SustainTALKS -Join the Dots.

 

 

The People’s Parliament, a discussion series which aims to liven up political debate on a range of issues in the run up to the election, recently hosted the RCA SustainTALKS series for “Join the Dots: Tracing the impact of our Products and Supply Chains”. The lofty Westminster Committee room was filled wall to flocked wall with a gaggle of eager students in edgily mismatched outfits, filling the wooden pews, the knee crushingly close rows of additional chairs and spilling out into a crossed legged fire hazard on the carpeted floor.

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Baroness Lola Young, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, chaired the discussion which focussed on “the growing movement towards improving transparency in global supply chains, laying bare the chain of impact and kickstarting a new era of consumer responsibility”. The evening painted a positive picture of initiatives which aim to surface the hidden stories of products, tracing fascinatingly complex journeys from producer to consumer, and positioned power firmly in the (presumably) deep pocket of the purchaser.

SutainTalks always begin with a student speaker, Jessi Baker, RCA alumna and founder of Provenance took this slot, speaking with passion about the potential of local products to boost community economy and form relationships. Provenance provides a platform for craftspeople to celebrate processes of production and maps these stories so that visitors can search for products made near to them.

Leah Borromeo then played a short excerpt of her work-in-progress, ‘The Cotton Film – Dirty White Gold’, a slightly bizarre documentary which explores a shocking statistic hidden beneath the primark piles imported from the Indian subcontinent. Every year, she said, 300,000 Indian farmers commit suicide to escape debt. When finished, the film will show the human cost of an industry plagued by Rana Plazas and Tasreens, sweatshops, servitude and indebted labour, from field to factory. She promised the film to be upbeat and positive and to inspire action rather than leave the viewer despairing at how this industry will ever change, but it is difficult to see she will succeed at this aside from including odd clips of herself being apparently characteristically eccentric.
The main business of Historic Futures is value chain mapping – which Tim Wilson explains is about being able to make accurate claims about where things come from, and putting this information in the public domain. Historic Futures traces dense spider webs of production, collecting vast data sets that challenges the narrative of an impenetrable global complexity, a narrative which often obscures unethical processes and thus legitimises them.
The speakers concluded with a tour of Bruno Pieter’s radically transparent fashion website, Honest By. Here the utopic dream of full disclosure at the point of purchase has become an incredible reality, the origins of every single component are listed in detail, filtered by vegan, skin friendly or recycled and even the costs are detailed in full. Bruno enthused about the potential of 3D printing to simplify supply chains, patterns which can be downloaded and ‘manufactured’ at home.
Sustainability means different things in different context, and as the ‘ethical market’ grows, the choices to consume sustainably become somewhat bewildering. As one audience member who identified herself as a citizen of the world put it, “Do I buy local? Do I shop fairtrade? Do I go Veagn? Do I eat organic? Do I do all of these things or just one?” For me, sustainability requires us to think about the minimisation of waste at all levels of production and consumption, so I was disappointed that this SustainTALKs event hardly mentioned waste. Leah told an anecdote about RUAG in Switzerland, which has an incredibly sophisticated system for managing electronic waste. Here Xboxes are stripped down to components, metals are sorted and reusable parts are saved – all within the purview of an arms manufacturer.

The focus of the evening was supply chains, but these are the same supply chains that fuel a demand for disposable fashion. The price tags on Bruno’s clothes ensure that they are anything but disposable in the Primark sense, but the seemingly utopic move towards taking command of the supply line through 3D print-at-home products may also lead to a proliferation of more ‘stuff’, more waste. And in the imagined radical transparency of the future, emerging through all the projects discussed, where is the tracking and tracing of wastes incurred through production, but also post-production, post-consumption? Perhaps like a shelf life, labels should indicate the amount of time a product takes to biodegrade? It could contain information on the CO2 emissions associated with recycling it or how it might be repurposed. If you had known your old Xbox could end up as a drone dropped into Palestine, you might think twice about the necessity to upgrade to a new model. At least, that seemed to be the argument the speakers were making; that consumer power rules, and that with increased transparency we could make more informed choices. In which case, information about the waste products associated with any item must also be transparent.

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