Spring 2017

Society and Culture

. . . Or Do Without

Alice Abler

What can we do—collectively and, just as importantly, individually—to ensure that the earth’s resources will still be available for future generations?

Eat it up. Wear it out. Make it do. That was Lidian Emerson’s advice, according to an early-20th-century pamphlet titled “Stretching Your Dollar.” It’s a sentiment often tied to the traditional New England frugality that she reflected. Lidian, the second wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson, lived those ideals, reworking clothing and carpets and teaching others to do the same.

It’s no surprise that the Emerson family history is intertwined with that of Henry David Thoreau, who tutored the children and even lived with them from time to time. On land owned by the Emersons, Thoreau built a cabin by a pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and extolled a more-Spartan-than-Spartan existence. Walden, the ensuing book, earned him a place in history for his literary prowess and, for many, a reputation as one of the fathers of American conservationism.

Nearly two centuries have passed since the Emersons and Thoreau told us, in no uncertain terms, to live simply and make do. That’s a tiny fraction of the entire human experience, but during that time, our rate of consumption has skyrocketed in ways the early residents of Concord could never have imagined.

Take, Make, Dispose

A current author, science writer Julian Cribb, believes that humankind’s careless treatment of resources is one of 10 intersecting forces threatening our survival as a species. He warns, “Till now the bounty of the Earth was ample to sustain the ascent of human society”; but “with the advent of the postmodern era, a Rubicon has been crossed: the physical demands of seven to ten billion humans, each aspiring to a higher standard of living, are combining to exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity. Put simply, we are using more stuff than the planet can renewably provide” (Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them).

Not only does this “stuff” deplete our resources at the beginning of its life cycle, but with today’s typical linear economy, it turns into waste, and then we begin again with fresh materials. Cribb explains how this endangers our collective future on several fronts: “through pollution and the poisoning of both planet and people, through the degradation of vital natural systems including fresh water, soils, forests, biota, the atmosphere and oceans, through the economic and political instability which scarcity engenders and through the conflicts it ignites.” Clearly, this pattern cannot be sustained.

Today’s linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy, and is a model that is reaching its physical limits.”

Ellen Macarthur Foundation, “Circular Economy Overview”

Rethinking our approach on a global level involves stopping (or at the very least, slowing down) the depletion of resources. At a time when fads and fashion demand rapid turnover and many manufactured products seem to have a built-in planned obsolescence, the most logical first step toward slowing down resource depletion is to extend the life of the products made from these materials.

Resources of Tomorrow

Ideally this approach would start with the design of a product, with an eye toward longevity, repairability and reuse, and a plan for eventual end-of-life disassembly and recycling of its materials. This essential part of a “closed loop” or “circular economy” model has been discussed since the late 1970s, notably by architect Walter Stahel, who called for replacing the open-ended “cradle-to-grave” design with a closed “cradle-to-cradle” alternative. Stahel cofounded the Product-Life Institute in his home country of Switzerland in 1982, researching and consulting on sustainability through product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention.

An important aspect is for vendors to sell services rather than products. In his book The Performance Economy, Stahel extols the economic, ecologic and social advantages of this approach. “The Performance Economy,” he says, “shifts economic thinking from ‘doing things right’ to ‘doing the right things.’” This includes eco-friendly design, clean production processes that reduce environmental impact, and a complete life-cycle management approach in which the owner of the goods retains responsibility throughout. “Doing the right thing” may carry connotations of sacrifice, but Stahel asserts that the retained ownership of goods entails high resource security and competitiveness. Lower use of raw materials creates value: “the goods of today are the resources of tomorrow at yesterday’s prices.” Ideally the cycle continues with the rebirth of the salvaged materials into a new product, thereby reaching beyond “cradle-to-cradle” to achieve a “grave-to-cradle” transformation.

The modern trend of paying for performance or use is gaining traction around the world. It’s not a completely new idea, as subscription libraries and membership clubs with similar foundations have existed for centuries. But today, that idea is expanding to a larger-scale circular economy model.

As an example, lighting giant Philips owns the lighting fixtures and installations in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, and Schiphol pays for the light it uses. According to Philips, the lighting fixtures “will last 75 percent longer than other conventional fixtures [and] the fixture components can be individually replaced. This will reduce maintenance costs and means that the entire fixture does not have to be recycled, resulting in the greatest possible reduction in raw material consumption.” This “pay-per-lux” model is also found in some areas of the United States and the United Kingdom on a commercial level.

Access over ownership for individuals is possible and popular via such services as Zipcar, RTR and bicycle rentals throughout many cities across the globe. Each one operates under the umbrella of a corporation that retains ownership of the goods. With other services, such as Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, individuals own the goods and share them with others through an umbrella company. Either way, the user is freed of the responsibility of ownership and eventual disposal.

