Communique from the Oslo Local Assembly on Textile Fibres

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A twist on the usual UCRF Local Assembly format, this themed Local Assembly concentrated on textile fibers. Points for discussion could be tabled by any UCRF member in advance or raised on the day.

Theme: Textile fibres, key themes and challenges. 

20 minutes to discuss each theme. Participants: 10.

Sorting through the questions at the themed Oslo Local Assembly exploring fibre themes and challenges Photo credit: Lea Gleisberg.

Question 1, submitted by membership: How can we, in our expert organization, act against pesticides export for global south cotton plantations?

The assembly quickly realized how little we know and understand around this issue, even if some present had delved into the theme from different vantage points. Thus, it is difficult to recommend actual interventions. Could our recommendations anyway quickly become seen as a top-down approach rather than a bottom up one? Taking the local growing systems more seriously, engaging in the power dynamics were suggested. But all in all, we wondered: How can we actually help? Suggestions welcome.

Question 2: Ease of fit made possible through adding ‘stretch’ – which inherently is a problematic fiber mix – how do we move beyond convenience?

The lack of fit for clothing is one of the three main reasons for clothes going out of use, and with the ready-made industry’s lack of good sizing, one ‘quick fix’ to alleviate the problem is adding a percentage of spandex into the material mix. This, however, decreases the possibility of recycling and shortens the life-span of clothing, as the spandex has a short life-span. In other sectors, not textiles, there is an on-going discussion how to develop waste-stream systems that capture the materials for biodegrading (outside of industrial composting), if and when one uses biodegradable alternatives. If the EU decides in PEF to add criteria for repairability, one could suggest that spandex becomes a no-go for all textiles, as it makes any material impossible to repair. The only exceptions would be products such as compression tights and sports-bras. This would force a re-think.  It was discussed that obtaining “good” and comfortable fit in garments of woven textiles without 1-3% elastane requires a more detailed design, patternmaking, and sampling process at minimum, if not a thorough revision of “standard” sizing to better accommodate differences in body shape. Currently, the “give” of elastomeric fibres conveniently overcomes poor fit to the individual body, facilitating the rapid production of large volumes of identical goods for diverse populations.

Question 3: What does a future without synthetic fibers look like?

As some of the present could remember a time when synthetic fibers did not permeate our lives, it was easier to paint the picture for some than others. Make a list of what apparel we can accept the use of synthetics in – only where the properties are really needed – and also perhaps develop a strategy that identifies why choices are made: Is it because the material is cheaper? As oil and gas companies are ‘no longer drilling for energy, but for plastics’, it’s a question of keeping an eye on who stands to gain here. As the association between circularity and growth, and synthetics is so close, how can we break this ‘truth’, as synthetics in a circular system inevitably leak. So we need to say ‘no new plastics’ enter into the system, perhaps put forward Michael Braungart’s ‘from now on, only accept synthetics made from captured greenhouse gases’. This would bring the price-point up to the level of the most expensive natural raw materials and therefore ‘even the playing field’. There is also an emerging idea of a fiber diet (explored in 

Question 4: How can we collectively act to build more criticality into EU’s PEF?

During the morning, some of the participants had been in a workshop arranged by the European Environmental Bureau for NGOs on PEF and LCA methodology. As the critique that was raised during the workshop was not really picked up on by the moderator (who also leads the technical working group for apparel and footwear in PEF), this was a disconcerting experience that in many ways how-cases the lack of democratic process and the level of bureaucracy inherent. (The session was taped, so we can share it at a later date, but here is Veronica Bates Kassatly’s contribution Putting our frustrations aside, the discussion centered on what means could be most effective in being heard and put forward the trepidations that this will be another tool for the global north to impose demands on the poor and marginalized rather than taking responsibility for a mess largely created by the global north. The Norwegians present have tried more or less everything: op eds, academic journal articles, participating in the working group, at the launch of Make the Label Count, social media, etc.; without really getting heard. All though, 65 EU politicians have signed two separate letters to the Commission and in Norway a lot of sympathy has been garnered through the one op ed: EU threatens the Norwegian bunad (national costume). The agreement was that we need to find similar locally-resounding issues that showcase what we stand to lose, perhaps in light of cultural sustainability more than anything. Again, ask the question: Who benefits and whose interests are being denied? And contingent on the answer, follow up and ask if this is what we actually want? It is clear, also that PEF is all about choosing between products on the basis of slight (according to PEF) ecological gains based on global average data, rather than actually reducing consumption and production; so not at all aligned to UCRF’s main goals. The images from Chile’s desert of wasted textiles may actually have caused a slight shift in consumer attitudes. The powerful image that shows the true consequences of our over-consumption. 

Question 5: How could we learn more about how people value and use different fibers?

We have in many ways lost touch with the materiality of fibers, they have become a pawn in some sort of gaming-system instead. It’s about esthetic qualities and price, and anything else is too complex. Such surprising things as tariffs on different fibers and fiber-mixes may even come into play, more than how they feel on our skin, how they drape, etc. A study on food labelling was brought up, and how origin (or the labelling of protected origin) is one of the few relevant labelling schemes that actually makes a difference to consumers. There is also this idea that sustainability is expensive, rather than seeing other, non-purchasing alternatives. Complexity scares people. To really show design-students where the clothes they design end up, one of the participants takes her students to spend a day at the sorting-line of a thrift organization: Is this where you want ‘your’ clothes to end up? Discovering other ways to interact with clothes, in the community, sharing and taking more care of clothing – a way forward? 

Photos: Lea Gleisberg

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