Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons
Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons
Many players in the global fashion world are increasingly concerned about problematic industry norms and practices—from energy-intensive supply chains and abusive labour practices to transgressive marketing and elitist sensibilities. Is it possible to imagine a more humane and eco-responsible fashion system? This paper describes how diverse commoners around the world are pioneering creative, post-capitalist forms of provisioning, peer governance, and social practice. The principles of commoning—autonomous ‘world-making’ of provisioning and peer governance from within market/state polities—may hold some answers in helping to imagine a new ecosystem of commons for fashion design, provisioning, and distribution.
The Commons as a Social System, Not Unowned Resources
One general way to understand the commons is as everything that we inherit or create together, which we must pass on, undiminished, to future generations. Our common wealth consists of countless resources that we share such as public lands, state-funded research, the atmosphere, the oceans, the airwaves used by broadcasters. Historically, the state has been the self-styled trustee of such resources—a task it has not performed very conscientiously or faithfully.
In truth, the commons is not simply a collection of shared resources. It must be understood as a social and political system for managing that shared wealth, with an emphasis on self-governance, fairness, and sustainability. The commons consists of resources plus the social system for managing them plus the specific rules, social practices, institutions, and traditions used to manage the resources. The commons is an integrated social system for provisioning and peer governance—one that focuses on inclusiveness, fairness, basic needs, and stewardship of shared wealth.
If you mention ‘the commons’ to someone today, the first idea that usually comes to mind is ‘the tragedy of the commons’. That idea was launched by biologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science in a now-famous essay published in 1968. Hardin asked readers to imagine a pasture in which no individual farmer has a rational incentive to hold back his use of it. He declared that each individual farmer would put as many sheep on the pasture as possible because no individual has a rational incentive to hold back. By this logic, Hardin declared, the pasture will inevitably be destroyed through over-exploitation: the tragedy of the commons. Over the past two generations, economists and conservative ideologues embraced the ‘tragedy parable’ as a powerful way to denigrate the collective management of resources, especially by government. Hardin’s narrative also proved useful as a way to champion private property rights, so-called free markets, and deregulation.
Even though the term ‘the commons’ became widely associated with the idea of the word ‘tragedy’, the irony is that Hardin was not really describing a commons. He was describing an open-access regime in which there are no rules for managing a resource, no boundaries around it, and, indeed, no community. The scenario he was describing—in which free riders can appropriate or damage resources at will—is more accurately a description of unfettered markets in which everyone does whatever s/he wants. You might say Hardin was describing the tragedy of the market.
The late Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University powerfully rebutted the whole ‘tragedy of the commons’ fable in her landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. This book and hundreds of case studies by Ostrom and her colleagues showed that it is entirely possible for communities to manage forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, wild game, and other natural resources as commons, without over-exploiting them. Her research and that of many scholars that she assembled into the International Association for the Study of Commons demonstrated this through hundreds of empirical studies.
One might ask, how, then, is the over-exploitation of resources avoided? The short answer is, people talk to each other. They negotiate rules for working out their differences. People who live near each other or work together have strong incentives to cooperate. They are entirely capable of self-organizing systems that can identify and punish free riders, develop a shared community ethic and norms, and in other ways protect their shared wealth. This is not always easy and it is certainly not automatic, but it is an historic tradition in the human species. An estimated two billion people around the world depend on natural resources managed as commons for their everyday survival.
Most economists ignore this reality, however, because their very language and terms of analysis privilege the market economy—the world of exchange-value, not use-value. Adam Smith’s writings about markets are most notable for providing a moral justification for market activity, sanitizing the vices of greed and envy as ‘self-interest’ that ultimately benefits the public good via the Invisible Hand. He redefined the very idea of ‘the economy’ by ignoring self-provisioning that takes place outside of conventional circles of money and market exchange.
Ostrom’s great achievement was in demonstrating how much value and stable management actually occurs through commons. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009—the first woman to win the award—by documenting and theorizing about cooperation, sharing, trust, and other nonmarket behaviours that most conventional economists neglect as ‘exogenous variables’. Its epistemological model quite literally can’t make sense of such social behaviours because, by the terms of the model, they are ‘irrational’. For economists, market transactions are the main event, and anything that cannot be priced is not taken very seriously. No wonder the commons and its social behaviours are culturally invisible!
