Exercise 2: Sustainability and transparency

For Exercise 2 I have chosen the first option which asks to find an object or product that has been marketed as environmentally sound, ethically produced, green or sustainable in some way, and investigate if these characteristics can be ascertained for example by means of an examination of the object, the manufacture’s website or in other ways.

I’m going to try to learn something more about a toquilla straw bag made in Ecuador that I have recently bought. Here are some snapshots taken with my mobile phone, showing the front, the back, the inside and some details of my straw clutch (Fig. 1).

I have bought my bag online and it came wrapped in tissue paper, without an individual package. Besides the fabric label glued inside, which reads ‘SENSISTUDIO made in Ecuador’, it had two paper tags attached (Figs. 2, 3) printed back and front.

Figure. My clutch bought from SensiStudio™




Figures 2, 3. Paper tags removed from the clutch

I have first taken a good look at the paper tags and the information included.


Material used: 100% natural fibre carludovica palmata, so-called ‘toquilla straw’, which is also used to weave original Panama hats

Manufacturing processes: hand-weaving, each bag takes approximately 3 days to weave, manual colour dyeing

Workers: mostly women organized in small weaving labs living in indigenous communities around the Andes regions from Ecuador

Social responsibility: it is expressly said that the company takes ‘a strong social responsibility’ and the artisans are given ‘the best remuneration for their work’

From a close look at the clutch it is clear that it is manually hand-woven as stated since the weaving shows slight irregularities. Both the black big dots and the grey-white circles seem to have been hand-painted very probably in acrylics. The white lining in the inside – whose composition is not indicated on the tags – looks like a machine-woven cotton or cotton-mixture textile and has been machine stitched. The green colour seems to have been obtained from a synthetic dye, not a natural dye.

From my visit to the SensiStudio™ website:


(accessed 11/07/2017)

I did not get any additional information as to the manufacturing processes and the working conditions.

As far as sustainability is concerned, it is not said where and how the ‘toquilla straw’ is grown and the farming methods used. The adoption of social sustainability criteria is clearly declared: working methods have not been industrialized and artisans still work together in small weaving organizations in their own local communities as they used to do traditionally. It is also stated that artisans are given ‘the best remuneration for their work’ even if this is not further specified.

Given the information available, I have no reason to believe that the labeling is not accurate but sustainability issues could arise during the stage of growing/farming the straw and especially during the process of dyeing – water consumption, pollution of rivers, toxicity of synthetic dyes.

Out of curiosity I did  some additional research online on the materials and the processes used in Ecuador for the manufacturing of the traditional Panama hats from the ‘toquilla straw’ and soon discovered that they are misnamed since they are not made in Panama but in Ecuador.

In 2012 the art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists (Wikipedia). On that occasion the UNESCO produced a video illustrating how the toquilla straw hats are woven from fibres from a palm tree of the Ecuadorian coast. It explains how the farmers cultivate the toquillales and harvest the stems before separating the fibre from the outer skin. Then the fibre is boiled to remove chlorophyll and dried for bleaching. Using this fibre, weavers produce the pattern, the crown and the brim of the hat and complete the process by washing, bleaching, oven treatment, ironing and pressing. Weaving a hat can take from one day to eight months, depending on its quality and finesse.

These processes seem to be socially sustainable but certainly can generate environmental issues at the bleaching and the dyeing stages.

At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05SVODoIg4s

(Accessed 10/07/2017)



(Accessed 10/07/2017)

The Tropical Development and Research Institute published a handbook on the dyeing of leaves and straws for the local craft instructors. The book does not specifically deal with the dyeing of Ecuadorian toquilla straw, but is certainly an interesting read about the process. Here is the cover of the book (available online as PDF) and of the link:


Cover Image

At: http://www.nzdl.org/gsdlmod?e=d-00000-00—off-0cdl–00-0—-0-10-0—0—0direct-10—4——-0-1l–11-en-50—20-about—00-0-1-00-0–4—-0-0-11-10-0utfZz-8-00&a=d&c=cdl&cl=CL1.222&d=HASHd1744f5d5bfb50180f20ae (Accessed 10/07/2017)


Sustainability examples and initiatives

Creative Arts (pages 186-7) mentions some artists who take a sustainable approach in their work and interesting initiatives and projects in favour of sustainability in design, manufacturing and use of products.

