sustainability

'Sustainable fashion' and binary thinking

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I realised something recently. It's pretty simple, but seems rather important.

This realisation emerged from a comment someone made about my work on homemade clothes and sustainability. They challenged the whole idea of 'sustainable fashion', arguing that too often people assume that sustainable fashion is 'better' than mass-produced fashion - when strategies such as making our own clothes at home might bring their own challenges and limitations.

In response, I explained that I don't think homemade clothes are automatically more sustainable than mass-produced clothes (though they certainly have the potential to be) - in fact, that's the central point of my whole thesis - so, effectively, I agreed with the point they were making.

However, I quietly sidestepped the larger issue they raised. I could only think: well, of course I think sustainable fashion aims to be 'better'! That's the goal, right? Seeking solutions to problems and new ways of doing things? That's what we're all working towards!

Over time, I've come to realise that my confusion over this comment indicates two totally different understandings of what 'sustainable fashion' means. The first is binary, while the other (my own) is aspirational.

The binary understanding sees 'sustainable fashion' and 'unsustainable fashion' as two distinct categories. From this perspective, 'normal' high street fashion falls within the 'unsustainable' category - while anything placed within the 'sustainable' category carries the implicit claim of 'betterness'. 

This binary view is certainly easy to understand: it efficiently splits the fashion world into baddies and goodies. It helps you to feel good as a consumer - having picked the virtuous option versus the negative one. It's also a logical perception: if designers and journalists talk about 'sustainable fashion' it implies a single, unified group which exists in opposition to its nemesis, 'unsustainable fashion'. 

However, given the complexity of the fashion system, the energy and resources consumed in creating and maintaining garments, and the many human and social factors involved in wearing clothes, no initiative can truly claim to be 100% sustainable. I learned early on that this is true of design for sustainability more generally - you will always be trading off advantages against disadvantages, and dealing with unexpected impacts. There are no easy wins! 

From the binary perspective, there is great scope for challenging those who describe their work as sustainable fashion - the critics need only point to the inevitable negative impacts of their initiatives to argue that they are (at best) naive idealists, who have not considered the implications of their well-intentioned efforts.

In contrast, my understanding of sustainable fashion is that it's an aspiration - something that, to be honest, we haven't yet achieved. As a fashion designer exploring alternative fashion systems with sustainability as a goal, I might describe my work as 'sustainable fashion' - but that's a shorthand for the aspirations I have sought to pursue, not for '100% goodie'.

And I'm not alone. I don't know of a single person working within the field of sustainable fashion who thinks in this binary way - that what they are doing is definitively 'better' than the norm. Instead, I see a lot of people pursuing different approaches - based on their own priorities, interests and talents - and trying to expose alternative, more sustainable, ways of delivering the benefits of fashion. They are highly aware of the negative impacts of the strategies they are developing, and the trade-offs they are making.

Meanwhile, many of these people are working with the 'baddies' of the high street fashion world, seeking to explore alternatives on an industrial scale through collaboration, rather than competition - challenging that binary view from another angle.

Simple, right? We were talking at cross purposes all along. Just a shame it took me so long to realise!

I guess we all need to get a bit better at explaining what we mean by 'sustainable fashion'.

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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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You was the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sometimes I wonder whether pop culture throws up the most evocative and moving messages about sustainability and over-consumption.

Take indie pop wonders Johnny Boy, for example, and their genius 2004 release You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve. Not only is this, for me, one of the best pop songs of the last decade, but its swirling, euphoric wall of sound pops into my head whenever I contemplate acquiring more shoes, like a voice from the sustainability gods.

In my head, this 7" single is filed next to the 'Shoe Event Horizon' passage in Douglas Adams' (also genius, of course) Restaurant At The End of the Universe:

Many years ago, this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the numbers of these shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is the termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine. Most of the population died out. Those few who had the right kind of genetic instability mutated into birds – you’ve seen one of them – who cursed their feet, cursed the ground, and vowed that none should walk on it again. Unhappy lot.

Are we approaching Shoe Event Horizon? With a fashion industry built on ever-increasing volumes of production which shows no regard for the consequences, it sure feels like it to me.

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