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John Thackara | Essays

Letters From Sri Lanka [December 2009]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

Learning from King Parakramabahu — Can fashion be ethical and green? — Lean manufacturing is not light — The true cost of cotton — Fair Trade only for the big? — Forward to price fixing and a guild economy — De-growth in the Palace of the Popes — From Farmville to Transitionville — Edible City the movie — Five books to give this season

During his reign as King of Sri Lanka from 1153–1186, Parakramabahu asserted that "not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man". He went on to construct or restore 165 dams, 3,910 canals, 163 major reservoirs and 2376 minor tanks - all in a reign of 33 years. Parakramabahu started a tradition whereby every Sri Lankan king would build dams; the island now contains more than a thousand; no country in the world contains so much man-made irrigation per square km. True, many of the eighty largest ones, built by foreign contractors using international development finance, would today be frowned on. But the most intense - and indeed sophisticated - fiddling by man with nature took place 1,000 years ago.

More than a million people (out of population of 20 million) work in Sri Lanka's fashion industries, so it's critical to the country’s economy. Companies there face pressure from two sides. Powerful foreign buyers impose ever tighter time and cost constraints. There are also other fashion producing countries, from Turkey to Bangladesh, to whom the big global buyers can and do switch production at a moment's notice, if it will add a bit more to their margins. Squeezed like this, it's impressive that Sri Lanka has resolved to compete on the basis that it's productiuon is ethical and sustainable, not just cheap. The question, how to develop in this direction? was posed to last International Symposium on Ethical Fashion. My contribution was this talk on Fashion in a Green Economy:

Monsoon buys a new collection every month. H+M has a display team that changes its ground floor displays every day; this innovation makes it possible for office workers to browse during their lunch hour, be confronted by new products every time, and often leave with a new garment. One delegate described this iteration of fast fashion as “two wash, two wear”. It’s hardly surprising that in the lifetime of the average British consumer, he or she will throw away an average of twelve thousand pounds worth of fashion purchases without evening opening the bag. The perpetual acceleration of product innovation is enabled by so-called “lean manufacturing”. As practised by the thousands of (mostly women) workers in Sri Lankan factories, the lean system may be lean, but it is not light. Production workers are enabled by enlightened managements to organise production to a degree. But each factory must operate within design parameters, and price points, that are dictated by big foreign companies on behalf of spoiled consumers on the other side of the world. The transport intensity of lean production is also extreme; it is economically viable for the global brands only because they don’t pay the true environmental costs of of things like aviation fuel, which is tax free.

Sri Lanka’s ambition to be ethical and sustainable is also constrained by its reliance on raw materials from other countries. As the Environmental Justice Foundation has reported, over two thirds of the world’s cotton is grown in developing countries and the former Soviet Union. “Valued at over $32 billion every year, global cotton production should be improving lives. But this "white gold" too often brings misery”, they report. Uzbekistan, for example, is the second largest exporter of cotton in the world, selling over 800,000 tonnes of cotton every year. But while the former Soviet Republic is at the forefront of global cotton production, its human rights and environmental record lags far behind the rest of the world. “Forced child labour, human rights violations, excessive pesticide use, the draining of an ocean and severe poverty are all rife in cotton production in Uzbekistan”.

Fair Trade answers some of the misgivings felt by consumers in the North – but it, too, favour bigger producers over smaller ones. The average $2,000 certification fee is the small part; most firms expect to pay external consultants $12-18,00 to help them prepare for certification – a bit like driving lessons. These sums are far beyond the means of most microbusinesses. The stress on small suppliers is so severe that hundreds of them go out business every year. The loss of human and industrial capital is therefore severe and ongoing. A thought occurs: would it be feasible to introduce the peer review processes that assure the quality of so much free software into the fashion ecology?

Kumar Merchandari, a founbder of Garments Without Guilt, told us he was proud that Sri lanka had progressed from being a “nation of tailors” to become a provider of optimised solutions to global labels. I told Kumar that I prefer the idea of a nation of tailors, but recognised that more would need to be done to connect northern consumers with Sri Lankan tailors on an equitable basis. Once disintermediated communications were in place, I can imagine sellers and buyers negotiating fixed prices. Right now , Sri Lankan apparel producers are forbidden by anti-trust law from fixing prices. But it was not always so. As John Michael Greer writes in his blog this month, the medieval guild had the legal responsibility under feudal municipal laws to establish minimum standards for the quality of goods, to regulate working hours and conditions, and to control prices. The economic theory of the time held that there was a “just price” for any good or service. That idea merits a revisit.