Disposal Diversion

The way that eventual disposal is handled is crucial to our chances of survival. Cribb asserts that one solution to resource scarcity is recycling and reuse. For thousands of years, humankind has simply been extracting materials from the planet for creating and manufacturing, but now it’s time to rethink that process. We are using our resources much faster than the earth can replace them. Cribb implores us to replace the “extractive era” with the “age of reuse.” Recycling is helpful—it slows the depletion of resources—but there’s a certain amount of loss each time something is recycled. Reuse and reclamation, however, divert disposal and waste while eliminating the need for tapping into fresh resources.

A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.”

Ellen Macarthur Foundation, “Circular Economy Overview”

Echoing Cribb is Ted Reiff, president of The ReUse People of America (TRP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to salvaging and distributing reusable building materials: “Our mission is to keep reusable lumber and fixtures from clogging overburdened landfills—not an easy goal in a thriving consumer society. Demolition is simply cheaper and more expedient, but the energy savings and reduced pollution make reuse a more responsible option. Embodied energy is saved, and fewer new products need to be manufactured. Materials salvaged for reuse are exempt from processes that produce pollutants, such as incineration.” TRP has conducted workshops geared toward the deconstruction of abandoned buildings or entire blighted neighborhoods on a city level. Reiff understands that there’s pressure for cities to look only at the bottom line but emphasizes the community, environmental and financial benefits of deconstruction. “When entities within a political subdivision collaborate, smaller amounts of money can be assembled to promote deconstruction on an ongoing basis.” There is no doubt that he is passionate about this cause. His plea for deconstruction on a grand scale ends with “If you need more convincing, please call me!”

Bringing awareness of the benefits of reusing and reclaiming materials to our “thriving consumer society” requires education. Today the recycling of cans, bottles and paper is encouraged in elementary classrooms, while classes in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and sustainability are an established part of modern university architecture programs.

Learning to Lighten the Load

Relatively recent awareness of the impact of textiles and clothing on the environment illuminates a need for change in that area as well. On a consumer level, buying and disposing of “fast fashion” takes a surprising toll, even with well-sourced materials. The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) Association explains that 95 percent of textiles (including clothing and shoes) can be reused or recycled, yet in America alone, 26 billion pounds (nearly 12 billion kilograms) of these materials end up in landfills each year.

Linear economy

According to the 2016 “State of Reuse Report” commissioned by thrift retailers Savers/Value Village, North American consumers throw away about 81 pounds or 37 kilograms of clothing per person each year (again, nearly all of it could be recycled). While a third of those who opt to throw away used goods say they do so simply because it’s easier than donating, the report identifies a lack of education as a major factor. Many people believe their used clothes and household items have no value and wouldn’t be accepted at donation centers because they are worn out, stained, torn or broken; but a majority say they are more likely to donate textiles and other goods for reuse or recycling after learning about the devastating environmental impact of irresponsible disposal. A number of donation centers in fact do accept goods regardless of their condition. What can’t be assigned for reuse can often be recycled: worn out and stained textiles, for example, may become cleaning rags, or they may come back to life in the form of paper, yarn, insulation or carpet padding, says SMART.

Many universities are members of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Among them is California’s Woodbury University, which started a fashion program in the 1930s. Woodbury sees sustainability as the future of fashion and is encouraging students to learn about reuse, repurposing, sustainability and sourcing. Anna Leiker, chair in the Department of Fashion Design, is clearly excited about the progress. Her eyes light up as she tells Vision, “In alignment with social changes, our students are working on zero-waste projects in the sophomore level, and we’re offering a Fashion Repurposing class in the fall semester.” Students are encouraged to explore sustainable options, creatively incorporating reclaimed materials—even woven fabrics made from discarded plastic grocery bags and strips of torn denim—into their projects, with great success. Such seeds planted in young people’s imagination will undoubtedly grow and help educate others, eventually shrinking the ecological footprint of textiles and clothing.

Circular economy

The resources we have been privileged to access—that which is needed to produce even necessities like textiles, building materials and other goods—are all interconnected. What we do at the beginning and end of the lifecycles of our stuff has far-reaching effects on those resources, and we have been abusing our privileges. It’s clear that we must change our thinking and our methods.

A Return to Frugality

Cribb offers hope for humanity, saying we can find ways to abate resource depletion before it’s too late. More than anything else, he makes a plea for a collective return to thrift, reusing and reclaiming everything possible and generally living like our grandparents did.

Can we fix our problems by simply returning to the thrifty ways of simpler times? To some extent we can. But our world today—and our stuff—is far more complicated than that of our predecessors.

During wartime in the last century, civilians were urged to plant gardens, compost, mend clothing, repair broken goods, and recycle paper, metal, rubber, bones and even fats. Posters urged people to “make do and mend,” to join car clubs to save gasoline, and to practice conservation. These frugal habits are all valuable today, and we can extend the principles to accommodate modern technology.

But the point isn’t to live like our grandparents or even our great-grandparents lived. We must redirect our current linear economy (take, make, dispose) and become a circular economy (cradle-to-cradle, closed loop). We must go even beyond the “eating it up, wearing it out, making it do” of the 1800s. Early in the 20th century, that saying evolved into “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Today, we’re seeing the consequences of our ignoring these rules of thrift: if we don’t protect the precious resources entrusted to us, we will be forced to do without. There will be nothing left.