seeking & creating : researching & discovering : applying & practicing

sustainability in design = changing mindsets + deeds

Monday, January 10, 2011

Excellent Excerpts from Cradle to Cradle; Part 1

Yes, I have finally finished the book! Check out these selected brain-pinching bits particularly relevant to fashion people. The key lies in your inclination for change, methinks, and whether or not you believe this kind of deep-seated foundational change is worth the preliminary sacrifices of time, effort, and resources.

Also, as a designer, what sort of world do you want to leave to your children and other descendants of the human race (and other living things), and do you really care enough to commit to and undertake this depth of seriousness and responsibility in your fashion design and business practice?

Food for thought indeed.

From Chapter 4: "Waste Equals Food", pg 105 - 108

In the early 1990s the two of us were asked by DesignTex, a division of Steelcase, to conceive and create a compostable upholstery fabric, working with the Swiss textile mill Rohner. We were asked to focus on creating an aesthetically unique fabric that was also environmentally intelligent. DesignTex first proposed that we consider cotton combined with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) fibers from recycled soda bottles. What could be better for the environment, they thought, than a product that combined a "natural" material with a "recycled" one? Such hybrid material had the additional apparent advantages of being readily available, market-tested, durable, and cheap.

But when we looked carefully at the potential long-term design legacy, we discovered some disturbing facts. First, as we have mentioned, upholstery abrades during normal use, and so our design had to allow for the possibility that particles might be inhaled or swallowed. PET is covered with synthetic dyes and chemicals and contains other questionable substances - not exactly what you would breathe or eat. Furthermore, the fabric would not be able to continue after its useful life as either a technical or biological nutrient. The PET would not go back into the soil safely, and the cotton could not be circulated in industrial cycles. The combination would be yet another monstrous hybrid, adding junk to a landfill, and it might also be dangerous. This was not a product worth making.

...The team decided to design a fabric that would be safe enough to eat: it would not harm people who breathed it in, and it would not harm natural systems after its would nourish nature.

The textile mill that was chosen to produce the fabric was quite clean by accepted environmental standards, one of the best in Europe, yet it had an interesting dilemma. Although the mill's director, Albin Kaelin, had been diligent about reducing levels of dangerous emissions, government regulators had recently defined the mill's fabric trimmings as hazardous waste. The director had been told that he could no longer bury or burn these trimmings in hazardous waste incinerators in Switzerland but had to export them to Spain for disposal. (Note the paradoxes here: the trimmings of a fabric are not to be buried or disposed of without expensive precaution, or must be exported "safely" to another location, but the material itself can still be sold as safe for installation in an office or home.) We hoped for a different fate for our trimmings: to provide mulch for the local garden club, with the help of sun, water, and hungry microorganisms.

The mill interviewed people living in wheelchairs and discovered that their most important needs in seating fabric were that it be strong and that it "breathe". The team decided on a mixture of safe, pesticide-free plant and animal fibers for the fabric: wool, which provides insulation in winter and summer, and ramie, which wicks moisture away. Together these fibers would make for a strong and comfortable fabric. Then we began working on the most difficult aspect of the design: the finishes, dyes, and other process chemicals. Instead of filtering out mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, persistent toxins, and bioaccumulative substances at the end of the process, we would filter them out at the beginning. In fact, we would go beyond designing a fabric that would do no harm; we would design one that was nutritious.

Sixty chemical companies declined the invitation to join the project, uncomfortable at the idea of exposing their chemistry to the kind of scrutiny it would require. Finally one European company agreed to join. With its help, we eliminated from consideration almost eight thousand chemicals that are commonly used in the textile industry; we also thereby eliminated the need for additives and corrective processes. Not using a given dye, for example, removed the need for additional toxic chemicals and processes to ensure ultraviolet-light stabilization (colourfastness)...We ended up selecting only thirty eight...(for) the entire fabric line. What might seem like an expensive and laborious research process turned out to solve multiple problems and to contribute to a higher-quality product that was ultimately more economical.

The fabric went into production...regulators came on their rounds and tested the water coming out of the factory...(and) could not identify any pollutants, not even elements they knew were in the water when it came into the factory...the water coming out of the factory was...even cleaner than the water going in...(Meaning that the water could then be cycled into use again in the factory.)

...The process had additional positive side effects. Employees began to use, for recreation and additional work space, rooms that were previously reserved for hazardous chemical storage. Regulatory paperwork was eliminated. Workers stopped wearing the gloves and masks that had given them a thin veil of protection against workplace toxins. The mill's products became so successful that it faced a new problem: financial success, just the kind of problem businesses want to have.

And the fabric product that resulted from this project can be found here:

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