Crossovers

Food & Fashion and the Impact of Science

This text is based on Louise Fresco’s contribution to a panel discussion led by Farid Tabarki on 31 May 2018, the first day of the Fashion Colloquium. Other contributors to the panel were keynote speakers David Bollier, Oskar Metsavaht, and Pascale Gatzen.

FT: Louise, you bring to this debate two angles: science and food. How can science and research be helpful in developing our systems? And what can we learn from the perspective of the system of food?

LF: Basically, food and clothing have on the deepest level many things in common. Both are biological products—this is products from nature. Both are the most intimate avenues in the way we communicate with nature. In the case of food, even more so; we digest it. Both are produced from natural fibres or natural chemicals through an ecological process. We as humans use knowledge, science, to get the best possible products. We want food that does not go to waste immediately, that has the best content of vitamins, etc. We want fibres that don’t use themselves up within a few days. Even the most artificial fibres that come from the petrochemical industries are still fossil, natural fibres. So everything you wear is natural.

There are some lessons to be learned for fashion from food. Both are very emotional. Food and fashion are identity. Tell me what you eat or wear, and I will tell you who you are. It is difficult to talk about them in general. Your taste may not be mine, but there are some basic principles that are important. The devil is in the details. It is the details of how we produce that determine if something is sustainable or not. In my view, sustainability is never an easy 100%. It is always a trade-off between different types of goals. If you say we don’t want to have cotton grown on fields any more, we only want recycled cotton. Let’s assume that that is possible. That sounds good from an environmental perspective. But we take away a livelihood from a small farmer in India, which also has a negative social cost.

Remember the famous dimensions: people, profit, planet. It’s very important to understand that there is hardly ever something like an absolute form of sustainability. But there is an issue of effects locally, or at a longer distance, or effects now, or in the future.

We should do life-cycle analyses. If we want to go for alternatives, let’s really go and calculate what we want do. Using and reusing fibres is an excellent idea. But we should also ask, how much water does it ask—how much energy—is involved when we clean up things. What kinds of dyes are we using? For Wageningen University, it is interesting to look at food waste as a source for fibres. Food waste in Europe represents 60% of Europe’s CO2 emissions.

FT: What does it mean for designers? How can they act more responsible to this life cycle notion?

LF: One of the problems we have is that we try to optimize little fragments of the whole production chain. What we really need is to look at the whole cycle. That starts before productions. What kind of inputs do you need? And how does this go all the way down to the consumer? Technology will help us with this. We have now sensors and ways to weave in materials that help to trace from the source all the way to the consumer. That he/she has the security, that what he/she buys has this authenticity. That will give a far greater comfort to consumers. This applies to food and fashion and textiles, but also to the wood of our floor in your house. This is about a paradigm shift. We go from a linear economy to a circular economy. Everything is a (re)source for new production. That’s what ecology is all about.

FT: Do you agree with that we lost that feeling of being part of a community?

LF: I think everybody wants to and must belong or connect to a community. One notion of caution here. It is easy to say it all has to be human transactions, face to face, locally sourced. The reality is that two thirds of the world population lives in urban centres. We have already 35 cities of more than 10 million inhabitants. There are many parts where this connectedness and poverty is a real issue. Very often the urban poor have no choice or chance not to pollute or buy things that are cheaply and poorly made. I would look to a solution to finding a local scale but also a value chain that gives the best possible sustainable values to those who are not able to go for the real fashion. I think it’s the responsibility of the industry to make sure that through designing and the invention and reinvention of the value chain, we also reach those who are hard to reach. Poverty is a very strong factor in our societies. We should take responsibility for that.

FT: A critical notion on circular economy is that it does not change our mind-set because it is still about consuming. The idea that consuming and even consuming more is fine but because we do it in a circular way it is fine. Can you respond to that?

LF: If we wait for a paradigm shift or a cultural change, in the meantime we better produce in the best possible way. This probably proves true even stronger for food than for fashion. We have a strong need to want to have things. That is such a fundamental driver. It is very hard for people to stop. There are experiments that show that people do not stop eating if you feed them in a particular way. Although we know in the brain that our saturation point has been reached, we will not stop. That’s because the drive to feed or cloth or protect ourselves is very strong. It is very difficult for people to change that. We have to move to a culture and economy that has this quality of ‘I have enough’. Good habits in terms of sustainable behaviour, of caring for each other, and human connectedness come at an early age in childhood. That’s what we are lacking. In order to get us into a different type of driver (not the more I have), we also have to look at the generations that go now to the cheap fast fashion places and throw clothes away after two or three months when they are not in fashion any more. The whole concept of what is in fashion is very sensitive. That also applies to food. Food also has fashions. We should discuss that. That awareness about changing our relation to our natural world and what we take from it—that is a real challenge. It does not come easy. That’s why I still think we need solutions. If we have to wait for a world population of 10 billion to become a world society of having enough, we will have to wait a long time.

FT: How can science and education have an impact in developing this narrative?

LF: The main task of education and science in developing this narrative has two basic dimensions. The cultural one, which is a matter of sensitizing people, of creating awareness, of organizing alternative markets or supply chains, etc. The other one is understanding very well how the capitalist system works. Otherwise, you would be very naïve. That has to be part of your education. The matter is in the details again. I would look for students who are able to analyse the different ways of producing things, and of how satisfaction comes about. There is good research that shows that when people do something that is perceived as a good, objective, altruistic deed, the same type of neural systems in the brain that are activated as, for example, by eating organic food. So understanding the neurological basis of satisfaction would be important, but also understanding the chemistry of how fibres can be used and reused and what design does. There is satisfaction in having things that last and play a role in your own life and in learning how to attach positive images to the objects that we have. But in our field, you must also have a real quantitative understanding of what the differences are between, for example, wearing organic or recycled cotton, between eating an organic or an ordinary apple. Literature and art are beautiful, but you also have to learn how to calculate.

Louise Fresco

Professor Louise O. Fresco has been appointed as President of the Executive Board of Wageningen University & Research with effect from 1 July 2014. From 2006 to July 1, 2014 she was University Professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) specialized in the foundations of sustainable development in an international context. Since 2000, she has served as Assistant Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.