About Design Dialogues
Section 1: Stephan Weiss Lectures
IN THE HANDS OF THE USER: The Local Wisdom Project and the Search for an Alternative Fashion System
It has become normal for us to access and engage with fashion primarily by exchanging money for products. It has also become normal to us that these same products will be out of date, stylistically incongruous, within about six months. We discard rather than repair.
The market domination of clothing production and consumption has changed the fashion industry: fashion is now structured to suit the demands of consumption as an independent value. Cheaper garments have likewise changed consumption patterns. In the first decade of the 21st century, clothing prices in Europe fell by over 26 percent in real terms, and in the US by 17 percent. 1
These consumption patterns have altered the High Street, changing the face of the market for clothes as well as our ideas about what fashion is. Combined with the decline in real prices, the need for ceaseless market growth and positive return on investment has changed the way people consume clothes— primarily by greatly accelerating their rate of consumption. In the UK alone, 2 million tons of new clothing are bought each year, and 1.1 million tons discarded. 2 Besides suggesting a hoarding problem among many British consumers, this figure testifies to fashion’s enormous contribution to the waste stream.
In the UK alone, 2 million tons of new clothing are bought each year, and 1.1 million tons discarded.
Shopping is presented as a democratic choice, a political triumph that conjoins economic and personal freedoms. But we measure fashion success in terms of retail sales figures, and this in turn shapes the way we dress, as people are channeled into specific ways of dressing—calling into question how “free” our consumption choices really are. Businesses provide garments at specific price points for specific target markets; as a corollary the quality and quantity of other options often declines. Especially since the 1960s, a new hierarchy of fashion provision, driven by top designers and brands, has helped to displace nearly all other experiences of fashion. Shared public expectations of creating fashion are largely forgotten, with solutions now framed entirely within the shopping mall. Choices that don’t fit into this paradigm are made to appear undesirable, impractical, or too expensive.
Contemporary fashion is also linked to structures that reinforce the socioeconomic status quo: instead of reflecting fashion’s wider potentials, the industry reflects the dominant mode of production and the interests of the dominant market players. In this way, fashion is implicated in modern systems of power and control—indeed the industry has been described as “a velvet glove of seductive surface covering the hard fist of economic expediency.” 3 Thus, if we are to begin to envision alternative fashion systems, we must be prepared to think and engage with existing patterns of power, economic logic, and social conditions. We must be prepared to ask and answer questions that speak to society’s most important themes, and to do so with a focused mind and heart. Granted, consumerism and the ceaseless pursuit of economic growth may not be at the root of all the problems we face, but they make many of those problems much, much worse. Therefore, in order to even begin to think about alternative fashion systems, we must first understand fashion’s relationship to consumerist materialism.
As an engine both of rapid consumption and of the ideology of consumerism, fashion is bound up in systems of economic growth: it rewards individualization, commodification, and the speeding up of instant solutions. All this has major consequences. The UN estimates that by 2050, we as a global society will be facing a tripling of annual resource extraction and consumption rates. 4 In order to maintain relative climate stability, it projects, affluent countries must reduce their resource use by about a factor of five, or 80 percent. 5
The impact of the fashion sector on the global environment began receiving specific recognition in the early 1990s. In response, the industry has developed alternative fibers, new chemical processes, technical improvements in water and energy use, and supply chain efficiency improvements. Many of these changes are positive in themselves. Yet the welcome decline in impact per garment that these eco-efficiencies have delivered has been completely overshadowed by an increase in overall consumption. In other words, efforts to lessen the impact of the fashion sector at the level of individual garments have been eclipsed by the vastly increased total number of garments that we now buy.
Contemporary fashion’s dependence on the consumerist ideal lends to the idea of “sustainable fashion” an air of paradox. After all, even if we buy organic cotton children’s pajamas or recycled polyester fleece for weekends in the country, we nevertheless maintain our dependency on market exchange. We reduce our ability to be self-reliant and mark our own path, not just in acquiring clothing but in life more generally. An increasingly narrow spectrum of activity is valued, and what we demand today is more and more conditioned by prior experiences of individualistic consumption. Alternatives are forced out of the mainstream and into the shadows, and ultimately suppressed.
The UN estimates that by 2050, we as a global society will be facing a tripling of annual resource extraction and consumption rates. In order to maintain relative climate stability, it projects, affluent countries must reduce their resource use by about 80 percent.
