Venus of the Rags (1964–2016), Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photo: Tom Lindboe. Courtesy of the Blenheim Art Foundation

For over ten years, Prospero World has specialised in sourcing pioneering grassroots projects for philanthropists all over the world. One of the countries in which we worked and researched was the Philippines, and it was during the course of that field-trip in 2010 that we were introduced to the power of the local fashion industry in its many incarnations: as an employer, producing world-class designers, pioneering social enterprises using recycling, and natural fabrics and so forth. This early realisation of the ‘force’ of fashion,  was the spark that led us incorporate ethical fashion into our Creative Industries for Social Change Awards, two years ago, to support young designers who wished to grow their business alongside its social impact. 
 
The global fashion industry is aware of the urgent need to become more sustainable. The topic of sustainability is even being woven in to London Fashion Week Festival 2019. LFW has partnered with BBC Earth x BFC x Mother of Pearl to present ‘Positive Fashion' talks during London Fashion Week, 16-17 Feb 2019. Awareness is the first step -- action, the next. Our hope and aim is that by sharing our research and our resources, you, too, will become part of a global movement whose agenda is to push sustainable fashion from ‘niche to norm’.
 
Follow us to keep your own conscious consumerism active (or "conscious user-ism" as you'll see when you read on) with tips we'll share in our next instalment. 

This month we wanted to introduce you to the idea of aesthetic sustainability.  In a Marie Kondo-fied world, we are au fait with the ‘spark of joy’ triage process, so let’s spend a little time looking at our emotional relationship with these outer layers of which we are so fond, with the help of a Danish academic and author of Aesthetic Sustainability, Kristine H Harper.
 
One of the ways that Harper investigates sustainability in design is through the emotional value we attach to clothes: what causes us to ‘hold on’ to them or permits us ‘to discard’.
 
“Why," Harper asked recently at a talk given at The Bridge, Green School, Bali, "do we keep some clothes forever, even though they are old and have holes in them, but we love them, cherish them and keep them, and others we feel nothing for and chuck out?”
 
Our clothes are more than just a way of keeping warm or decent: our clothes are our way of communicating with the world.  They are charged, not just with the trend or social signification of what they represent but also with emotional value.
 
The quality of love that an old jumper with holes (or a beautifully made dress) elicits another dimension when we think of ‘sustainability’ and that is that the quality and the beauty of the object creates an emotion. It can make us feel happy, can make us feel ‘at home’.  As such, the article of clothing gains a kind of transcendence. The beauty of the hand-made item (if it corresponds to our aesthetic) the beautifully, carefully-made, the oft-repaired, this fulfillment of our need for beauty, for feeling the kind of joyous ‘at home’ feeling,  is a major component in a holistic interpretation of sustainability. 
 
Design at its best creates beauty and wonder and nurtures us way beyond the moment of purchase.  

Enjoy the interview and stay tuned for practical tips and resources in our next email!

Interview with Kristine H Harper

Kristine H Harper, is the author of Aesthetic Sustainability: Product Design and Sustainable Usage (Routledge 2017) and former associate professor in Sustainable Fashion at Copenhagen School of Design and Technology. Harper has written extensively about sustainable product design, philosophical aesthetics, aesthetic nourishment, and Designer Social Responsibility. 

What is aesthetic sustainability?

Aesthetic sustainability is, briefly put, expressional durability. An aesthetically sustainability object is e.g. that favourite coat, chair or coffee cup of yours that is cherished every time it is used, because it nourishes your senses and makes you feel happy. 

The aesthetically sustainable object just seems to "work" every time - perhaps due to its fit, texture, finish, materials or colour combination. Aesthetics are crucial when it comes to sustainable object design; the vast majority of our belongings are replaced long before they are no longer usable or wearable. They are experienced as obsolete, and discarded due to their aesthetics; something about their expression or their feel just isn't right anymore. Maybe they were initially bought because they were trendy or fashionable (and hence designed to meet the consumer's fleeting need to fit in), or maybe they were bought to make the owner feel momentarily happy on a sad, lonely or boring day. Aesthetically sustainable objects age with beauty, and are created to be long-lived and to be frequently used. They don't get ugly or uninteresting when used, on the contrary; usage seems to add to their value. A good example hereof is a vintage object. When something, like garments or furniture or bicycles for that matter, is described as vintage it basically means that the specific object has become more beautiful and more valuable because it has aged, and because it has been frequently used or worn. It seems as if the previous owner's love for the object has left enhancing aesthetic traces on its surface.

 

Can you tell us about your personal journey with aesthetic sustainability?

I was working as an associate professor at the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology for many years (I finished my job last year due to my recent move to Bali, Indonesia, and am now focusing on writing). During my time as a lecturer I was a part of starting up the faculty for Sustainable Fashion, and I got very engaged in sustainability research and philosophy. I have always been gripped by the aspects of sustainability that are connected to human behaviour; and the puzzling fact that we seem to get very attached to some of our belongings, and even mourn the loss them, whereas we discard many - well, perhaps even the majority - of our things without further thought.Recently, tidying up and throwing out even seems to be viewed as therapeutic or as a kind of cleansing (and the beauty of engaging in separating oneself from one’s excess belongings has become the theme for tv-shows and self help books). But honestly, this seems to me a bit like treating the symptoms of a disease instead of identifying the source or trying to prevent it. Why not focus on not getting to a point when we are about to drown in our overload of unimportant belongings? It appears that our biggest problem nowadays is not being able to afford acquiring lots of stuff, but rather getting rid of it again. We need to reverse this pattern! And, this in where radical reduction comes in to the picture. However, in order to radically reduce the way we consume, the available products must accommodate new needs for longevity, communal ownership, and continuous aesthetic nourishment.I have worked thoroughly herewith in my aesthetic strategy, which is outlined in Aesthetic Sustainability. The strategy-model encourages and enables the designer to make aesthetic considerations an active part of the design process, and hereby consider the end-user’s aesthetic object-experience.The focal point for my research is the simple hypothesis that in order for an object to be truly sustainable, it must be attractive and aesthetically sustainable enough for the user to want to keep repairing and using it. 