Market Enclosure as a Scourge of our Time
One of the reasons that the commons discourse is being resurrected today is to make the commons more visible—but also to highlight the idea of ‘enclosure’. Enclosure consists of the privatization and commodification of shared wealth by corporations, often in collusion with governments. It can be seen in countless attempts by market players to appropriate for themselves such shared resources as land, water, seeds, genetic information, cultural works, information, public spaces, and much else.
Across the world, timber companies are seizing great swaths of forests and wilderness that belong to the people, many of whom have tended the forests for generations. Big Pharma is privately patenting valuable drug research for which taxpayers have paid billions of dollars. Enclosure can be seen in corporate ‘partnerships’ with universities that privatize research funded by the public. Most recently, we have seen fierce attempts by telecom and cable companies to seize control over access to the Internet in order to convert that great commons into a closed marketplace.
Enclosures amount to a massive theft and dispossession of common wealth for private gain. It is typically portrayed as ‘progress’—the idea that private investment and marketization will improve societies. But in fact, the relentless expansion of market activity is often a profound dispossession of people’s shared wealth. It is not just a taking of resources but the destruction of community identities and cultures based on sharing. It is an erasure from memory that certain traditions and ways of life are possible.
People who have been victimized by investors, corporations, and market growth are increasingly fighting back, however. They seek to reclaim what is theirs and re-establish the communities of commoning that once flourished. For example, indigenous peoples are trying to preserve their ethnobotanical knowledge from the biopiracy of big pharmaceutical and ag-biotech companies. Subsistence farmers are trying to protect their right to share seeds. Fishers are trying to protect their livelihoods from industrial harvesting. Many Latin Americans are fighting the neo-extractivist agenda of multinational companies who are plundering oil, minerals, and genetic knowledge. Internet users are trying to preserve their right to share their research, creative works and data outside of the control of strict intellectual property rights (copyright, trademarks, patents).
The emergence of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s demonstrated that the commons is arguably more generative than conventional intellectual property industries. But the latter, of course, have huge investments that they wish to protect. They are understandably wary of the enormous efficiencies and creativity that digital commons offer. The Internet is really a massive hosting platform for commons, a lightweight infrastructure for cooperation that is fantastically generative because it doesn’t have the huge overhead costs of markets (physical infrastructure, lawyers, marketing, etc.) and because it elicits and distributes creativity far more efficiently than conventional markets.
By the early 2000s, the power of open networks had given rise to something that economists are still trying to understand—commons-based peer production. This is a growing sector of production that takes many forms. Among them: free and open source software, which dominate the software world; the great Wikipedia project in dozens of languages and hundreds of wiki offshoots; the estimated 1 billion documents and creative works using Creative Commons licenses; and the more than 10,000 open-access scholarly journals that bypass the exploitations of commercial publishers. The explosion of creativity in this sector cannot simply be explained by economic models that regard human beings as selfish, rational, utility maximizing materialists. This creativity is the work of peer-organized commons.
Over the past fifteen years, the idea of commoners having agency and power to build their own provisioning systems as alternatives to predatory, anti-social market systems has gained ground. We can now see the rise of an eclectic international movement based on the principles of commoning. It consists of food activists trying to rebuild local agriculture and software programmers building free software and open source software as well as open source design, hardware, and global production. We can see the commons at work among artists devoted to collaborative digital arts; in scientific communities that share their research and data on open platforms; and among rice farmers who use the Internet to share agronomy techniques to improve their yields, in a kind of open-source agriculture. We can also see the commons rising among activists in cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Seoul, and Bologna who demand that urban spaces and resources be used to benefit all citizens, not just developers and the affluent.
Some commoners are developing alternative currencies, such as the Bangla-Pesa in Kenya, which has made it possible for poor people in slum neighbourhoods to exchange value with each other. Many engineers and designers are engaged with global communities in which design is globally developed and shared without patents, but manufacturing is done at the local level in ways in the style of open-source software: free, accessible to anyone, locally sourceable with modular components. This movement of ‘cosmo-local production’ has produced the Wikispeed car that gets 100 miles per gallon of fuel, the Farm Hack community that has produced designs for affordable farm equipment, and specialized open-source prosthetic limbs that major medical suppliers don’t have the creativity or profit incentive to make.