Jane Atfield

Artist website at: http://www.janeatfield.com/

(Accessed 10/07/2017)

High density polyethylene (HDPE), from the designer website


Jane Atfield is a British designer who is interested in reinterpreting discarded objects and finding a new function for them. In 1993 she set up a company – MADE OF WASTE – which pioneered the recycling of plastics  – from plastic bottles to yogurt pots – turning them into sheets which could then be assembled into pieces of furniture.


Laura Anne Marsden

Artist website at: http://www.lauramarsdenlace.com/

(Accessed 10/07/2017)

Eternal Lace Wedding Dress

Eternal Lace Wedding Dress, created using waste plastic bags, from the artist website

Laura Marsden is a textile designer who develops and promotes recycled textiles. She uses waste plastic bags and through a combination of hand-stitch and needle lace-making – a technique inspired by historical costumes – creates textiles than can be sculpted and used to make one-off pieces of wearable art and wall hung creations.


Textiles Environment Design (TED)

Association website at: http://www.tedresearch.net/

(Accessed 10/07/2017)




TED is a team of textile designers and researchers that has been developing a set of practice-based sustainable design strategies – a set of ten criteria – aimed at helping designers in creating textiles with a reduced impact on the environment. They are really an inspiration not only to textile artists but to designers working in all sorts of materials. I have printed them and shall certainly use them in my future as a very useful reference. The site is also rich in resources, news and updates. A real find!


Leon Kaye, ‘Clothing to dye for: the textile sector must confront water risks’ (2013) In: TheGuardian 12.08.2013 [online] At:


(Accessed 10/07/2017)

This is an interesting article focused on dying practices in the textile industry that can pose serious sustainability issues both for the environment and the local communities, especially in countries like India and China, since not only the local dye houses exhaust available water supplies but also dump untreated wastewater into streams and rivers, with dramatic consequences for the local communities.

In looking for ways to mitigate such massive waste of water one important answer is certainly the mechanisation of the industry. Waterless dying would be ideal for polyester but cannot be used for natural fibres such as cotton and wool, for which a huge progress would be instead to drastically reduce water consumption.

Several companies are developing low-water and waterless technologies like ColorZen (http://www.colorzen.com/) and AirDye (http://www.debscorp.com/en/airdye-technology/) while a large company like Adidas is researching dying which uses compressed CO2 with the cooperation of a supplier in Thailand. Also Levi’s, Nike, Ikea and H&M are taking some for the time timid initiatives in this direction.

However, according to this article, ‘as long as companies do not pay a price for the land and water their suppliers poison’ the abuse of water and poisoning of the local streams and rivers will continue.


Thomas Thwaites, ‘The Toaster Project’


(Accessed 11/07/2017)


(Accessed 11/07/2017)

Video from: https://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_thwaites_how_i_built_a_toaster_from_scratch

(Accessed 11/07/2017)

In this project Thomas Thwaites, in his own words ‘a designer (of a more speculative sort), interested in technology, science, futures research & etc.’ documents his almost heroic effort to make a cheap electric toaster from scratch by personally sourcing all materials – mining and working metals, making his own plastic and so on – and so experimented how even the manufacturing of a very basic object is extremely complex and involves a very high number of hidden processes that we tend to take for granted. Almost every product and object could be analysed in this way and its sustainability investigated through the different stages of design and manufacture.

(Accessed 11/07/2017)




Exercise 1: Sustainability

How would you define ‘sustainability’?


I think that this image taken from Wikipedia illustrates well the three basic aspects that must be taken into account when speaking about sustainability: environment – society – economy –  the so-called three ‘pillars’ or three ‘legs’ of sustainability.

To be sustainable a product has be made according to environmentally, socially and economically sound methods.

Environmental sustainability may be described as an interaction with the environment that avoids the depletion or degradation of natural resources and allows for the preservation of the environment in the long term. This involves a responsible use of natural resources, the limitation of hazardous substances, the reduction of wastes and of the emissions released into the environment, thus ensuring that the environment is preserved for future generations.

Social sustainability focuses on the development of mutually beneficial relationships among workers, customers and the community at large and requires the establishment of practices that do not exploit people or have a negative impact on workers or communities.

Economic sustainability refers to a production that is run according to criteria of business efficiency, productivity and profit.


In what contexts is sustainability an issue? Think more broadly here – not just textiles – and write a list.

