How would you define ‘sustainability’? Look it up if you’re not sure.
- Sustainability is a state or practice of ensuring that processes can continue over long periods in a way that does not drain resources, environments (natural, physical, social/cultural, economic) or peoples.
In what contexts is sustainability an issue? Think more broadly here – not just textiles – and write a list.
- Sustainability is an issue in any context where there are finite resources in a closed system. It was possible for us to think of the earth's resources as endless when there were fewer of us, when we lived farther apart and were largely ignorant of the consequences of such thinking. It is now clear that much of what we depend for life and the enjoyment of it is not limitless:
- fresh water
- plant life
- arable land
- raw materials
- fossil fuels
How do you think sustainability might be addressed in relation to the production and consumption of textiles and other manufactured products? Use the stages of the life cycle to help you with this question.
- Perhaps the starting point for any thought about sustainability has to be an acknowledgement that it must be a collective effort. As individuals we can all make a commitment to living in more sustainable ways, but it will not accomplish much without some form of collective action in all sectors of society, the economy and governments. And even though larger actors—such as governments and larger corporations—wield considerable influence, the results they achieve will only be partial without some sort of groundswell of popular support.
- All stages of a production cycle—from resource extraction or recovery, to material choice, to refinement, to design, to production / manufacturing, to marketing and sale, to transportation, to consumption and eventual disposal—must be assessed for the way they promote sustainability of life or detract from it:
- Agriculture/raw fibre production — Is land use supportive of the local economy? Are agricultural practices based on sound ecological / green principles? Does crop choice exhaust the soil or displace food crops for local farmers?
- Ginning — How much energy is consumed during the process? Are there any waste products? If so, how are they treated?
- Spinning — Energy consumption? Does automation displace human workers?
- Weaving — Energy consumption? Are there jobs for human workers? If so, do they allow for a living wage?
- Processing — Energy consumption? How close are processing sites to spinning and weaving locations? Are dyes and other chemical products natural? Are they disposed of appropriately? Could they be toxic or allergenic?
- Stitching — Do stitching techniques support a long life for final products or are fabrics designed to fail early to promote repeat consumption?
- Distribution/retail — How much energy is consumed and pollution created by transportation? If products are created in volume, will they be used or end up as landfill? Are price markups calculated to benefit all participants in the production chain, or just those at the top?
- Use/consumption and end of life — Do consumers care for products? Are they disposed to mending products themselves, or do they discard them quickly? Can products have secondary or tertiary uses or lives? Can materials be recycled easily?
- The assessment needs to be done at each stage of the process, but must also view the entire chain as a whole. (There is not much point in working only with natural, renewable fibres if transporting and processing them means fouling the environment.) The chain must also be examined at each stage for its impacts on related, but perhaps distinct chains. (Does increased use of a particular textile mean that there is less arable land available for growing a local food crop? Does a more efficient manufacturing process in terms of volume and speed of production have the side-effect of ruining a local labour market?) Where necessary, governments should be ready to use a combination of regulation and incentives to help direct producers and consumers to healthy outcomes. Business must take corporate responsibility seriously. Individuals must inform themselves and place long-term value ahead of short-term savings.
- All told, there must be commitment across sectors of the economy to operate in a way that promotes human and environmental flourishing, both locally and farther afield. This will not appear overnight, but will require the development of common vision that is sensitive to both place (local and global) and time (the long game).