20. September 2011 | Cultures of sustainability?

A short tale of fashion and ethical tribes

von Oleg Koefoed. Kopenhagen (DK)

How may we evaluate the sustainability of processual, open source, community-based, bottom-up/ P2P projects and initiatives within clothing and fashion, or even broader, within economies of culture? Building on an ‚ethical fashion‘ case, OpenWear, this small reflection will try to provide some lines of thought that might be useful to move ahead with understanding the sustainability of such phenomena better. And, in a broader perspective, provide a bit of food for thought around cultures of sustainability.

Lesezeit 10 Minuten

”As opposed to the purely mechanical solidarity which became the mark of modernity, the communitarian ideal of the postmodern tribes rests on the return of a solid and rhizomatic organic solidarity” (Maffesoli, Michel: Apocalypse, 2009:41)
(”[À] l’opposé de la solidarité purement mécanique qui fut la marque de la modernité, l’idéal communitaire des tribus postmodernes repose sur le retour d’une solide et rhizomatique solidarité organique.”)

On the internet, a ‚portal‘ invites visitors to become part of a ‚community‘ of designers who will contribute to and draw from the new brand, OpenWear. Bringing in Open Source and peer-to-peer ideas to the processes of designing clothes, the brand and portal challenge some of the myths of fashion, such as the role of the genius designer changing the life of the consumer with ground-breaking insight into what we should wear. The clothes are products of collective processes, and the idea is to also challenge at least to some extent the ‚business model‘ for the co-production. So far, the activity behind the portal is limited to a few workshops, and the software that is supposed to guide the users through each other’s ideas and values hasn’t been launched. Any evaluation must therefore be speculative and is not the aim of my reflection. I merely wish to use Openwear as a case for reflection on how one might try to take into account the sustainability of this kind of initiative. As the quote by Maffesoli above hints at, there is an element of ’new tribes‘ in Openwear, an invitation to be part of the growing tribe of consumer-creators; one of the ”legions of immaterial laborers”, and ”creatives precarized by the Great Recession”. But looking behind the buzzwords, what would it mean to say that Openwear could be sustainable?

Fast fashion and its counter-trends

The ”fashion industry” is going through many changes, as it always has, it seems. It’s a field that has witnessed great perturbations in the last half a century, at a speed that has not lessened. A field of great imagination towards new approaches, new brands, new ways to produce, diffuse, and persuade the world to consume more and faster. The fashion industry lives a particular relation to sustainability, and this phenomenon has been strengthened through fashion’s ”democratization”. So we witness the rise of fast fashion, but also to a somewhat smaller degree eco-fashion, green fashion, or eco-fashion. Fast fashion is fast because of its incredible speed of reproduction, replacing one collection with the next in the matter of weeks, in spite of the absurd unsustainability of such a system. Eco-fashion is clearly a counter-reaction, but goes back at least to the 1970’s and ideas of making your own clothes, hand-dyed, hand-sown, etc. While fast fashion has increased the mass and speed of consumption to the degree that consumers are seen to dump their clothes after wearing them once or twice – or not at all (see Lucy Siegle: To Die For, 2010), the new wave of green, eco-, and ethical fashion stand as (minor) counter-currents to this development. In the last 5-10 years, the latter trend has grown, and developed into a tendency to try to encompass many aspects of fashion and responsibility into what is named ”ethical fashion” .

The EDUFashion/OpenWear project started in 2009 , as a cross-European development of an online platform for fashion designers to work in more ethically conscious, sustainability-oriented ways. The project created a new brand, ”OpenWear” hosting the sharing of ideas and eventually making of designs and garments through online and offline collaboration forms. The background research process was compiled in the anthology Openwear. Sustainability, openness and p2p production in the world of fashion (September 2010). A series of small articles, interviews, blogposts, and reviews can be seen reflecting this process, on the Openwear blog.