 

What can we do to reduce, rethink, reform our patterns of consumption?

When you are about to buy something next time, try to stop for a moment, and consider how you will get rid of it again. The quick-fix things are often the ones you want to get rid of the quickest – and they are also the hardest ones to get rid of too (because no one wants to buy them as second-hand items, and no one wants to get them as hand-me-downs). Quick-fix things are e.g. the trendy dress you bought before a party, or the cheap easy-chair that wasn’t exactly what you wanted but was bought to fill the void in your living room, or the new pedometer gadget, which at the time it was bought felt so important, and that now just stays in your drawer. We are all guilty of such irrational consumer-ventures, and we know how short-lived their pleasure is. Buying new things weekly might be convenient, comforting and the norm but that doesn't make it right. As I wrote about on my blog The Immaterialist some months ago, in a post called Civil Disobedience, it is important to be critical of the assumptions that control the way we live. And no; shopping it not a hobby! Knitting or playing volleyball or cooking or skateboarding are hobbies, but shopping is not. 

 

Why is recycling not a perfect solution? 

At the speed people are consuming things at the moment there are no recycle-systems that would ever be able to keep up. There are just too many unwanted things in the world. The majority of our discarded clothes are not recycled, nor are they donated to those in need nor re-sold as second-hand items; they end up in landfills, decomposing slowly whilst emitting methane, or are burned with increased air pollution as a result. Recently, I read about how electronic waste from the West is being dumped in Africa and Asia, because recycling of e-waste is both expensive and difficult.  Working with aesthetic sustainability involves moving away from the thought of breaking down and reusing material components. It involves turning cherishing, repairing and mending your belongings into “the new normal".

How can we shift the cog from “consuming” to “usage”?

I recently wrote about this on my blog and I find it a very important question. If you consume goods you are automatically implying that you go through them; you are assuming that they will be obsolete or outdated sooner or later, and that you therefore in a matter of time will be done with them. Contrariwise, if you focus on the usage of things, you might be more inclined to buy something because you intend to make use of it and value it for a long time, not because you anticipate consuming it, before discarding it. Consumption is linear, whereas usage is circular, and involves mending and repairing (and perhaps even sharing).We must start thinking of the things we buy as investments. If you invest in something you are less inclined to discard it; investment means thoroughly considering whether you really need it or not, where you will place it, and for what you will use it. I guess most people think like that when they buy expensive things, like a new sofa. But this way of shopping should trickle-down to all of our purchases; clothes, toys, kitchen equipment, bicycles, home accessories etc.Buying and consuming new things is still to an extent a status symbol. But, the winds are changing, and new tendencies such as degrowth and “the tiny house movement” are blossoming, indicating a rising need for immaterialism and detachment from the “hamster-wheel” of over-consumption. My hope is that in the wake hereof, the new well-dressed will be wearing clothes that are characterised by frequent usage and creatively mended to prolong their lifespan. And that the sharing-economy will thrive.

 

Who is doing great work in the fashion industry to integrate and progress sustainability?There are a lot of great sustainable designers. Some, who are working primarily with the hands behind the products we buy, like Carcel, some who focus on new sustainable material solutions, like Jonas Edvard, and some who focus on the thorough design process and on demonstrating how slowness can lead to beauty and longevity, like Voices of Industry. Generally, I think that focusing on creating a bond between the product and the user is crucial, when trying to encourage long term usage. This bond can be based on insight into the processes and people behind the product, on durable or flexible aesthetics, or on texture and material sensations.

 

 What is next up for you?

I am in the process of writing a new book with the working title Anti-trend. The book addresses both consumers and product designers by encouraging a sustainable lifestyle that revolves around nourishing, fulfilling repetitions. Repetitions are often viewed as trivial. But, leading a life that focuses on meaningful repetitions constitutes an antithesis to triviality, since it involves engaging in activities and communities, and surrounding oneself with products that don’t feel wearisome after the novelty has faded. Questions like the following are raised in the book: How do you avoid being a variation-hunter? How do you rest in repetition? And, how do you live a sustainable, fulfilling life?In relation to sustainable product development I am working on emphasising the importance of storytelling. The anti-trendy narrative is a flexible narrative that can develop and involve the user’s own stories. It is linked to the design-object that continuously satisfies or nurtures the recipient due to its anti-triviality and encouragement to repetitive usage. Furthermore, I am working on the creation of an anti-trendy design manual, which will provide the designer with concrete design-guidelines. The design manual will enable the designer to create a design dogma based on anti-trendy tendencies (rather than fleeting trends). The dogma is the recipe for the creation of aesthetically nourishing, durable products.In Anti-trend, I am very inspired by existentialist philosophy, phenomenology and permaculture design, and I am using my blog The Immaterialist as an online laboratory, in which I test some of my ideas and hypothesis. I am grateful for any feedback and comments!

 

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The thought of breakfast and coffee! I just love breakfast.

 

Find Aesthetic Sustainability at your local library, or your favourite bookseller. We have a copy, too, if you would like to borrow it!

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© Prospero World 2018

With thanks to Victor Ehikhamenor for allowing us to use images of his art work.