The challenges we face are more political than technical; indeed, we have most of the technologies we need to transform our economy. At the 2012 RITE (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment) Conference, participants discussed waterless dying, super-critical carbon dioxide dying, and a range of other readily available technical initiatives that reduce the amount of resources used per garment produced. 6 What we lack are the skills to apply these techniques within a larger bank of alternatives. We need new types of action, and structures that allow cultural conditions, customs and routines to change, to create new kinds of demand. Essentially, we need to adopt a much broader view. We need big thinking, political vision, and shared public discourse that sees consumerist fashion alongside credible, viable, beautiful, exciting alternatives. If we are to think about fashion in a new way, we must not only reduce the amount we buy, but also and importantly engage with the processes and infrastructure of consumption.
If we are to think about fashion in a new way, we must not only reduce the amount we buy, but also engage with the processes and infrastructure of consumption.
In her book Architecture and Design versus Consumerism: How Design Activism Confronts Growth, author Ann Thorpe explores the idea that we must confront the values of consumerism and endless growth head-on in order to foster change. She surveys research on the pleasure that attends the purchase of something one wants. If we have a fairly low overall level of consumption, we experience pleasure from buying more. However, as we begin to accumulate more, we experience diminishing emotional returns of novelty and stimulation.We become locked in a cycle of needing ever more stuff to regain the satisfaction and the stimulation experienced with earlier consumption. 7 Similarly, in The Challenge of Affluence, author Avner Offer speaks eloquently about the benefits that increasing affluence has afforded over the last 50 years, in the US and the UK especially. He writes that, while affluence has indeed increased our standard of living, in affluence would nevertheless have sufficed because beyond a certain threshold, additional wealth contributes little, nothing or even negatively to well-being. 8
The struggle between long-term and short-term reward is at the heart of many of the conflicts around consumption. Our sense of responsibility and concern for others draws our gaze to the longer term, but prevailing social norms and infrastructure urge, “Buy it now! You need it! You deserve it! You want it!” Individualized advertising made possible by Internet marketing strategies only reinforces this focus on ourselves.
We need prudence, self-control and willpower. We need fashion systems that promote these traits, by evoking an idea of commitment to long-term security as a counterweight to the call of the individual, immediate moment.
What strategies will help us balance our desire for immediate rewards with our long-term interests and commitments? Offer suggests that we need prudence, self-control and willpower—but these are qualities that are very difficult to maintain against a backdrop of cheap, instant gratification, and that can only be cultivated through time, training and a process of social learning and education. Perhaps, then, what we need are fashion systems that promote precisely these traits, by evoking an idea of commitment to long-term security as a counterweight to the call of the individual, immediate moment. We need to change the social narrative, so that the idea of progress is no longer tied to economic growth through increasing the number of market transactions alone, and old patterns can begin to shift. We need to build a more integrated picture of social and material assets and connections, using fashion as a medium.
This more integrated picture requires us to open up the life of the user. Consumerism promotes a view of us as autonomous individuals who are not part of an ethical, social world. Part of what we need from a new social narrative is a renewed sense of responsibility to others. And to create such a new social narrative, we need to enter the everyday experience of the user again and again. The value of sustainability is not imposed by the intrinsic physical properties of a garment but given by the social systems that surround it, by the interrelationships that happen on an ongoing basis in people’s lives.
Fashion is frequently created and put on display in ways that have nothing to do with real life; instead, fashion posits an idealized moment before time enters, before the garment has been on the body of an actual person. Such an approach to design is almost an attempt to control time, or to look away from it. 9 When time and the real user are ignored, fashion becomes an object for which you have no responsibility, one that isn’t about having social experiences and relationships at all, but about making money. By freezing time, you distance yourself from the garment as a potential site of social and cultural engagement and value.
However, we can no longer pretend that our interest in garments stops at the point of sale. Without a sense of real life and time, garments are empty. We need to enter the complex, messy, unpredictable lives of other people and tap into them as a resource. When we operate within a broader time frame, we move away from the certainty that we can control everything—this fabric, in this style, at that cost— and instead embrace a dynamic relationship that is open to change. We should provide a frame for life to unfold in, that enables people to reach their full potential and capabilities. In other words, the new garments we create should be judged not for what they are at the point of sale, but for what they are capable of becoming.
Resourcefulness is another especially crucial component of any alternative to the mainstream fashion system, particularly at a time when we are reaching the environmental limits even to continued existence on our planet. In a genuinely alternative fashion system, design and use would comprise a single whole: what actually happens in the lives of people who use garments would provide inputs for fashion design and production. Therefore, an important part of altering the fashion system must involve fostering skills and practices that are conducive to promoting a satisfying use of garments.
