Scholar Series: Fashion and waste by Timo Rissanen
The Scholar Series highlights the views and research from experts across different disciplines on issues related to ethical and sustainable design. Timo Rissanen is a Finnish fashion designer and currently holds the position of Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He sees fashion as integral to the everyday experience of living; creating a fashion system that enriches humanity is a task for us all. Sustainability research is inseparable from his design practice, and in 2012 Rissanen completed a practice-based PhD on zero-waste fashion design.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in the catalogue for Zero Waste: Fashion Re-patterned, an exhibition curated by Arti Sandhu at Columbia College Chicago, March 3-April 16, 2011.
Since Charles Worth launched his first collection in 1858, the fashion cycle has gradually accelerated; today, the fashion industry provides us with ever-cheaper clothes at a dizzying speed. Planned obsolescence is perceived as an inherent part of fashion; a new season’s offerings are designed to seemingly cancel out whatever came the season before. While volumes of second-hand clothing are recycled and is a thriving industry in its own right, the planet – the only one available to us – cannot sustain these volumes.
Waste comes into existence through categorizing and sorting: when we deem something no longer desirable or necessary, it becomes waste (Strasser 1999: 5). It can be easy to make these decisions without too much consideration; from packaging to clothing to furniture to white goods, things exit our lives with relative nonchalance. Popping over to the mall to buy a replacement or to simply add to a burgeoning assemblage of things – is convenient and increasingly inexpensive. ‘Doing the right thing’ – recycling paper and glass, for example, can lead to a false sense that everything is fine. Recycling does not address patterns and volumes of consumption; in some instances it may indirectly escalate consumption by way of misguided absolution.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (2013), in the US approximately 13.1 million tons of textile waste was created in 2010, accounting for 5.3 percent of total municipal solid waste. Of this, 15 percent was recovered. While the overall amount of textile waste supports a thriving reclamation and recycling industry, the efforts of which should be applauded, this staggering figure raises the questions: do we need all of this, and how much longer can this go on for? The brief answers are: no, and not any longer. Scenes from ‘Hoarders’ (A&E TV) underline the situation; clinical hoarding fed by an endless stream of consumer goods is a relatively new phenomenon. Similarly, the proliferation of storage for hire and the idea of a storage unit as a permanent extension of the home are now becoming normalized.
It would be easy – and counter-productive – to dwell on the dire state of things. A broad spectrum of creative approaches and possible solutions to the countless problems relating to waste in fashion do exist. These form a platform for a critical but inherently optimistic future vision for fashion. In recent years, designers and artists have examined fashion and textile waste from a number of perspectives within a range of contexts, demonstrating that a richness of solutions is within reach. Zero Waste: Fashion Re-Patterned, an exhibition curated by Arti Sandhu in 2011, demonstrated some approaches with delightful optimism and humor.