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Green with Envy


John Thackara, a British author, lecturer and design expert, has just written an article on his website that asserts that despite concerted and continuing efforts by some well-meaning individuals and companies to become more ‘sustainable’, the overall problem continues to get worse, not better.

In an article titled ‘A whole new cloth: politics and the fashion system’, Thackara says that ‘In fashion, despite more than 400 eco labels, an incremental “do less harm” approach has addressed the symptoms, but not the principal cause, of our difficulties.”

The problem he says, is that the underlying flaw with any attempts at achieving sustainability is that we try to incorporate it within an economic model ‘based on perpetual growth in a finite world’.

‘Thanks to the tireless work of activists and advocates, millions of people are already aware of the social and environmental harm wrought by industrial systems – including the textiles and fashion ones,’ he says in his article.

‘As awareness and concern has grown, many fashion brands have committed to do less harm – and a few have even committed themselves to a “leave things better” course.

‘But, despite decades of work, the overall condition of the biosphere continues to worsen.’

Thackara goes on to describe a meeting he attended of ‘200 sustainability managers at a famous home furnishing giant in Sweden’.

He doesn’t name the company concerned, but says later in the article that they operate from ‘giant sheds’ around the world, so no prizes for the correct answer..

‘During 20 years of uninterrupted work on sustainability, this famous company has made thousands of rigorously-tested improvements that are recorded on a “list without end,” he explains.

‘The range of improvements is startling – even admirable – except for one fact: the one thing this huge company has not done is question whether it should grow.

‘On the contrary: it is committed to double in size by 2020.

‘By that date, the number of customers visiting their giant sheds will increase from 650 million a year (in 2012) to 1.5 billion a year.

‘And why?

‘The senior manager who briefed our meeting on this plan put this growth into context: “Growth is needed”, she explained, “to finance the sustainability improvements we all want to make.”

Ah yes, the wonderful paradox of ‘sustainability’ that only a few have managed to grasp..

Thackara goes on to explain:

‘The company, as the third largest user of wood in the world, has promised that by 2017 half of all the the wood it uses – up from 17 percent now – will either be recycled, or come from forests that are responsibly managed.

‘Now fifty percent is a vast improvement, but it also begs the question: What about the second half of all that wood?

‘As the company doubles in size, that second pile of wood – the un-certified half, the unreliably-sourced-at-best half – will soon be twice as big as all the wood it uses today.

‘The impact on the world’s forests, of one company’s ravenous hunger for resources, will be catastrophic.’

It’s a long, and interesting article if you wish to grasp the true nature of the ‘sustainability’ issue and why it is destined for failure in its current form.

‘The committed and gifted people I met in Sweden – along with sustainability teams in hundreds of the world’s major companies, including many fashion companies – are confronted by an awful dilemma,’ says Thackara.

‘However hard they work, however many innovations they come up with, the net negative impact of their firm’s activities, on the world’s living systems, will be greater in the years ahead than it is today.’

And Thackara gives a glimpse of the extent of the problem with another article on his blog, ‘Shoe City vs Sole Rebels’, which contrasts the differences in economic models between a giant, Chinese shoe manufacturing company in Ethiopia which has been given huge tax breaks by the Ethiopian government and employs up to 200,000 ‘guest workers’ for US$35 a month – ten times lower than the cost of employing workers in China – and an Ethiopian fair trade company (Sole Rebels) that pays its workers three times the average Ethiopian wage and makes shoes from recycled car tyres and organic and bio-based materials.

But the problem Thackara doesn’t examine – at least in this article – can be seen in the image of one of Sole Rebel’s shoes: it’s functional, and ethical, and maybe almost sustainable, but it doesn’t look sufficiently fashionable, or cool, or hot, and it won’t sell in any significant numbers to consumers in the department stores and shopping malls of the developed world who all want brands like Tommy Hilfiger or Guess – which are some of the brands that the Chinese company in Ethiopia, Huajian, currently makes.

As part of the economic elephant in the glasshouse that Thackara correctly identifies, we’ve all been conditioned and encouraged to want more instead of less, and like the consumer addicts we’ve become, we are unwilling and unable to dispense with the economic model that gives us our daily fix.

Of course, this is all a deeply unpopular and unsettling viewpoint, but should you be one of the tiny minority interested in the substance rather than the superficial, you could do worse than check out Thackara’s complete article here, and bookmark his blog.



What do you think?