A key to equitable exchange in clothing will be transparency during all exchanges in the fashion ecology. The technical platforms for radical transparency exist, and a number of sites (such as Etsy and ThingLink) already connect people who make things, such as crafters, with their customers. The clothing company MADE-BY (based in Copenhagen) is promoting sustainable clothing manufacture using track-and-trace communications. The company enables you to find out who made your T-shirt or skirt, and who picked, spun and wove the cotton.


Is culture something that’s produced to be sold, or a description of the ways people live? It’s an old question, but last month’s Forum d’Avignon, at the Palace of the Popes, put a new spin on it: could the culture industries lead the way out of economic crisis? The Forum came to life with an apostatic riff by Lawrence Lessig on the subject of Remix culture. Along with open source, the free software movement, and so on, Remix is a powerful challenge to the 'read only’ or permission-based culture of mainstream media and culture. Read more at:

If I were a PsyOps specialist at Monsanto, I'd have invented FarmVille. More than 62 million people have signed up to play the Facebook game since it made its debut in June, with 22 million logging on at least once a day. It's quickly become the most popular application in the history of Facebook. FarmVille players outnumber actual farmers in the United States by more than 60 to 1 - and it would be hard to imagine a better way to distract people from re-localising food in real-life. "The whole concept of ‘I’m sick of this modern, urban lifestyle, I wish I could just grow plants and vegetables and watch them grow,’ there is something very therapeutic about that,” said Philip Tan, director of the Singapore-M.I.T. Gambit Game Lab. Sad but true. Read more at:

Edible City is a forthcoming documentary from East Bay Pictures about “folks who are digging their hands into the dirt, fighting for sustainability and social justice by doing something truly revolutionary: growing a local food system”. The East Bay Pictures team needs to raise $5,000 to finish the film by March.


I submitted a bunch of suggestions to Core 77 for their Holiday Gift Guide - among them, the books that follow. But there 77 other ideas at Core 77 - not all of them quite so serious: enjoy!

Stories and sketches, depictions of vanished ways of life, told from the point of view of a contemporary observer. It tells how people lived in Japan some 200 years ago during the late Edo period, when traditional technology and culture were at the peak of development, just before the country opened itself to the West and joined the ranks of the industrialized nations. Only a few centuries earlier, the country had been on the brink of disaster, its environment pushed to the edge through overly aggressive use of natural resources. “Just Enough” is about a mentality that once pervaded Japanese society and tcan serve as a beacon for our own efforts to achieve sustainability today.

"What are we to do about an economic system that destroys the biosphere for economic reasons? What would a politics based on wellbeing be like?” David Boyle and Andrew Simms propose a new approach that turns our assumptions about wealth and poverty upside down: Real wealth, they explain, can be measured by increased well-being and environmental sustainability rather than just having and consuming more things.

An interpretation of Gaia and some of its connections and systems. The book explains that the planet is a vast living interconnected system, not the dead, mechanical object that many 19th and 20th Century philosophers and scientists in the West have based their ideas upon. Stephan Harding writes beautifully about the science arising from systems theory. The book finally Gaiad me.

Some 50 million Americans were too poor to guarantee being able to put food on the table in 2008; that number is a good deal higher this year. This new book by Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins, and Tamzin Pinkerton, explores a huge range of local food initiatives for rebuilding a diverse, resilient local food network – including community gardens, farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture schemes and projects in schools – and includes all the information you will need to get ideas off the ground. In today’s culture of supermarkets and food miles, an explosion of activity at community level is urgently needed. This book is the ideal place to start.

I like Sally Hammond’s description of this as “a coffee table book without the pretty pictures”. Forbidden Places – An unusual exploration of a forgotten heritage is the result of 10 years of work during which Sylvain Margaine travelled the world in search of abandoned and forgotten places - from the 1936 Berlin Olympic village to some terrific ex-nuclear facilities. I’m confident that readers of this newsletter will be triggered to seek out these places, stage events in them, or even go and live in them. It’s a fantastic catalogue of opportunities for architectural re-use.


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