engendered through making, and how they might make you feel more attached to your possessions and therefore consume less. And also about how the knowledge you gain through making can be applied to repairing, for example. If you scale up these ideas, I think they relate to your points about being engaged, connected and caring. And I certainly see people making things themselves as an important and political act – even if they don’t see it as such themselves.

But while I totally agree with all of that, I’m quite wary of romanticising making. From working with amateur knitters for years – and from making things for myself – I know that people aren’t always emotionally connected to things they’ve made. Sometimes they are really disappointed with them! Knitters are often critical of a rough, ‘homemade’ finish. I think that’s partly because of the dominance of shiny, mass-produced things – there’s a temptation to compare homemade things to stuff brought from the shops, particularly in terms of clothing. So, while I passionately believe in the value of people making things themselves, and think there are many benefits from that in terms of sustainability, I think some people need support to do so.

DG: I agree about supporting people, of course. But this whole thing is quite curious. Your dissatisfied knitters do have the option of buying inexpensive, well-finished garments from the shops, don’t they. But they choose to be knitters. I expect you’ve explored this apparent contradiction. Why do they dislike the look of the things they’ve made themselves, or rather, why do they carry on doing it?

ATH: It’s a conundrum, all right! It’s hard to speak on behalf of all knitters, as we’re such a diverse bunch – and, of course, lots of people are happy with the things they’ve made, and enjoy wearing them, which is great. But, from my research, I think those that are sometimes disappointed carry on because they love the process of making, and find it really rewarding. And also, of course, there’s the hope that you’ll do better next time! That’s part of why making things is so satisfying, I think – because it’s a challenge.

While this might all sound a bit negative – I don’t mean to be, honest! – I really think change is afoot. I think the stronger that ‘maker’ culture becomes, the more confident people will become in their own skills, and in using the things that they’ve made.

DG: Yes I agree. Just to have rough-and-ready maker culture offering a kind of role model for other makers – I mean in the sense that you can be inspired by how imperfect something looks – is really valuable. Like, ‘if they can do that, I can do that!’. As rather a perfectionist myself, I tend to be more inspired by less polished things, not the highly-polished things. That might seem counter-intuitive. But if people make highly-polished stuff, it’s kind of intimidating, whereas if they seem happy with effective, interesting, not-too-polished things, then you think, ‘Oh yes, I can do that!’. And you’re released from the self-imposed obligation to spend hours and hours making the thing look perfect.

ATH: At the beginning of this conversation, I said that I hadn’t heard you talk explicitly about sustainability. I’ve just done a quick search of Making is Connecting, and only found ‘sustainability’ appear a few times. I wonder if it was a conscious decision not to use that word? Do you feel it’s over-used, or perhaps might make people switch off?

DG: Oo, checking! Well you must be right. I always try to use clear, everyday language, and although ‘sustainability’ isn’t exactly high-end jargon, it’s not that accessible I think. I don’t really use it myself except when talking to someone like you and joining in with your terms. I suppose to be honest I associate it a bit with holier-than-thou green sort of discourse – as I sort of alluded to before – and which is unfair, probably, and of course they’re lovely people, and it’s a bit inverse-snobbish of me to not use the term for that reason. But there you go. I think the typical reader (for example, me) doesn’t necessarily know quite what ‘sustainability’ is meant to mean, but we translate it into meaning ‘environmental issues’, and we find it slightly intimidating even though we know it’s all about some good values that we actually agree with. I wonder if you think this is all a very silly explanation!

ATH: No, not at all – it’s another conundrum, and one that’s very familiar to me. For the first few years of running my knitwear label, Keep & Share, I didn’t use the word ‘sustainability’ in my communications to customers, because I didn’t want to put them off. I talked about slowness and emotions and relationships instead. As the sustainable fashion movement has grown, I’ve started to use it a bit more on my website, but I still try to explain my philosophy in a way that people can relate to.

It’s no wonder that people aren’t sure what ‘sustainability’ is meant to mean – there are so many different interpretations, even (and especially) amongst those most involved with it! That’s both in terms of defining sustainability itself, and how it relates to things like consumption and fashion. In the fashion sphere, many people still think it’s ‘just' about organic cotton, or recycling, when it needs to encompass so much more than that.

So, I agree – when talking about ‘sustainability’ there’s always a danger of intimidating people, and them either misunderstanding or switching off. But on the other hand, if we don’t explicitly say ‘this relates to sustainability’, then there’s the danger that interesting ideas and creative efforts, that are highly relevant to sustainability really, are somewhat disconnected from those debates.

DG: Yes. Though you might hope that good ideas within the same sphere, whether labelled with a particular word or not, will probably be connected up by the people in that field. 

ATH: Oh yes, that’s true.

DG: This also relates to communication and what academics now have been told to call ‘impact’ – whether people make an effort to get their ideas out into the world and to connect up with others. Of course I think they should do that but I also recognise that it’s hard work, and there are often multiple communities that you should be talking to but it’s hard to link up with all of them. In my own case, and as you’ve sort of indicated, I’ve not really managed to connect up with the ‘sustainability’ people as much as I should.

But let’s end this part of our conversation on a positive note. I think we both believe that amateur making, and craft, and the maker movement, and homemade media, all these things are valuable for sustainability, because they change people’s relationship with the material world, and with culture, and your attitude about what things in the world you can change for yourself. And we think this is growing, yes?

ATH: Yes, I think so! Great, isn’t it?

NEXT WEEK: On small steps.

[Maple leaves image by Fotopedia user Martin Heming (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 licence.]

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