You are recognized internationally as a leader in sustainable fashion design, having written 3 seminal books on Sustainable Fashion, and over 50 publications. You are one of the founders of the Slow Fashion movement and instigator of many sustainability projects, including Local Wisdom, which has engaged hundreds of people worldwide and was shortlisted for the Observer Ethical Awards in 2010. Your international research has taken you to the far North of Finland and remote locations South America. Many people cite you as one of the most inspirational speakers they have heard on sustainability, and your strategic leadership includes a role as co-secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion at the House of Lords. These extraordinary accomplishments indicate a powerful commitment to sustainability.
What motivates you? What gives you the energy that you bring to these efforts? Was there a seminal moment in your life or career that solidified or strengthened your commitment?
I think the energy I have was kindled in my youth. Only this last weekend did I realize that I have Liverpool—the city of my birth, a bleak place in the 1980s with few jobs and little hope—to thank for an enduring understanding of what both community and solidarity mean. No one had very much. Everyone lived cheek by jowl. But we organized street parties, passed a just-read newspaper next door, made hand-me-down bikes new again with stickers. We lived well together. I remember once that our part of the city declared itself an independent state for the day. There was a lot of laughter. Could it have been then that I realized that change was possible?
Your understanding of whole systems is more holistic than the pragmatic view held by most designers and businesses. Are things changing? Do you feel that others are starting to hear your views and understand what you are trying to offer to the conversation?
I try to look at the relationships between things… to be, in Kathleen Dean Moore’s terms, a professor that studies connection. Sometimes that ties in with the business agenda. Often it doesn’t. The vast majority of businesses and designers are focused on making their product or service new and different and this trumps the drive to find the connecting thread. But perhaps all it takes is for some of us (will you join me?) to look for and love the connections…
Your relationship to nature is clearly very important. Indications of this come through in your blogs and in some of your talks. Is this a personal inclination, or do you think it is important for all designers to become more fully eco-literate? If so, why?
A relationship with nature is both a personal necessity for me and I would wager vital for all of us. My own ecological literacy has afforded me a gorgeous friendship with the natural world. I have never felt worse for wandering about outside. As I see it, its power is in us understanding that nature has a value that goes beyond its usefulness to us. The literacy this gives us—the knowledge this gives designers—is deeply held and has the potential to shape all our ideas and actions. It is uniquely powerful.
[Nature’s] power is in us understanding that [it] has a value that goes beyond its usefulness to us. The literacy this gives us—the knowledge this gives designers—is deeply held and has the potential to shape all our ideas and actions.
In some of your talks, you allude to the importance of risk-taking with reference to the word “stray” in Gary Snyder’s poetry. Who do you wish would hear this message more clearly? Academics? Designers? Manufacturers? Politicians? Students? Who do you wish was taking the bigger risks?
Yes Gary Snyder… his line about “straying” captures the idea of risk-taking perfectly! He is careful to suggest that before you wander off-piste you should spend time understanding the local conditions; but then, stray! Explore new places, uncover new potential, see, taste, hear afresh to understand differently. The risk is that it may not always go well, but it might, it just might also lead to a breakthough, to a spectacular moment.
Who would I wish to hear this message of Snyder’s? Well, perhaps first of all, I direct it to myself… a call to action, a guard against complacency. I also direct it to all of those in the status quo who have forgotten how things look from a different vantage point. It is time to wander of the path and when we are there, think again about how to live.
Your upcoming book, Craft of Use discusses a new role for design: “Framing design and use as a single whole, the book uncovers a more contingent and time-dependent role for design in sustainability.” Can you give us an insight (or preview) of how you see the new role for designers?
Craft of Use starts from a very simple idea of change, that it is important to pay attention to using things as to creating them. The role for designers in the art, culture and craft of use is massive—and it is sometimes also a bit messy. For it means that designers will reach into the lives of users in a continuous and dynamic way and together evolve and practice ideas and behaviours of using things well. Things will be ambiguous, on-going, unpredictable.
The book is based on around 500 stories which I collected from the public over a 5 year period, (including a healthy number from Vancouver!), documenting the craft of using clothes. The stories reveal many opportunities for influencing sustainability goals—opportunities linked to the life and times of garments in real people’s lives—an underexplored area for design in fashion. The book was enriched by Emily Carr students’ work to amplify the ideas and practice of use of clothing—bringing progressive industrial and interaction design perspectives on the ‘wicked problem’ of fashion.
…designers will reach into the lives of users in a continuous and dynamic way and together evolve and practice ideas and behaviours of using things well.
Craft of Use also discusses “ideas of satisfaction and interdependence, of action, knowledge and human agency, that glimpses fashion post-growth.” This is about much more than designers… can you describe how fashion post-growth engages with society and culture?
Fashion provision and expression that operates beyond consumerism is a completely different prospect for us all. It opens up the possibility that consumerism might no longer be the defining force in the shaping of our fashion experiences. What will that mean? To be completely truthful I am not sure yet. But what I do know is that fashion-as-usual is not an option. The signs from the Craft of Use stories are that there are many small moments of creativity, pleasure, satisfaction in engaging with clothes outside of the market. What we will find out over the next years is what it will mean for designers and what will it mean for all of us who wear clothes.
Where is your work going next?
I have been doing some nature writing recently, pulling together short pieces that explore kinship between people, clothes and the natural world. I have been writing amongst other things about how fashion and birds are alike. I love both of these things even more for what they say to each other.
And I have been working on a project called Fashion Ecologies, looking to map garment-related resource flows, interactions and relationships in tightly bounded geographical areas, a small-scale whole, in order to understand more about the big picture.
In your acceptance speech for your honorary doctorate at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, you spoke about the skills of the future as “skills of anticipation, rigorous imagination, and resilience.” Can you expand on that? And is there any other advice you would offer to young designers that you haven’t already mentioned?
Education is preparation for the future. And the future is changing. Perhaps what we know most evidently is that the future is unpredictable. Hence why the skills of the future are ones that help us live well within unknown conditions. We will have to experiment with diverse ways of living and do that with a smile and find beauty and delight on the way.