18Aug
By: Shahira On: August 18, 2016 In: Apparel Design, Ethics + Sustainability in Apparel Comments: 0

Originally presented to the Built Environment Emerging Professionals (BEEP) annual Lightening Talks event held in Portland, OR on May 19, 2016.

This year’s theme was ‘How do you build diversity?’

Textiles and clothing are not just about fashion. They represent a synthesis of art and science. They are displays of successful interdisciplinary efforts. These crafts connect us to our historical and cultural roots, and to the systems that sustain all life.
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Clothes-making contributes just as much to the three-dimensional built environment as architecture or civil engineering. They all require an ongoing commitment to and respect for natural laws, which forces them to contend with the tensions between efficiency and quality. Clothing incorporates the additional variable of body mechanics.
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Currently, the mainstream garment industry favors efficiency almost exclusively, with manual labor and environmental resources valued at practically zero. Therefore, the market is relentlessly glutted with low-quality, inherently obsolete products at the rate of 80 billion garments per year.
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Some might say that quality and efficiency concerns don’t matter with garments. A poorly built bridge or building is surely far more life-threatening than a poorly made dress or coat. Not only is this no excuse to build badly, but the idea that irresponsible clothing construction doesn’t matter is wrong.
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Garment production and consumption are a matter of life and death in environmental and social situations across the globe. Most garment production occurs overseas, and exploitation is rampant at the sub-contractor level because Western brand retailers put tremendous pressure on overseas factories to turn around massive volumes on very tight deadlines.
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This pressure results in factories’ racing to the bottom to produce the most pieces at the lowest prices, thereby subcontracting work to more poorly managed facilities. Combine this pressure with a lack of enforcement of labor laws and building codes, and add in corrupt local officials, and you have a recipe for disaster.
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Brands and factories, however, are only half the equation. The other half is consumers’ willingness to be brainwashed into believing they must constantly turn over the contents of their closets. I want to inspire consumers to reclaim their ability to shape the market and take back their power to drive the textile economy in a better direction.
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To paraphrase Paul Gilding, who wrote ‘The Great Disruption’: if we were to stop shopping at current rates, the entire economic system built on quantitative growth would change almost indescribably. We can pull the situation out of socio-political economic abstraction and put it firmly in our own hands.
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It is appropriate to also compare textile production with food production, because the raw materials and labor come from the same sources as for food. As we have demanded changes in the transparency of food production and are growing more of our own food, we can do the same for textiles and garments.
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Some fashion brands are more responsible, and at home, subsistence living activities are not just for communes anymore. But these mainstream garment production models still require producing and consuming at high volumes using outsourced labor. And I want textile- and clothes-making at home to be viewed as more than just a distraction.
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I want us to think about ‘textile miles’ in the same way we’re thinking about ‘food miles’ to bring people closer to the sources of the textile products they buy. We have a long history of wool production here in the Pacific Northwest, and we could resurrect completely vertically integrated textile and garment production systems for wool.
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There is a movement which started in northern California to designate land areas as Fibersheds: ‘geographical areas that give boundaries to natural textile resource bases.’ They are showcases of polycultural farming and commodities processing at low volumes, where biodiversity is maintained.
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This traditional, more permanent type of commodities production that relies on the ecosystem itself to maintain the integrity of the landscape while still producing sufficient yields is as relevant to textiles as to food. And, yes, those high quality yields come at a higher cost to the consumer.

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Which makes sense. Because investing more in high quality products that give longer returns at decreasing costs per use goes hand in hand with buying less. Which is the real challenge. The issue isn’t lack of know-how. Or even strength of will. We are unwilling to address the psychological and emotional motivations behind our current rates of consumption…issues that will have to wait for another opportunity for discussion…
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For now, we can return to our lovely Fibershed, were we would find a mix of urban and peri-urban agriculture, and low-volume processing and production facilities that are shared by the community.
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Oregon already has several hundred low-volume fiber animal growers, most of whom are already growing conservation and heritage breeds to preserve agricultural variety and protect biodiversity. These heritage or ‘heirloom’ breeds are well suited to living on pasture, they withstand disease, and they reproduce easily.
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Heritage breeds also often grow longer wool fibers that are not suited to industrial scale processing, therefore requiring processing by hand, or by one of the few tiny mills Oregon is lucky enough to host.
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In comparison, commercial sheep production relies on only a few highly specialized breeds to accommodate industrial machinery. The animals are grown within confined and climate controlled facilities; they can have trouble reproducing; they can be more susceptible to disease; and they don’t show any variety across their carcasses or fibers.
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I’ve only mentioned wool from sheep, but Oregon also produces goat, alpaca and ribbit fiber as cottage industries. We are drowning in as much artisan fiber as artisan beer and world-class wine. And, we’re drowning in artists and craftspeople, who are ready to put this beautiful local product to practical use.
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By localizing all aspects of textile and garment production, we naturally create a regional style. As consumers, we can transform the textile and garment production landscape by demanding transparency across the value chain for textiles, and by being willing to invest in local textile and garment production.

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