White, wearable & wicked?

A humble white cotton garment holds out a simple, but oft forgotten lesson for those who define and design products: the inevitable, and often messy, fingerprints and footprints of our actions. On people and on our planet.

In a May 2012 blog post on The Design Observer, John Thackra reasons “Why White is Wicked”. Just two of the several points that Thackra posits (and I haven’t double checked the stats) underscore the environmental concerns around making cotton whiter and wearable:

  • “it took 700 gallons of fresh water to make my cotton t-shirt” and
  • “a quarter of all the insecticides in the world are used on cotton crops”

Thackra’s article is inspired by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose’s recent book Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change, According to Fletcher and Grose – “the issues in fashion are broad-ranging and include labour abuses, toxic chemicals use and conspicuous consumption, giving rise to an undeniable tension between fashion and sustainability.”

Fletcher and Grose’s book, and Thackra’s blog, raise some key question (and there are proposed solutions to some) like not everything that is green is as eco-friendly as we may think it is.

Thackra eloquently sums up the underlying spirit of the book:

“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.”

The interesting takeaways for me, are:

Are ‘green’ processes what they seem?Are so called green processes always as sustainable or as impact-free as they are made out to be? Going back to Thackra’s note on natural vs. synthetic fibres: “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.”

Reform the System. Understand and question the process – where do things come from, how are the building blocks of every product created, constructed, refined and transported. This can often be complex but by cleverly reforming and leveraging upon the key points possibly the system could be reformed.

Forget reform, simplify and localize. The alternative to reforming the complex system is to rethink the system. The Authors conjecture – what if the industry strove for a smaller, simplified, localized bio-regional groups of designers and producers? A more sustainable model than the all out, large scale industrial production methods. A model based on local processing and production of garments, adoption of local materials and techniques. Maybe less, after all, is more?

But will the ecosystem of the economy that prides itself on automation and scale, on big advertising budgets and larger-than-life brand building allow that?

Further reading/watching/listening:

John Gerzema talks about the post-crisis consumer

Image by Karolina Przybysz

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