“What ark can I build?” David Oats asks in his essay “Every Right Act is an Ark.” Playing on the biblical narrative of Noah’s ark, to repopulate the earth with animals after the flood, Oates explanation of the “ark” represents a good act. As designers, we, must ask, “What will our arks be? Will the work we create, make a difference in the world that we live in today, or the world that will be lived in, in the future? Will we design conscious “arks” that positively effect the future?
Clothing, textiles, images, and operations have the possibility to motivate people to revise their own lives to create positive universal change. The current fashion and social systems we have in place are all too attached to consumerism, profit, and greed, with no thought of its consequences. We have become so disconnected from the natural and compassionate way of living to the point that we are battling climate change and mass extinction of eco-systems and species. The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil. I think that mediums in fashion can empower people to create a better future and stronger relationships with the natural world.
Elizabeth Dean Moore, a nature journalist and philosopher, wrote “If this is the way the world and death is- beautiful, astonishing, wondrous, awe-inspiring- then this is how we ought to act in that world: with attentiveness to its worth, with deep caring and fierce protectiveness, and with a full sense of our obligation to the future, that is a treasure that shall remain.” As a designer, I am working with that fierce protectiveness and that deep caring for our earth. When designing, I initially consider the systems that will be established. Examining the process behind my work that will be created, the impact that it will have on the world, and where the work will exist in the world. I want to make people aware of the systems behind their garments. Through small things like textiles that are used, to the message a garment can put out in the world. These attributes define the large systems that are establishing the amount of energy being used, the interaction the work will have with an environment, and where the work will end up when its life is over.
Sourcing responsible, natural, and ethical textiles when designing garments is crucial. Textiles in themselves are systems: they carry a large part of the energy used to create a garment. No one textile is completely sustainable or ethical. For instance, cotton, the “fabric of our lives,” if not sourced properly can be grown with pounds of pesticides. It takes 20,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton for one t-shirt or a pair of jeans. Sourcing organic cotton eliminates the effects of pesticides to the soil, the farmers, the crops, and the pollinators. Leather and fur are examples of unfit and inhumane textiles to the environment and the animals themselves. Suzanne Lee is one of many artists who are trying to change the status-quo of such crude animal products. Lee decided she wanted a textile that was natural, low energy, and one hundred percent biodegradable. She started a project titled Biocouture in 2004 where she started growing bacteria cultures to create an innovative leather-like material. It can be molded into garments or dried into large pieces to use as fabric. Lee is an inspiration to re-think and analysis materials the we are producing and using in a new innovative way. I am currently working on a project where I am growing plants onto fabrics. With a huge amount of research around hydroponic growing systems and how plants and the body interact. Ideas in the project are formulated around creating a stronger relationship between humans and the natural world. Lee is one of many that showed me that textiles can communicate and be so much more than they communicated in our world today.
Applying natural color to fibers is vital to peoples health, and to ecosystem around the world. Textiles being dyed in Indonesia for fast fashion companies are dying fabrics with little to no consideration of waste disposal. Manufacturers have been dumping dye waste into water ways, which now contain lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxins. These toxins are fatal to organisms in the waterways and can even burn human skin. Liz Spencer, the founder of the Dogwood Dyer, is an artist who naturally forges the land to find different flowers, leaves, roots to dye and manipulate natural untouched fibers. Her process ensures that all the pieces being created are biodegradable natural and part of a closed loop system. In 2015, I had the opportunity to work with Bengala, a mud stain that created beautiful marbled colors on different garments. The system behind Bengala is all natural, and one of the most sustainable dyes I have ever worked with in terms of time and water waste.
Labor and distribution systems have environmental and social impacts. Alabama Chanin is a pioneer when it comes to labor in fashion and fine craftsmanship, by focusing on the importance of labor and American made goods. All of Alabama Chanin’s clothing is made by talented artisans who construct the clothing by hand, on their own schedules. Alabama Chanin uses the business model of slow design: the model is positive and healthy to the workers who work in the system. It is a model that is accountable for daily action to the well being of the environment and creates a richer potential of experiences for individuals and communities. Since everything in Alabama Chanin’s system comes from the USA it reduces their carbon footprint, by creating an ethical “person to home” model. American Apparel, a mass production model, has been establishing a new and healthy system of labor. All of their products are designed, cut, and made in Los Angeles. American Apparel values and treats their workers with great respect, they are in the factories everyday because they design, construct, and distribute all in the same facilities. Their workers are some of the highest paid in the world while receiving healthcare and benefits. The company takes huge pride that their products are made by fairly paid, fairly treated individuals. These are examples of the way our clothes should be constructed: when one values the people and the process of the final outcome, the product becomes even more valuable to the user.
Fashion can organically communicate an ethical message and an artistic response to certain issues in our society and environment. Fashion designer Katharine Hamnett used a simple t-shirt and bold text to interpret her response. The slogan t-shirt is an oversized white t-shirt that has bold black controversial text which states, “Save the World”, “Choose Life”, “Peace.” She was one of many designers that promoted political and social issues in a bold fashionable statement. Another simplistic way of communicating thought in fashion is though the medium of a care tag or label. Redesigning the way a care tag communicates and what is communicated. In a project I started in 2015, I used care tags as an existing and new form of articulating a narrative: not just the way to care for the garment, but a means to vocalize a story and message. The project’s main premise was to analyze the decrease in the bee population with an emphasis on a garment and its connection to bees. Every piece of the garment constructed was to benefit the bees and to make a statement that we are all beekeepers. By enhancing the size and the message on the tag, the system behind the tag created a new conversation and context around the garment.
Fashion has the power of direct interaction with the body. Everyone, everyday dresses themselves. We decide what we wear through touch, look, how it makes us feel, and how it makes others feel. Today the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. We are in this situation because there was no thought to consequences of the choices made in the system. Let’s start a new system. A system that is environmentally conscious, that is aware of the impact of textiles before use. That appreciates labor and the energy invested into creating a garment. Responding to different issues in society and the world. That extracts consumerism and pushes the value of owning clothing and the value of its creation. I want to be a part of a generation where we keep questioning the traditional industry standards of cheap labor, poor material decisions, and the feed into consumerism to create a new sustainable, ethical, and a progressive future.
Moore, Kathleen Dean. Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. United States: Counterpoint, 2016.
Oates, David. “Every Right Act Is an Ark.” The Fourth River 2016,.