What unites these highly diverse communities?
They are all asserting a different universe of value. They all share a basic commitment to production for use, not market exchange. They are asserting the right of communities to participate in making the rules that govern themselves. They are demonstrating the feasibility of fair rules and transparency in peer governance. As commoners, they step up to serve as long-term stewards of resources.
The commons not only embodies a different system of power and value-generation than the market and state but also expresses a distinct worldview and ethic. It emphasizes cooperation and sharing for common benefit and eschews the individualistic competition, rational calculation, and materialism that economists regard as the defining traits of humanity. Because commons deliberately seek to protect their practices and ethos against market enclosures, they are more able to thwart the usual types of co-optation and dilution that normally occur. In other words, commons have the potential to carve out protected zones of social sovereignty that cannot be readily traduced by the market/state.
Of course, mainstream political and corporate players still regard the commons as archaic relics from history. They are half-right: commoning is as old as the human race. But it is hardly irrelevant or obsolete. In light of the cascading crises of climate change, wealth inequality, and the implosion of the neoliberal market/state (among many others), it is reassuring to know that the commons is the one of the most enduring, resilient forms of social organization in history. Its rediscovery is opening up all kinds of new conversations and projects seeking to imagine, and then build, new types of post-capitalist institutions.
The fledgling movements are not arid intellectual pipedreams; they are vigorous exploratory projects to build an alternative economy. They seek to develop a new theory and practice of value beyond market price. As social institutions based on use-value, diverse commons focus on the intrinsic value of nature, the importance of care work and affective labour (often disproportionately done by women), socially created collective wealth, and the intergenerational stewardship of biowealth.
So how might these insights into the commons help us imagine a new vision for the fashion industry? In the remainder of this essay, I would like to reflect on the significance of the commons framework, discourse, and ethos for the world of fashion design, production, and distribution (to use the conventional economic categories).
Reimagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons
Our first challenge is to ‘jump the tracks’ of standard economic analysis. Its thought-categories and language virtually dictate the types of human behaviour and institutions that are seen as ‘realistic’. Economics presumes that capital, large-scale markets, and private property—as well as the designated roles of investor, business executive, employee, consumer, etc.—are the only ways to organize provisioning and distribution. It somehow seems utopian to try to imagine feasible alternatives notwithstanding the documented, chronic damage that the existing system wrecks.
Let us dare to imagine how we might devise the rudiments of a different sort of fashion design and garment production system. Among socially minded designers and enterprises, this is a welcome idea. Creative artists tend to understand the real power of imagination and the collaborations that fuel it. They realize that while artistry obviously needs resources, it is increasingly being held captive and despoiled by money and the market economy.
Interestingly, software programmers once faced a similar challenge when Microsoft held a virtual monopoly over personal computer software in the late 1990s. The response that emerged, and then grew and grew, was free and open-source software—programs that were built by open networks of programmers and legally designed to be re-used, modified, and shared for free. In other words, collaboration was the key to reclaiming the commons of software design.
I think there is a deep kinship between fashion design and open-source software principles. One might say that fashion design has always been an open-source enterprise, as I once explored through a 2005 conference that I co-organized, ‘Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of Creativity’. Even though capital and corporations typically try to own creativity through patents or copyrights, in fashion, creative design has always been treated as shareable. You can’t own the herringbone suit or peasant dress. You can only own your trademarked name and logo. Everything else is free to use and re-purpose and share without permission or payment.
There have been attempts by people like Diane von Fürstenberg and big fashion houses to expand the net of copyright control over fashion design. But such attempts to own creativity are ill-fated and silly. As Coco Chanel famously said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”. Attempting to own fashion design is doomed to failure and is itself destructive of very ecology of fashion.
