Sustainability – a Hopeful View

In my last two posts, I have shared a little of what I have been reading about sustainable textiles.  I never did find any information focused on art/craft textiles or even textiles for interiors, just on apparel.  My overall impression from reading all these books was that things are so bad, and so intertwined, that there’s really no hope of any improvement. What one author would suggest as a solution, the next author would find fault with.  (One of the books even said, in its second-to-last sentence, that hope was vanishing.)

But I kept seeing references to a book called Cradle to Cradle. It was published in 2002, and the authors had a new book called The Upcycle:Beyond Sustainability –Designing for Abundance.   I thought I could try one more book on the topic, and I am very glad I did.

The authors are William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and I will just let them speak for themselves:

A decade ago, we — Bill, an architect, and Michael, a chemist — published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  We had come across an idea in our design and chemistry work that we considered extraordinarily exciting.  Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem.  If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity.  Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief.  The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this:

Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.”  Use less energy.  Poison less.  Cut down fewer trees…. all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily — bottles, paper — and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more.  But then where does this product go?  Into a landfill?  An incinerator? (Location 146 of 3117)

But as modern engineers and designers commonly create a product now, the item is designed only for its first use, not its potential next uses after it breaks, or grows threadbare, or goes out of fashion, or crumbles.  The item works is way from one downward cycle to another, becoming less valuable (think a food-grade plastic bottle smashed down, remelted with other plastics, and made into a speed bump) or more toxic (such as wood turned into a composite board what of formaldehyde-based glues).

We believe there is a different perspective…(Location 156)

Using the Cradle to Cradle framework, we can upcycle to talk about designing not just for health but for abundance, proliferation, delight.  We can upcycle to talk about not how human industry can be just “less bad,” but how it can be more good, an extraordinary positive in our world.  (Location 194)

Here is one textile-related example of their work:

When asked to design an upholstery textile, Bill wanted a product that would express his core value of how to love all of the children, of all species, for all time, to create a healthful fabric…

This idea of making healthful fabric was not an obviously achievable goal, given that a good percentage of conventional fabrics contain chemicals undefined in terms of ecological and human health.  Trimmings and loom clippings often have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.  Fabric dyes often contain toxins, even such heavy metals as cobalt or zirconium.

The usual way to reduce toxic load is to filter out dangerous substances… at the end of the process.  We took a different approach, eliminating these dangerous substances at the beginning.  It’s just easier, more efficient… we eliminated from consideration approximately 8,000 chemicals commonly introduced in the textile industry… We went even further and chose 38 positive ingredients from which to make the entire fabric line.

…this is where the abundance of upcycling comes into play all of a sudden…

…because chemicals without toxic characteristics were involved in production, regulatory paperwork was no longer necessary or required.  Employees who had worn gloves and masks for a measure of flimsy protection against workplace toxins could take them off.  Space previously used for the storage of hazardous chemicals was now available as additional workspace…  (Location 998 of 3117)

These next two quotes offer such a different perspective from what I am used to:

If this planet is going to support millions more people than are here now, we want to look at each new person as a joy, a neighbor, a creative contributor to the common good, not as a burden.  What might each person invent to improve our world?  How can all of us support their ingenuity?  What is fair for them?  What can people design for their health and longevity?  How can we express intergenerational generosity?  (Location 2015)

There is no more delightfully serious function in life and in business than to create joy.  (Location 2398)

I found it so refreshing to read ideas that dare to sound optimistic, for a change.   These ideas, with the reasoning and evidence behind them, are fleshed out more fully in the book.  You can also check out the nine Hannover Principles that guide the authors’ work, and their Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.