100 mile clothing

The latest sustainability meme circulating is sourcing your needs within 100 miles. This gained popularity after publication of The 100 mile diet, the latest book to explain why people’s dietary habits are the greatest cause of environmental degradation. As can be expected, it hasn’t taken long for this concept to spread to apparel. Accordingly, Wired magazine recently published an article describing a 100 miles sustainable clothing project from theater professor Kelly Cobb at Drexel University. While the goals of the project are worthwhile, the result were controversial.

This could have a dampening effect on encouraging consumers to embrace sustainability (more photos). Why is sustainability so often the visual equivalent of twigs and berries? Beyond the myriad criticisms leveled, I think the issue is more a testament to the need of project oversight than anything to do with sustainability. Minimally, sourcing is a problem. Within 100 miles of Philadelphia are legions of textile weavers, among them the Amish. While they’re not known for being fashionably hip, no one in their right mind could doubt the quality and integrity of their work. Why weren’t goods acquired from them? Half of sustainability means using existing resources rather than duplicating efforts and ending up with an inferior result. I don’t understand why a professional shoe maker was hired to make the shoes but equivalent professionals were not to make the rest of it. The shoes looked good. Other than the choice of fabrication, using a professional pattern maker to fit the model to measure could have improved the result considerably.

It’s my feeling the project failed to demonstrate what a 100 mile piece of clothing could really look like. I think a more apt description of the effort was a class project (which sounds like buckets of fun) but the results shouldn’t be promoted to represent a typical example of what consumers can expect; that sustainability will always have limited aesthetic appeal -that’s not true. I readily understand getting one’s students involved but existing resources to include both raw materials and personnel would have been more representative of a real world example. In real life, a designer (project manager) must know how to source and be able to gauge the quality of those sources. If it’s a fun class project then fine, but people shouldn’t get the idea these results are typical unless they are also doing all of the work themselves.

In real life, if conditions were so extreme that we were limited to resources within a 100 mile radius, we’d be sufficiently clever or tight-fisted enough to employ the age-old division of labor, hiring local professionals skilled at such work. Assuming such society would be more labor intensive, we’d also hire someone who could get their portion of the job done in a couple of hours because even with manually powered technology, that’s about all it would take a professional to do it. That means spinning, weaving, cutting, patterning, sewing, -each task in a matter of hours, not the 18 months that Cobb said. Assuming the society would be a market based economy, why would we hire someone who couldn’t get the work done in a reasonable amount of time according to prevailing standards? Sustainability doesn’t just mean using materials wisely, but time and talent too.

Artisan craftsmanship used to mean something; sustainability doesn’t have to mean ugly. Thankfully, there still exists today endless international examples of 100 mile clothes of amazing beauty. There is beauty in sustainability.

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