To me, this naturally raises the idea of fashion itself as an ecosystem of commons. Unlike a market, in which wealthy businesses attempt to govern and control the system through money, fashion as a commons points to a very different social system. A commons allows the various elements of the ecosystem to find their own sovereignty and niches, and to develop their own symbiotic relationships with others. A commons is a world of negotiated relationality and social practice that arises from the bottom up. It is not a world animated by narrow, top-down mandates by those with property rights and money (even if commoners must develop their own working rapprochement with both).
Serious fashion designers and producers who wish to engage with contemporary life are understandably attracted to the idea of the commons. They realize that feelings and aesthetics are primary forces in fashion design. They also see that the global market apparatus and fashion business models are becoming more and more hostile to genuine creativity. Global markets traffic in garments-as-commodities and only secondarily in garments-as-cultural expression or use-value. If a designer is serious about engaging with the world through their work, they will know that aesthetics is not just about looks but about social ethics, aliveness, and human presence. Corporate fashion attempts to simulate and capture these things, but the structural imperatives of global markets (at least for mass fashion) cannot honour such human values and intangibles.
Many fashion designers and fashion houses are rightly appalled by a global production/distribution system that depends on underpaid, abused labour, sprawling transport chains that use vast amounts of carbon fuels, prodigious amounts of fabric waste, and odious marketing strategies. The ‘fast fashion’ segment of the industry has contributed to the doubling of garment production worldwide between 2000 and 2014, accordingly to the group Fashion Revolution. Some 40% of purchased clothes are rarely or never worn—the average garment is worn only four times on average over its lifetime—and about one-third of retail clothing is never sold, and is, therefore, burned or destroyed. The industry produces some 400 billion square meters of fabric waste each year.
One could easily augment this critique with many other industry practices that are profoundly harmful to the environment, workers’ health and well-being, cultural norms, and consumers. But I am interested here in imagining new ways that the fashion industry might reconfigure itself. As the Fashion Colloquium in Arnhem, the Netherlands, in May 2018, put it: “Fashion is in dire need of more value-based critical thinking as well as design-driven research to thoroughly explore, disrupt, redefine and transform the system”. Its organizers believe that we need to “collectively investigate how to move towards a fashion reality that addresses ethics, inclusivity and responsible consumerism in a more engaged way”.
Toward that end, I wish to propose eight strategies by which committed players in the fashion world might begin to imagine a new type of system. These strategies should not be taken as a blueprint, but rather as a set of general guideposts for building the elements of an alternative system. As the first half of this essay has shown, the commons can help guide our imaginations and critical thought, and help us develop new structural vehicles for human creativity, ethics, and social engagement to flourish. It provides affordances that are simply unavailable under the socio-legal structures of the market/state. Aesthetics, ethics, creativity, and culture can actually provide powerful energies for redefining ‘the economy’ of fashion. This will necessarily require novel types of institutions and infrastructures that are likely to be seen as alien or repugnant to conventional banks, investors, and industry players.
1. Develop ways to resist enclosure
One of the first imperatives of an effective commons is to protect itself from enclosure—the private appropriation of shared wealth, usually for market purposes. This means that the web of relationships needed to design and produce garments must be strong and committed, and not based on mere business relationships. Any alternative fashion network must nurture a shared purpose and values that unify the community. It must engender trust and the generous sharing of knowledge. In medieval commons, one of the means by which communities achieved these goals was to stage an annual party in which they ‘beat the bounds’. This was a formal walking of the perimeter of their commons in order to identify and destroy any hedges or walls that enclosed the land for private purposes. That is an apt metaphor for what contemporary commons must do—identify capitalist appropriations of shared wealth, such as intellectual property grabs on designs or the use of market power to marginalize commons-based provisioning.
2. Focus on the Triad of Commoning
In a forthcoming book, my co-author Silke Helfrich and I propose a new conceptualization of the commons that we call the ‘Triad of Commoning’. It consists of the ‘Social Life’ of participants, their systems in ‘Peer Governance’, and systems of self-managed ‘Provisioning’. Each of these dimensions are intertwined, but it helps to focus on each one as a way to see how and why commons are so productive and satisfying.
The Social Life of a commons is based on people seeing themselves as interconnected and interdependent—as ‘Nested-I’s’, as we put it. Participants contribute freely to their collective goals, practising a gentle reciprocity and never a selfish calculation. They pursue challenges collaboratively and realize that their work is entangled with natural systems.
