Observatory Feature

Why White is Wicked

by Design Observer Observatory on Wednesday, October 31, 2012 in Features

Reposted from Design Observer: Observatory – By John Thackara


Photograph by Tim Mitchell

You probably need to be naked to read this book with a clear conscience. This reader, for one, felt like stripping off as the revelations piled up:

  • it took 700 gallons of fresh water to make my cotton t-shirt;
  • it’s partly down to me that 85% of the Aral Sea In Uzbekistan has disappeared because its water was used to grow cotton in the desert;
  • a quarter of all the insecticides in the world are used on cotton crops;
  • buckets of hazardous sludge are generated during the coating process of the metal buttons on my jeans;
  • white is energy-intensive because of all the bleaching;
  • being clean, and wearing white to prove it, has weakened my immune system;
  • I‘ll use six times more energy washing my favourite shirt than was needed to make it;
  • nearly all the textiles in my life will end up in landfill – garments, household textiles, carpets, the lot.

The book from which I took these offcuts is neither alarmist, nor moralizing. On the contrary: Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, examines the environmental and social impacts of fashion system calmly. This matter-of-fact tone – together with its masses of well-selected examples – make the book impossible to dismiss as mere advocacy.

It is one thing to draw attention to the hidden costs of fashion – quite another to figure out what to do about them. On almost every page, much-trumpeted ‘solutions’ turn out to be less perfect than we hoped, or were told. So-called biodegradable fibres, for example, cannot be chucked on your compost heap (as I, for one, had assumed). The near-ambient conditions of home compost heaps do not provide the right temperature and humidity. PLA fibres (as some of the biodegradable ones are called) decompose only in the optimum conditions provided by an industrial composting facility – and how many of those are there in the world?

Another surprise: natural textiles can be more harmful than syntethic ones. Although polyester fibre, to take one example, is made from non-renewable petroleum, and requires large energy inputs to produce, it is not so environmentally damaging when its whole lifecycle is calculated – from sourcing the raw materials, through the use phase, to the disposal phase. Polyester has lower energy impacts than cotton during the washing and cleaning phase , for example; it is also completely recyclable at the end of its life.

Kate Fletcher’s ‘map’, below, charts the types of fibre that had the greatest potential to the produced in a sustainable way.

As perplexing examples like the one above accumulate, it’s no surprise to be told that “many fashion designers find the technical complexity of textile processing to be bewildering”. As Paul Hawken writes in his introduction, although designers are incredibly knowledgeable about style, cut, fabric, colour, and design – “they know far less about back story of fashion – the technology behind the cut, the fibre behind the fabric, the land behind the fibre, of the person on the land”.

The significance of this important book is that fashion’s back story can no longer be ignored. It marks the transition from years of awareness-raising, until now, to years of remedial action to come. It will no longer be an option to plead ignorance, or feign surprise, at the fact that design decisions impact on watercourses, air quality, soil toxicity, and human and ecosystem health, in other parts of the world.

It is one thing to understand how a complex system works, another thing to change it. True, whenever a fashion designer engages actively with the technical side of the system, she influences product and supply chains across the broader system. And many smart people believe it should be possible to identify what Donella Meadows called ‘leverage points’ as places to intervene that would transform the system as a whole. This is surely too optimistic. For the fashion system as a whole to be sustainable, its economic models, industry structures, trading and business systems, goals, rules, values and belief systems would all need to change. The authors quote Herman Daly on this point: “to do more efficiently something that shouldn’t be done in the first place is no cause for rejoicing”.

Fletcher and Grose are too experienced to believe that transformation on this scale will be achieved by fiddling with leverage points. The earth’s natural resources are limited by the planet’s capacity to renew them – but the imperative of endless growth continues to animate the whole fashion system. No purely technical or market-based solution will be adequate. Any solutions need to driven by “moral and ethical” transformation, they conclude.

My own view is that resource-intensive industrial systems are not problems to ‘solved’ – either ethically, or by system acupuncture. Complexity is energy intensive. Necessity, in the form of energy descent, will drive change more effectively than new kinds of thinking. The super-abundance of textiles, and take-make-waste fashion, are the product of a unique period of energy abundance that is now coming to an end.

Rather than attempt to reform the system we have now as a whole, the priority for design is surely to help construct simpler, smaller-scale systems emerge. These bioregional-scale systems will re-use some of the myriad parts that are out there now, but in different combinations. Fashion and Sustainability edges towards this approach. Its authors argue that region-wide, zero-waste textile systems can harmonize textile production with the health of a bioregion’s ecosystems. Water drawdown, for example, can be reduced by 80-90 per cent in a bioregional system.

For thousands of years before the industrial age, textiles were highly valued and carefully looked after; the repair, alteration and maintenance of clothes was a normal part of daily life. If, as the authors say, 95% of the textiles that are land-filled today could be recycled then, as energy descent kicks in, they will be.

Local production, and knowing everyone involved in a garment’s making, does not have to be a constraint on the designer’s creativity. On the contrary: a regional fashion ecosystem can transcend the impersonal and anonymous transactions associated with the industrial model. The authors explain: “The challenge for designers is to develop relationships ourselves; to know our markets; to understand the scale at which personal connections work, and the point at which they break down”. Local design is richer and and more diverse diverse, they add, because it emerges through the unique skills and resources of a particular region.

The language of natural systems, with their cycles, flows, webs, and interconnectedness – is far removed from the values and business models of industrial production. A growth at all costs economy is incompatible, by definition, with a finite world. Even on a day-to-day basis, the industrial fashion system finds it hard to deal with natural materials and processes whose supplies are irregular, where availability is seasonal and limited, when colour-fastness cannot be guaranteed.

For a new generation of designers and makers, these constraints and irregularities are an inspiration, not a constraint. Sasha Duerr, for example, forages for materials in her neighbourhood. She uses plants directly, rather than extracts. She knows all about their life cycles, their seasonal availability, their colour potential. She uses this deep contextual knowledge to plan projects and commissions – much as as an organic chef plans menus around locally and seasonally available food. (Duerr has now started started an educational nonprofit, the sublimely-named Permacouture Institute, to spread the word).

The many different actors in the fashion system – including designers – pay super-close attention to some changes in their market as a matter of course – but only some. Until now, the energy costs of complexity, the health of the biosphere, and the human costs of production, have not much impinged on this testing if cozy world. Fashion prides itself on being a supremely adaptive system; it will be fascinating to see how well it copes with the challenges contained in this transformational book.

Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, Laurence King Publishing London, 2012

John Thackara is a writer, speaker and design producer, and director of Doors of Perception. In addition to this blog, he is the author of twelve books including In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World and Wouldn’t It Be Great If…. People seem most impressed by the fact that he once drove a big red London bus.

John lives in the small market town of Ganges, in southern France, with his wife, Kristi van Riet and his dog, a Carne Corso called Dora.

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Originally published on Design Observer – Observatory