My 30-year-old sweater

Au Coton sweater, purchased by the author about 1990. Photo by the author.

What’s new?

A 1 March article at Brit describes 15 clothing brands that are moving to be more sustainable.  For example, the brand YES AND states its commitment to organic cotton, fair labor, low impact dyes, and lasting quality. Selva Negra “is rooted in the use of ethical practices and is committed to ethically sourced materials, production transparency, zero-waste packaging while picking up new ways to reduce their carbon footprint.” Made Trade sells items that adhere to “one or more of Made Trade’s seven core values: Fair Trade, Heritage, Made in USA, People of Color Owned, Sustainable, Vegan, and Women Owned.”

On 2 February, the government of the United Kingdom released a report commissioned by HM Treasury, The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, named after Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Cambridge University professor who led the work.

What does it mean?

In a previous blog post about fashion, I noted the limits of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” I argued that consumers can’t improve the sustainability of fashion on their own, and I urged manufacturers to consider designing their production processes to support a circular economy.

As an engineer, I believe that technology bears some blame for the ills that beset our society, but I also believe that technology can do much to improve society. Electric vehicles, with batteries charged by renewable energy, may help sustain the personal mobility that many seek. Changing the fashion industry so its production processes are more sustainable is a feasible and worthwhile goal. The companies described in the Brit article are doing good work.

The pink sweater at the top of this post is my favorite piece of clothing. Purchased over three decades ago, it was, I remember, rather expensive, but it has been well worth whatever I paid for it. As implied by the brand name Au Coton, it is 100% cotton; also, it is made in Canada, virtually indestructible, and never out of style (well, I am not very style conscious, so it has also been, I am sure, never highly in style). I rarely feel a connection to Marie Kondo’s injunction that we should retain only those possessions that spark joy, but this sweater does do that for me.

But sometimes I also feel that I have failed in my role as a consumer by not buying new sweaters and thus fueling our economy. That’s a silly feeling perhaps, but so-called advanced societies measure their well-being by their growth. A static economy is bad and a shrinking one is a recession, very bad. Keeping a sweater for 30 years does not fuel economic growth.

The good news for those who want growth is that many other humans are more fashion conscious than I am. I was struck by the recent attention given in social media to a shoe, described in this tweet from Museum Archive as a “2300 years old Scythian woman’s boot preserved in the frozen ground of the Altai Mountains.” The decoration on the sole is designed to be visible when the wearer sat on her knees, socializing around the fire. The shoe is in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. My conclusion is that fashion may have been invented before agriculture, before the wheel, even before homo sapiens.

What does it mean for you?

Despite my purchase of the pink sweater and other items from Au Coton, the company went into bankruptcy in 1993, but continued until 2003 in Canada, finally closing down “after the brand could no longer compete with conglomerate big box stores like Gap or Old Navy.” The brand is back now in Montreal and online; I am looking for another investment I can make in clothing that I plan to keep for another 30 years.

But the cautionary story of Au Coton raises the issue of whether a company can survive by selling clothing that lasts for 30 years. The Au Coton clothing is no longer made in Canada, but is stated to be sweatshop-free. Making items that last that long may be good for the earth, but not good for the economy, for jobs, and for growth.

The most widely cited definition of sustainability, from the Brundtland Commission in 1987, says “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Note the pairing of “sustainable” with “development,” a phrasing used to balance the concerns of developed and developing countries.

The Dasgupta report offers another economic path. It urges us to recognize nature as an asset, “just as produced capital (roads, buildings and factories) and human capital (health, knowledge and skills) are assets. Like education and health, however, Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too.” The report states next, “Collectively, however, we have failed to manage our global portfolio of assets sustainably.”  “Nature’s worth to society … is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge.” Worse, many of our institutions not only fail to manage these externalities they actually pay “people more to exploit Nature than to protect it, and to prioritise unsustainable economic activities.” Our economies must be viewed as embedded in Nature. (The quotes are from the headline version of the report, available here.)

Its three recommendations are: (1) “Humanity must ensure its demands on nature do not exceed its sustainable supply….”  (2) “We should adopt different metrics for economic success.…” (3) “We must transform our institutions and systems – particularly finance and education – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.…”

With its first recommendation, the report notes: “But if we are to avoid exceeding the limits of what Nature can provide on a sustainable basis while meeting the needs of the human population, we cannot rely on technology alone: consumption and production patterns will need to be fundamentally restructured.”

Concerning the second recommendation, GDP is useful for some analysis, but its failure to account for the depreciation of natural assets, encourages us to pursue unsustainable development. National accounting systems must include natural capital.

Finally, money has to flow to support the maintenance of crucial natural resources. For examples, nations could be paid by other nations to protect the ecosystems on which we all depend. Also, education must reconnect people with nature so they demand these changes.

We need to have an economy in which producing and buying a sweater that lasts for 30 years or longer is common.

Where can you learn more?

A short description of The Dasgupta Review is here. The full report and other shorter versions are here. The Royal Society has a video discussion of the report here.

Various commentaries on the report express hope that it will have a large impact in improving our future: The Nature Conservancy, GreenBiz, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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