What is a ‘sustainable’ practice in the age of the Anthropocene? 

While the ubiquity of the key phrase ‘sustainable’ in marketing points towards a positive societal ideology, the finality of the phrase appears misleading. Is it possible to produce new things in a way which undermines the inherent un-sustainable nature of our relentless consumption? Is ‘sustainable’ an attainable ideal? 

As inventive and imaginative as us humans are, we are at our foremost resourceful. Our talent lies not in making something from nothing, but in interpreting and manipulating our environments to create new forms of value. We consume, we create, we dispose, we repeat. It is our primary and undeniable biological function. 

The creation of any form requires the exchange of energy. A plant consumes energy from the sun, a child milk, a lightbulb electricity, a car fuel. Once the primary exchange is complete, the function served, the event occurred, all forms require disposal. Organic forms exist in a reciprocal energetic exchange, returning to earth as a source of nutritional energy, while synthetic forms often require further energetic intervention to help in their decomposition. Within this framework, sustainability can be expressed as a closed cycle, an endless reciprocal exchange of energy without the need for additional energetic input or the creation of excess refuse. 

At this point in our development, humanity’s production capacity far exceeds our energetic requirements as well as the environment’s natural resources. From where we stand now, in the midst of an undeniable environmental crisis, a finite ‘sustainable’ production system may be an unreachable ideal, but reach towards it nonetheless we must. 

The textile & garment industry is notorious as one of the leading polluters and cause of environmental damage: Industrial dyeing is one of the largest consumption and pollution of waterways; the process of creating synthetic fibers from petrochemicals and the immense international transport networks for outsourcing of labour and distribution of finished goods are major causes of greenhouse gasses; the encouragement of mass consumption and accelerated sales cycles lead to the industry being one of the largest contributors of landfill waste globally. Recently, the industry has made efforts to become more sustainable through recycling efforts, of both textile fibre and other non biodegradable materials processed into textile fibre, both of which remain highly energy intensive, both in process and embedded in the required machinery. 

Within a system where a fully reciprocal energetic system may seem despairingly inconceivable, reframing sustainability as a progression towards processes which are supportive rather than destructive may be more hopeful, inspiring even. 

In our studio, we recognize that a we are attempting a practice which is as supportive to our environment as possible, with big dreams on becoming even more so as we grow. We choose to use locally sourced natural materials, not just to reduced carbon emissions from international transport, but to support out local fibre industry. Several of our South African mills have closed down since the 90s, in which trade deals primarily with China saw labour and manufacturing being outsourced, decimating our one thriving local textile industry. 

We choose to use South African cotton because an agricultural crop, the fibre comes directly from the earth and as such is 100% natural and biodegradable which means that our products can eventually become compost rather than another layer in a landfill. We understand that the production of cotton does not come without its own faults, primarily being a water intensive crop. However, we believe that in choosing to support local natural fibers and mills we are choosing to support a future in we could build our capacity to raise and process more sustainable plant fibers such as hemp and flax locally. As our small business and capital grows, we hope to invest more in local animal fibers. Unlike industrial cattle farms, the rearing of sheep and goats for textile fibre can be beneficial to the environment, helping to sequester carbon into soil. 

We choose to use a production process which values human and natural energy. Embracing an ancient and analogue craft our production is fueled primarily by food, and keeps electricity consumption to a minimum. 

By embracing a slow practice which embodies a sensitivity to time, we hope to encourage reflection, contemplation and a slower approach to consumption. In crafting textiles which embody a slow and considered time, we hope that our textiles will likewise encourage slow consumption, being cared for over time rather than quickly replaced.

In an age where we have the capacity to produce and consume an incredible variety at incredible speed, it is easy to become focused on looking ahead. At Crosspolynations, we believe that an approach towards sustainability is an approach towards a cyclical focus. To ensure an abundant future, we believe that it is important to look at the full cycle of our production processes: from earth, to fibre, to cloth and then back to earth. By choosing to return to a human scale practice, to the power of our bodies and the knowledge of the bodies that came before us, we hope to return to a wisdom which is supportive, of each other and the environment which supports us.

Image by Chelsea Tuesday

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