Vail Daily column: Avoiding the spool system swindle
Dear reader, I have been fooled by a system. The swimsuit pictured on the advertisement on my social media newsfeed was elegant, totally my style and the price was right. Fast forward almost a month later to when the suit finally arrives, in a plastic bag within a plastic bag within a plastic bag and I read that it was shipped from China. The suit’s dimensions were way off, the tag insert had no information about what the product was made of, and the icing on the cake, it smelled strongly of chemicals. This baffling bathing suit experience compelled me to learn more, and I was soon disheartened to learn about the destructive nature of the clothing industry, which has an impact close to that of big oil. I consider myself a well-informed eco-enthusiast, having taken many strides to lower my individual impact through personal lifestyle changes, so how did I miss this about clothes?
By studying body lice, scientists have been able to speculate that fabric was first used by humans around 100,000 years ago. Flax fibers seem to have been the first used for textiles and fabrics, with cotton following around 5,000 to 4,000 B.C. and wool around 3,000 B.C. Silk made its appearance as a fabric around 4,000 B.C., in China. These were the days when clothing was made by hand, at home, using only naturally occurring fibers. Today, fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry that uses tons of natural resources in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping. On top of that, it contributes to millions of tons of landfill waste and loads of toxic chemical outputs, including formaldehyde, nonylphenol and many others difficult to pronounce, let alone understand their synergistic effects on the natural processes of the planet.
Barry Richmond, an American systems scientist, coined the term “systems thinking” in 1987, defining it as, “the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of the underlying structure of a system.” Everything that exists in the universe can be recognized as being in a holon state, or being simultaneously a whole and a part, as wholes and parts in an absolute sense do not exist anywhere. The clothing production industry is a classic example of a system in disrepair. In true systems thinking, one contemplates system behavior as the result of feedback loops, and feedback loops are everywhere, like ghosts in the machine. The systems thinking model of thought allows us to perceive negative feedback loops, which occur as environmental limits are approached, indicating the unsustainability of a system’s structure, such as the amount of water used in the processing (dying, printing, etc.) of clothing.
How Do we Fix it?
When a problem is perceived in a system, human or otherwise, we attempt to fix it. But often we misunderstand where the negative feedback loops are occurring, and unintentionally, end up perpetuating the problem or even making it worse. There are many examples of how good intentions can go wrong — the introduction of non-native species, decades of fire suppression, plastic replacing paper, etc. This is where systems thinking is truly advantageous for understanding our individual impact. When it comes to the clothing industry, consumers need to understand how our personal choices influence feedback loops within the system. If you want to be sure you are not perpetuating negative, unsustainable feedback loops, then be wary of companies selling cheap products that do not list the materials used in processing and avoid those who use lots of chemicals. Support local artisans or companies who do not outsource production. Always donate your lightly used clothing to local thrift stores or shelters. Recycle rather than throw away your un-salvageable fabrics and textiles, so as to divert this waste from landfills. Reuse your old clothing or get creative and repurpose it into something new and useful.
School’s Out Clothing Swap
Girls in Science, a Walking Mountains program, is tackling the clothing conundrum head on by hosting a School’s Out Clothing Swap at Battle Mountain High School on Sunday, May 29, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. As coordinator and a teacher for this after school program for girls in third through fifth grade, it is essential the ladies understand that, as our decisions and actions have an impact on the experiments we perform, so too do we have an impact on our community and beyond. This event is our way to give back and reach out to the community in order to promote positive feedback loops for a sustainable future. Program participants throughout the county are contributing to the event in different ways, such as crafting creative projects out of old clothes to have on display or volunteering time at the event to help organize clothes for visitors to swap or recycle. Sew Fantastic will sponsor a mending table, so visitors can learn some basic clothing repair skills, such as closing tears or sewing on buttons. Visitors will also take away tips for how to be more sustainable clothing consumers. The event is sure to put a positive kink in the clothing industry’s system of spools.
Within any system, is it important to remember that resources are always a limiting factor and if we exceed the limiting factors, then the system will produce negative feedback loops and eventually break down. It is also important to realize that we may not actually see these feedback loops, especially in Western, developed countries, as we are quite well removed from the dirty side of the industry. We all wear clothes, and so we are all connected to this system like the silken strands in a spider’s web. And as future lady scientists, the Girls in Science are all about creating a beautiful world from these strands of silken web that our hearts and systems-thinking minds know is possible.
Nicole Abrams is the Girls in Science Coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She loves fostering a sense of place in the natural world with the young ladies she mentors, inspiring them toward science-loving, sustainable lifestyles.