Openwear seeks to educate and empower the designers that could play a role in developing more sustainable ways of making clothes (without losing the seductive power of the aesthetics of fashion along the way). Many of the new brands that work in small local communities or broad, web-based networks challenge the production/consumption model: the consumer becomes producer or at least co-producer; creation and innovation moves to somewhere out there, between all the agents, making phenomena like the prosumer grow, forming new ways of organizing culture and economy. The new brands question the central concept in the network of fashion retail: the idea of ‚planned obsolescence‘. Instead of wearing out, products become obsolete before their time, giving rise to more demand and consumption, making more money for the industry and creating huge amounts of waste.

Two questions prevail when considering Openwear: 1) does it matter (enough), given that brands like Zara are millions of times larger and seem to care only very little about sustainability? And 2) In what way can Openwear be said to be sustainable (sustensive) rather than (maybe) just lead to sustainability, even if we forget for a second the strength of the opposite forces? Both questions call for processual answers; the first in a macro context, the last in a micro context. This corresponds well with the idea that sustainability is a concept leading to reflections on temporality as well as to different levels of complexity, different scales.

A cultural perspective on sustainability

How should we account for the impact on sustainability of complex, open processes like a web 2.0 driven fashion/clothing/design commmunity? Even just measuring the probable reductions of CO2 emissions would be a complicated affair, but not impossible. Life Cycle Analyses, like in Cradle-2-Cradle projects, should make it possible to measure it at least on all material elements. But most of what is shared in Openwear is immaterial, so perhaps only looking at the material goods themselves presents a problem. There is a pretty broad agreement that omitting to take complexity and multidimensionality into account creates unsustainable solutions (see e.g. Gunderson & Holling: Panarchy, 2002). We need to understand the immaterial processes. And we need to think of the brand and the project both as cultural communication and as social practice, apart of course from the eventual physical creations linked to it. The brand produces clothes, but it also produces learning, knowledge, and design.

We ought to read any event and process through the eyes of an unspoken future looking back at the qualities of what we are undertaking today. Given the difficulty of this challenge, we must consider processes and outcomes that are intermediary forms between present experiences and future products and actions. What are the social practices at this point? What do they engender? What are the values, affects, and meanings that the brand inspires to? Working with this kind of qualitative, cultural approach does not offer a bag of tricks to rescue the world. So what can we gain by going down the intricate, complexity-embracing road of looking at cultures of sustainability?

Culture, in this understanding, is the transversal, mobile, exploratory, questioning and burgeoning multitude of practices, not only symbols and language, but also tacit practice, events, forces and movements that form the fabric of everyday life, of what it means to be human at a given time and space. These forces may then be brought together in more or less tight ‚creation-scapes‘ such as an old factory turned into a cultural experimentation zone for urban creatives, or like a portal on the web with its users gathered loosely in a’community‘. Culture is thus not seen as a particular sector, that can be isolated to already defined agents. Culture happens in any context that questions what it means to be human (in a complex world). It leans towards the qualitative, towards values rather than value, towards understanding rather than counting. Culture then is an optic, a way of looking at the world, that seeks to draw together and combine in different sets of meaning, questioning and seeking to allow for the excessive, the incomplete, and the complex to remain part of the picture given of reality (Maffesoli, above, p. 44). It molds into systems and sets of practices that create and question at the same time, with the issue of questioning being crucial for the cultures of sustainability.

Sustainability is about impacts of encounters between and in open adaptive (natural-biological as well as sociocultural) systems, in the immediate present, but also in an in(de)finite future. Open systems are at work within a person, an ecological habitat, a technical device, or an organization, to name some – and across all of these. At any time, they display the relation between emergence and disappearance or transformation of/in the existing system(s). In this encounter, sustainability can be translated to the ability or capacity of the interacting systems to optimize emergence and resilience and minimize the resources spent/wasted in the processes. The interactions take place in overlapping processes of past, present, and future events. The consequences of the events are in(de)finite: we can’t define before hand when new connections stop appearing and new relations stop forming that have to be taken into account. Complexityis high, even if we try to reduce it by focusing on more narrow aspects of the encounter. A way to grasp this issue could be to look at the different symbolic and temporal processes at play in the open system called Openwear. Symbolic, because without symbolics, Openwear would never attract, seduce or hold on to its users. Temporal, because this aspect can tell us a little about how sustainability can be assessed in a qualitative, cultural manner. Here, I will focus on the latter, because symbolics have been treated in many other places.