There are several areas of human activities in which sustainability can represent an issue. I have done some research online and these are some of the contexts in which sustainable approaches can be used:

Management of natural resources: the management of natural resources is perhaps the first and most fundamental area to explore when discussing sustainability, since all areas of human activity are involved with the their management or mismanagement. Natural resources can be defined as all raw materials coming from the Earth that mankind cannot produce but can only use to produce secondary products, such as air, water, sunlight, plants, land, animals. A sustainable development can be obtained only with a responsible use of natural resources that can satisfy the needs of mankind without compromising those of future generations. Natural resources can be classified according to several methods, one of them being their non-renewability or renewability. Renewable are those resources that can be – within limits – naturally replenished, like sunlight, air, wind, water, while non-renewable are those resources that cannot be renewed or that can be renewed only very slowly like minerals and fossil fuels.

Agriculture:  getting more specific, sustainability in this area aims at preserving the ecosystem by studying the relationships between living beings and their environment. The expression ‘sustainable agriculture’ has been in use since the Eighties when it was defined as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term” by the Australian scientist McClymont in his book New Roots for Agriculture.

Sustainability in agriculture focuses on satisfying human food and fibre needs, enhancing the environment quality,  making an efficient use of non-renewable resources such as natural gas, protecting the economic viability of farming and the life quality of farmers and communities.

It can be obtained for example by the use of farming methods that protect the environment by rotating crops, reducing the reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, diminishing the waste of water, selecting drought-tolerant species.

Forestry: sustainability in forestry implies the regulation of forest resources to meet the needs of communities like obtaining wood as a source of fuel, for the construction industry and for manufacturing paper while preserving the forest in the long term since forests are a key element to capture and store carbon dioxide and maintain the water cycle.

Trades and industries: all manufacturing and business activities have to deal in different ways with the use of natural resources and the impact on the environment for example in relation to the management of wastes and the use of pollutants. For every trade it is possible to analyse how to obtain a sustainable production or service throughout all the different stages.

Consumption habits: this huge area involves a use of products and services that minimizes negative impacts on the environment and the communities. It deals for instance with water and energy consumption, transportation of goods and people, development of alternative fuel sources, use of environmentally-friendly products.


How do you think sustainability might be addressed in relation to the production and consumption of textiles and other manufactured products? Use the stages of the life cycle to help you with this question.

Sustainability issues – social, economic and environmental – vary from sector to sector, so they should be ascertained and studied on a case to case basis.

I am personally involved with textiles, jewellery and ceramic making so I shall try to pinpoint some sustainability implications at the different life cycle stages taking textiles as an example.


Stage 1 – Agriculture/raw fibre production:

  • choice of sustainable materials like natural fibres (cotton, hemp …) over non-sustainable ones like synthetic fibres derived from petroleum like polyester, nylon
  • within natural fibres preference given to more sustainable ones: for instance hemp, bamboo, soy have a lower environmental impact than cotton
  • reduction of water consumption and/or waste
  • reduction of use of pesticides by using for instance ladybugs as natural pest control in farming
  • growth of naturally coloured cotton varieties in order to avoid as much as possible synthetic dying of fibres
  • innovation through development of eco-friendly fibres such as: 100% biodegrable cellulose fibres for a cradle-to-cradle cycle of reuse, Qmilk fibres made from the industrial milk industry wastes (Qmilk GmbH), yarns from used ground coffee beans (S.Café® brand)


Stage 2-6 – Ginning/carding and spinning – Weaving/knitting – Processing – Manufacturing

  • High electricity usage may generate increase of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Choice of renewable energies over fossil fuels to generate power
  • Reuse/recycle of waste materials obtained during manufacturing processes
  • Reuse/recycle of water
  • Reduction of use of chemicals, hazardous substances and pollutants in manufacturing processes
  • Limitation of worker exposure to extreme heat, chemicals, dust and pollutants to avoid health issues on workplace
  • Specialized training for workers operating machinery or handling chemicals to increase security levels


Stage 7 – Distribution/retail

  • transportation issues involving generation of traffic, pollution and emissions
  • issues regarding packaging: reduction of non-recyclable wastes


Stage 8 – Use/consumption and end of life

  • use of biodegradable detergents and non-toxic cleaners
  • use of recycled PET plastics to make textiles
  • recycling of discarded clothing by donating to charities, selling to consignment shop or reusing to make new clothes.




all accessed 9-10/07/2017

Research point: Stages of textile product life cycle

A textile product life cycle in stages

For this Research Point I’m taking the life cycle of a cotton product as an example. The stages are based on those identified by Creative Arts Today at page 184.