Peer Governance seeks to bring the diversity of participants into shared purpose, and to ensure that relationships are transparent and that knowledge is shared generously—all within a sphere of trust. The third major dimension of the commons, Provisioning, consists of systems that enable people to make and use things together, and to share risks and benefits. Provisioning should rely on ‘convivial tools’ that are open ended and user friendly, not closed and proprietary. It must also decide how to allocate the fruits of commoning fairly.
3. Build new types of collaborative institutions
As the Triad of Commoning suggests, new types of institutions are needed to help sustain collaboration. These can take many forms: cooperatives, commons-based peer production in digital contexts, collaborative networks, and trusts, among others. The point is to develop social practices and norms that support commoning at appropriate scales.
Larger-scale collaborations need not be achieved by ‘scaling’ an enterprise into a large, unified organization. The preferred approach is to emulate other projects at smaller scales and then federate themselves as a loose network. This helps diverse commons align to pursue larger cooperative strategies (via ‘inter-commoning’). They can extend their reach without falling prey to the ‘big is better’ dynamic that market enterprises typically follow. (Scaling tends to re-introduce the inefficiencies, costs, ecological harm, and dehumanization that progressive fashion people are trying to escape!)
Relationality is a key aspect of a commons, so any growth in the reach of commons must find ways to preserve the shared mission, values, and relationships. Because commercial dealings tend to erode deeper relationships—the ethic of ‘it’s nothing personal, just business’—commons strive to keep commons and commerce distinct. To be sure, a commons can interact with markets, but it must do so in careful ways so that market imperatives (growth, profit, capitalization) do not become ends in themselves and take over the life of the commons.
4. Lead with practical experimentation, not ideology
While the commons has a lot to say about modern capitalism and the nation state, it is not an ideology or political agenda. It is better seen as a series of practical experiments for meeting human needs in fair, liberating ways. It is primarily about social practices and cultural shifts that can flourish in new types of institutional spaces. It helps to see that the commons is not so much a noun as a verb—the habit and activity of engaging in commoning. As historian Peter Linebaugh has said, “There is no commons without commoning”. Ideological approaches tend to be rigid and brittle. Commoning is flexible, creative, and adaptive.
The fashion world has already embarked upon many fascinating experiments in social and ecological innovation, such as weaving cooperatives, natural and non-toxic colour dyes, local sourcing of renewable materials, recycling and upcycling of fabric waste, novel revenue models to support humane working conditions, and so on. This sort of experimentation is more likely to flourish and endure through commons-based systems because that can help them escape the profit imperatives and market competition of conventional fashion. Risks can be mutualized more readily, revenue requirements are reduced, and working relationships are more stable and committed.
5. Reinvent infrastructures & finance for the commons
If the goal is to build a new parallel provisioning economy that decommodifies production and distribution and empowers distributed commoning, then new sorts of infrastructures and finance will be needed. Conventional investors and lenders virtually require that fashion enterprises become hooked on debt, growth, and a fealty to price as the measure of value. A commons regime could instead look to new systems of mutual credit and cooperative finance to spread risks and minimize costs and even the need for debt. In addition, the sharing of design in translocal ways could help develop a coherent network of like-minded fashion players and reduce transport costs. Developing more personal, social relationships with ‘suppliers’ and ‘consumers’ (re-imagined as supporters and collaborators) could help wean people away from market-driven consumerism and fast fashion.
Some of these ideas are already being developed in small-scale networks of producers of raw materials and artisans, for example. But with the infrastructure and finance to help these efforts grow into a larger ecosystem, new sorts of supply networks could evolve into producer cooperatives, for instance, or become Internet-based guilds for certain types of garments or styles. By maintaining control over infrastructure and finance and practicing a ‘gentle reciprocity’, the many participants could develop their own parallel ‘economy’, less vulnerable to the power of large corporations. This approach is needed to improve security and stability of individual ventures.