Temporal zones of sustainability in Openwear

Let us consider the temporal organisation of Openwear, starting with the movement into the open system: there is the past, of course, Openwear is a reaction to the mainstream fashion system. : ”The fashion system as we see it today is the product of a large number of mergers and acquisitions up through the 1980’s and 1990’s; now, very few players tend to control very large shares of the global market. At the same time, labour markets are in a process of constant flexibilisation that leads to a precarisation of life careers” (call for the conference on Openwear). It is also a creative reaction, inspired by the cultures of D.I.Y. (do it yourself) and D.I.T. (do it together), which have come to play a growing role as subcultural movements for people in many different cultures and professions. In the later years, we see an opening to new forms of economic systems that might play an increasingly important role if the economic and environmental crises of our world of today persist. The project is inspired to a great deal by the work around Peer-to-peercollaboration, like the P2PO foundation; and an ethical approach to economy. Thus, the project builds on what some call ”communist capitalism”,- this has a direct impact on the entry stage of the system. To enter, each designer must be somewhat willing to work with these principles of open source and ethical economy. At the same time, the portal may work as a learning community, bringing expertise to its users gradually. Thus, in order to grasp this question properly, we should look at the barriers of entry, at the investments (in a broad sense) and benefits connected to entering the system, and to the reasons for remaining afloat versus drowning or falling out of the system. As we easily see, culture will not be able to stand alone for long, as sustainability must also question the economy, politics, and environmental impacts. I will point briefly at this relation to the culture/economy field at the other end of the process: the outcomes/products/effects of the system. When and who benefits from Openwear? The project leaders, for a couple of years, thanks to European subsidies. The designers may develop new connnections, learn new practices, but chances are they will not remain within the community, they will make (most of) their living elsewhere. Openwear seems to invite to something like a postmodern tribalization, like so many other open source collaborations. In the micro-picture, the impact seems fruitful, and may keep designers inside the fashion field who would otherwise be deterred by the individualist, competitive nature of fashion design. But does working in the open system of Openwear lead to a new work life for the designers involved (or does it merely make it possible for them to bracket the loneliness of being a fashion designer while building experience for the next ‚real‘ job)? Much more could be said, but the idea here is merely to sketch lines for a potential evaluation.

In understand whether the outcome is realized, we also have to look at the practice field of the present; at the forms of collaboration, the organization of the sociocultural relations. People like Maffesoli and Benkler are quite positive towards these mostly online driven communities. Here, one of the main issues is the relation between the brand (the inhuman) and the designers (the human). For this to be a sustensive relation (open link to p. 62-68) leading to increased sustainability , the brand and the designer must open up to each other, in order to increase the potentiality created for all parties. If the brand remains closed and predefined, eventually the designer is sacrificed for the sake of the brand, and every relation inside the field will be colored by this threat. Trust is crucial, which necessitates a high degree of interaction and help within the organisation of the community. Whether this will be the case for Openwear will depend very much on the resources brought into the system, as support for the project, or as income from sales of products. I would claim that sustensive relations build on mutual aid, on transparency of power,and of a high legitimacy for the affective aspects: loving the brand must transform itself in to success for the designer’s creations, or they will be transformed into precarious workers or even consumers. Thus, the system would lose its most vital element, and will quickly whither away.

These lines were just small taste of an assessment of the culture of sustainability for an event, brand, project, etc.. Would i be an advantage to formalize, compartmentalize, and quantify the elements of the assessment. We may gain more operational and tangible evaluation criteria. However, we might also lose the sensitivity and thickness of the ‚reading‘, which should also increase the literacy of the reader, rather than liberate decision-makers from the need to think. These thoughts will be pursued on the Cultura21 Nordic blog in a diary format building up to an action/art/research project on cultures of sustainability and European Capitals of Culture.

Featured Image: L. Stallknecht / PIXELIO

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