The Impossible Dream: A Manifesto On Sustainability
Written by Isabelle Saxton
My definition of sustainability hinges on considering the impact of the primary and secondary industry sectors on the rest of the garment's life. I assess if the negative environmental impact has been addressed and follow thoughtful procedures to counteract these effects throughout the production process. I aim to take unprecious things and turn them into something to care about. Reimagining use for a good that has lost its initial value prevents it from being disposed of and increases its usable lifespan. By working with materials that have outlived their first lives, I source sustainable fabrics for my garments.
For this project, I heavily considered the sourcing of my fabric. Initially, I only wanted to use discarded fabric, to reassign its value. However, when I reflected on previous projects, my garments changed from ‘something I made’ to ‘something I would wear’ with my Hip Beat sweaters. I always loved designing prints and t-shirts, but I never executed the ideas before because I didn’t think it would be possible to make them in a truly sustainable way. I learned how to use punch cards, which are rectangular cards that I create my design with by punching holes into, which are then read line by line on the knitting machine. With the punch cards I had the freedom to produce environmentally responsible prints and patterns by using 100% naturally-dyed organic wool. I knew that I had to incorporate these knits into my collection to continue working with the techniques I was enthusiastic and passionate about.
Jagger Spun is a fourth-generation family-owned yarn manufacturer based in Maine, U.S.A, only two and a half hours from my university, the Rhode Island School of Design. Their Green Line is Global Organic Trade Standards (GOTS) certified 100% organic Merino wool yarn, spun at their mill, and organically dyed at their dyehouse.
Wool is one of the most recyclable and biodegradable natural fibres available, so it is greatly sustainable. Despite this, using fabric that has already been produced but is going to be discarded (like from second-hand shops or factory scrap bins) is the most environmentally responsible option because you are using fabric that was going to go to landfills or incinerators and avoiding the unnecessary production of new fabric. The reason why this option is environmentally and socially responsible, but not always sustainable, is because these fabrics can be made with chemical dyes and synthetic fibres. If it does get thrown away, it will not biodegrade, but instead toxically pollute the environment. If it gets incinerated, it will turn into an airborne carcinogen. However, if the garment is never thrown away, it would be sustainable. It would also be sustainable if the fabric was entirely naturally-dyed and organic, since if it could not longer be repaired and was no longer wearable, it could be buried in the ground and decompose after some time. The nutrients in the fabric would feed the soil, ready to contribute to the cycle of growth again.
Many production methods have a negative effect on the planet, even the ones that claim to be sustainable. Recycled polyester, for instance, still pollutes the planet. This article is a great help in forming your own opinion about it since it lays out the pros and cons of the fibre.
To learn more about the harmful effects of plastic, a great book is No. More. Plastic.: What you can do to make a difference by Martin Dorey. I was surprised that plastic products can only be recycled two to three times. After that, it goes to landfills or incinerators because the polymer chains become too short and the plastic disintegrates.
A rule I live by to decide what to buy when something is new (whether that be clothing, food, home supplies, or anything else) is to determine if it is sustainable or environmentally responsible. I do this by asking: Is this organic and do I know where each element of it originates from? If the answer to this is no, then I try to find a second-hand substitute. The change truly has to come from the consumer, because the fashion industry will not change without an economic incentive.
The fashion industry is set up to be wasteful, even at the pre-consumer production level. For instance, fashion companies throw out the hundreds of yards of fabric used to test their designs. This waste is intrinsic in Fashion education too: RISD requires its students to make hundreds of fashion drawings, in order to decide which designs we like best. We must decide which colours and fibres we want to use, and then to go to fabric stores, collect swatches (organise them on a fabric list) and show our teacher so that we can discuss their eligibility. This is not sustainable, so I do not work like this, hence the note below.
On a surface level, this seems like it would not affect the sustainability of a garment. However, when I become attached to a design that I've discussed with my teacher I have to find a fabric with the right colour or thickness from a sustainable source. If I can't find it at a FabScrap, second-hand shops, recycling centres, or factory trash bins, I have to buy new fabric to satisfy my design. Unless that fabric is naturally-dyed and organic, it would be unsustainable.The alternative would be to face a grade reduction since I would have to change my design halfway through the semester in order to buy whatever fabric was available from a second-hand source.
Therefore, I have a few game plans but most of the time I walk into these second-hand places and see what they have, then I drape what I find until a design emerges. I love working with scraps that I get from factory visits or rummaging around in the trash in the apparel department. Their shapes and size automatically control the design of the garment, which is why I call my work accidental — I can make as many fashion sketches as I want, but I have no idea what the design is going to look like until I start working with it in a tangible way.
I realize that my words are soaked in frustration. The frustration is not directed towards my teachers— I utterly adore them. It is frustration directed towards upper officials, the lawmakers, for not leading their decisions with moral integrity, aimed to advance society towards a harmonious relationship with Earth’s environment. Their decisions are driven by quick gains and encouraging disposable culture. It’s frustration induced by deep sorrow and grief felt when thinking of the reality of our society. Environmental and social education needs to match that of economic education. This lack is destroying the sustainability of our planet. The Impossible Dream attempts to plant a seed in your mind to become motivated to research sustainable living, so as to unmask false truths. It uses irony and satire to criticise what should be an obvious, widely known truth.
My impulse is to draw out contrast and irony, so juxtaposing pure, cutesy yarn with vulgar language and juxtaposing words of praise with words of contempt appeals to my senses. One statement on my textiles is “if you are wearing this you are a fucking legend” which is written upside down so only the wearer can read it. Is the use of “fucking” really necessary? The short answer, yes. It is used to show enthusiasm, and to fervently persuade the wearer that they are a legend for supporting environmentally responsible business. It is supposed to make them pause and think “the person who designed this believes in me.” Another self-reflective statement I use is “it’s easier if you don’t care,” because bringing a reusable cup with you to a coffee shop is not the easiest thing to do. However, knowing what I do about plastic, I have to be as close to waste-free as I can be. An educational statement written on my machine knit pieces is “80% of clothing goes to landfill or incinerators.” You can extend your garment's life cycle by using second-hand shops, clothing swaps, and recycling centers to trade, dispose, or repurpose newly purchased items.
My work is driven by the personal bonds I have with the community around me: my family, my friends, and strangers at bars. The bonds, happiness and effervescent energy are what keeps me motivated to work.
"The force of fashion is symbolic. It is social. It lies in the sphere of interpersonal relations and cultural dynamics.” I am extremely frustrated by environmental issues so I channel my frustration into art in order to attract other passionate people. I want a community to form around sustainable work, to be informed and informative; a community that can Stand Out For Sustainability™ while pioneering solutions.