6. Explore cosmo-local production
Thanks to the Internet and new forms of digital networking, it is now possible to share design and production knowledge globally while producing locally. First pioneered in open-source software, this approach has now evolved into the production of physical products such as automobiles (Wikispeed car), electronic circuit boards (Arduino), agricultural equipment (Open Source Ecology; Farm Hack), and 3D printing (Fab Labs, makerspaces). Cosmo-local production amounts to an alternative form of ‘globalization’ that allows greater local self-determination and autonomy while reaping the benefits of distributed innovation on a global scale. The dynamics of cosmo-local production are likely to expand as derivative uses of blockchain technology (the software breakthrough used by Bitcoin) transform conventional forms of production and commerce, and social life.
Alternative fashion players should explore the possibilities of developing their own cosmo-local production federations, with commons-style governance and branding identities. Provisioning of garments could be local in ways relying on open source principles: modular, locally responsible, customizable, nonproprietary, and bottom-up driven.
7. Shed archaic vocabularies and learn a commons-friendly language
A major part of the challenge of moving to a commons-based ecosystem for fashion (or another other provisioning) is shedding the almost fundamentalist language of contemporary market capitalism. The vast, diversified world of the commons shows that other social forms of organization and provisioning are entirely possible, beyond those sanctioned by standard economics. But it can be difficult to entertain such ideas when the vocabularies for describing the alternatives are so limited or non-existent.
It is helpful, therefore, to shed some of the market vocabularies that invisibly presume that people respond only to market ‘incentives’; that existing law and policy in effect define the limits of the possible; and that business structures are the only viable option. The world of the commons has developed words such as the ‘Nested-I’ to suggest that individual agency is not the only source of change because all individuals are ‘nested’ within communities that affect their very identities and aspirations. Similarly, the idea of homo economicus and calculative rationality used in standard economics need not be controlling; we have seen how most people welcome the opportunity to show ‘Ubuntu Rationality’, in which their individual well-being is wrapped up in the well-being of others (‘Ubuntu’ roughly translates as ‘I am because we are’.) It helps to see that ‘resources’ are not just commodities defined by their price; they often take the form ‘care wealth’, which suggests that ‘objects’ are cared for and partake in all sorts of social meanings and relationships.
8. Emulate & Federate
Finally, as mentioned earlier, we should not obsess about how to make a new system ‘scale’. Scale—in the sense of a large, unified system that eclipses human needs—is part of the problem. The more appropriate way to have a larger impact is to emulate and federate. As a Dutch designer has put it, “The next big thing will be a lot of small things”. The life of the Internet has shown that smaller-scale projects can still have a large impact, and that voluntary federations and swarms can achieve things that large, centralized systems (bureaucracies, corporations) cannot. The future will emerge from the edge. It won’t be imposed from the centre.
Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons
Trying to imagine fashion as an ecosystem of commons may seem a bit farfetched or utopian. But in truth, all sorts of commons-based experiments are already underway. What is missing is the mutual self-awareness that another system is possible. Missing, too, is a richer vocabulary to collectively make sense of what is occurring and what is possible. Those who aspire to develop new forms and practices of commoning need to develop deeper relationships with each other, and reconnoitre the creative frontier of what could be done.
The examples of other parts of the Commonsverse (agriculture, software, cities, currencies) show that it is possible to shift from a world defined by market identities and property-defined roles to a world of relationality and social practice. Commoning is tremendously generative and value-creating in humane, eco-minded ways, but its achievements and folkways have been denigrated by the dominant market/state system as a ‘tragedy’. That needs to change. As a creative field that thrives by engaging with contemporary culture, fashion should seize the rich, possibilities of this moment.
 This essay is derived from remarks made by David Bollier, Director of the
Reinventing the Commons Project, at Schumacher Center for a New Economics, to
the Fashion Colloquium: Searching for the New Luxury, a conference held in
Arnhem, Netherlands, on 31 May and 1 June 2018.
 Originally, the International Association for the Study of Common Property.
 David Bollier and Laurie Racine, Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of
Creativity (Los Angeles, California: Norman Lear Center, 2005), at
 Orsola de Castro, Fashion Revolution, presentation at the Fashion Colloquium:
Searching for the New Luxury conference, ArtEZ University of the Arts and State of
Fashion, Arnhem, 31 May, 2018.
 David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the
Commons, forthcoming in spring 2019.