The new garments we create should be judged not for what they are at the point of sale, but for what they are capable of becoming.
These components—time, resourcefulness, usership—are central to the Local Wisdom research project, an initiative to capture and record innovative practices of garment use by gathering everyday individual stories and photographs. We advertise a photo shoot in a local community, inviting members of the public to take part. People come to the shoot to share the craft of use: the subtle, clever, and satisfying things they do with their clothes as they use them. The project’s goal is to find ways to amplify the ingenious fixes, alterations, and modifications that people have come up with in connection with their clothes (SEE FIGURES 1-3). 10
Self-mended jeans. San Francisco, July 2012. Photo: Paige Green.
Among the project’s benefits are the opportunities it provides to look elsewhere than the fashion world itself for ideas. One such idea comes from the Dutch town of Drachten, where traffic engineer Hans Monderman introduced an innovative type of street layout designed to reduce the number of accidents between pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles. 11 In a radical move, Monderman took away all the street signs and street furniture, and flattened the sidewalks to road level. He then installed a single sign declaring that nobody had priority—in this area, called a shared space, all users had to be respectful and aware of all others. The goal was not to curtail freedom and mobility but to encourage it, and to do so in a whole new way. Both traffic efficiency and pedestrian safety improved measurably after the Monderman re-design of the intersection. How was this possible? Monderman reasoned that at a road junction, if there is a sign saying who has priority, or a light that indicates who should stop, then we cease to watch out for one another. We don’t take responsibility, because the system is doing it for us. In a shared space, on the other hand, we have to take over the responsibility of watching out for each other and begin to care for everybody.
Altered vest. Bollington, Cheshire, UK, July 2009. Photo: Fiona Bailey.
The situation is similar in the case of consumerist fashion. Here too, it is easy to rely on government to introduce a new law that tells us what to do, or a labeling service that says, “This one is good for the planet. That one was made under fair labor conditions.” But we have to begin to take responsibility for ourselves. A new, alternative fashion system must accordingly be based on an ethos of care, on attentiveness to one another and concern for the future, on continuous tending. It’s about fostering an economy of community alongside the economy of freedom.
This new system must be holistic, interdependent, dynamic, creative, responsible, resourceful, and satisfying. It must lead toward an alternative that permits us to imagine a way of living and being together not predicated on constant economic growth, that builds prosperity through channels other than the market, and that values a broad spectrum of activity, not only those that can be most readily monetized.
A new, alternative fashion system must be based on an ethos of care, on attentiveness to one another and concern for the future, on continuous tending.
Each of the images from Local Wisdom represents an alternative that has been suppressed because it is not part of the fashion status quo. The new fashion system must breathe life into these alternatives. It must enable our society to develop in quality without necessarily growing in quantity, that is, without producing yet more stuff. Well-being is about more than having more things. Pacing our consumption is actually better for us.
We needn’t start from scratch: the stories collected in the Local Wisdom archive provide numerous examples of people who effectively regulate their consumption of fashion without in any way diminishing their joy in experiencing it. But it is up to us to foster and nourish these alternatives.
These stories are seeds of hope, and they must be told many times if they are to take root and change lives. We are beginning to develop a system with alternative values, perhaps chief among them a sense of responsibility and an ethos of care. As in a shared space where no one has priority, and in particular where industry doesn’t have priority, we are allowing the absence of hierarchy. We are allowing everyone to develop opportunities in their own way.
Found sweater. San Francisco, April 2010. Photo: Paige Green.
Robin Anson. “Editorial: End of the Line for Cheap Clothing?” Textile Outlook International 147 (2010): 5.
“Textiles and Clothing: Opportunities for Recycling,” Textile Outlook International 139 (2009): 94-113.
Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009), 123.
“Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth, A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel,” United Nations Environmental Programme (2010): 30, www.unep.org/resourcepanel/decoupling/files/pdf/decoupling_report_english.pdf.
“Decoupling Natural Resource Use,” 30.
Ann Thorpe, Architecture and Design versus Consumerism: How Design Activism Confronts Growth (London: Routledge, 2012).
Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 356.
Till, Architecture Depends, 79.
Tom McNichol, “Roads Gone Wild,” Wired, December 12, 2004, wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/traffic.html?pg=1&topic=raffic&topic_set=.