Stage 1 – Agriculture/raw fibre production

The cotton seeds are planted into a frost-free fairly heavy soil, in sunny conditions with moderate rainfall,  and in around 8 weeks the cotton bolls tear open and the cotton is ready to be harvested on the grown plants that are treated as annuals.


Stage 2 – Ginning

The harvested cotton is fed into a cotton gin, a machine that separates the fibres from the seeds, a process that for thousands of years has been done manually. The ginned cotton is called lint and it is then pressed into large bales and transported to the textile mill.

Image of a gin machine from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_gin


Stage 3 – Carding and spinning

In the textile mill the bales are picked apart and fed into a carding machine that disentangles, cleans and intermixes them to produce a continuous web or sliver of cotton and thus prepare them for spinning.


Image of a carding machine from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carding



The carding is followed by the spinning, a process the turns the sliver into a twisted yarn. Before the invention of the spinning wheel, for thousands of years the fibre has been spun manually using the spindle and distaff.


Stage 4 – Construction of the fabric by weaving/knitting

Once it is formed the yarn can either be processed at this stage – for example it can be dyed – or it can be used to construct a textile most often by weaving or knitting and be processed at a later stage.

Weaving is a method of textile production in which threads or yarns are interlaced at right angles to form a fabric. Traditionally the longitudinal threads – the warp – were fixed to a wooden frame – a loom – and by means of a shuttle the lateral threads – the weft – were interlaced back and forth across the loom forming a fabric or cloth.

Alternatively the cloth can be formed by knitting either by hand or by machine – a method of construction using a series of needles to interlock loops of yarn.









Stage 5 – Processing

The yarns or the constructed fabrics can be further processed by cleaning, bleaching, dying, printing, treated to enhance special performance characteristics like water repellency, flame resistance and others or otherwise finished to alter the look and feel.


Stage 6 – Manufacturing

At this stage the fabric or cloth is cut and sewn to make a garment, which can then be further decorated through stitching, embroidery and other numerous methods of embellishment to produce the final product.


Stage 7 – Distribution/retail

The final product is shipped to distribution warehouses and retail outlets by using different means of transportation.


Stage 8 – Use/consumption and end of life

The product is purchased and enters in its use stage, where it is worn and washed repeatedly until it is disposed of as waste or recycled.


In the cotton industry as in the other crafts and industries dealing with the manufacturing of products, all stages can bring their own issues of sustainability, which shall be the focus of the next posts of Project 1.


Internet sources used in research

All accessed 5/07/2015



















Material life cycle and stages of textile product life cycle

Some key words to consider when we speak of the material life cycle not only of textiles,  but of any other product that is designed, manufactured and marketed, are: wastefulness, longevity, individual consumption.

Limiting ourselves to textiles, but the process could be applied to every other product, it may be useful to break down the material life of a textile into its various stages of creation and consumption, for example a woven cotton textile:

(From Creative Arts Today, page 184):

  1. Agriculture/raw fibre production: let’s say cotton
  2. Ginning
  3. Spinning
  4. Weaving
  5. Processing
  6. Stitching
  7. Distribution/retail
  8. Use/consumption and end of life




Introduction to Project 1: The life cycle of textiles and materials

Project 1 is an introduction to studying textiles in their journey from cradle to grave or better from cradle to cradle, so within the frame of one of the two main themes of this course, time, and with regard to the concept of sustainability.

Textiles are split into two very broad areas of study, constructed textiles and printed textiles, which in turn include a whole variety of making and decorating techniques.

Constructed textiles include textiles made by means of knitting, weaving, bonding fibres to name just the most important methods, but many others could be named, i.e. crocheting, knotting, felting (a method of bonding) , and very recently also 3D printing.

Printed textiles can broadly comprise other decorative or altering textile techniques such as embroidery, laminating, coating and many others that I shall have a chance to explore later on.

For a basic introduction to textiles Wikipedia comes as usual very useful:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textile (Accessed 3/07/2017)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textile_manufacturing (Accessed 3/07/2017)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_clothing_and_textiles (Accessed 3/07/2017)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_textile_manufacturing (Accessed 3/07/2017)