Achieving Sustainability

photo credit: Jason Matz of smugmug

As a creative, a maker and a business owner, I aim for my work to address both ethics and sustainability. Both material processes and community relationships need to be considered to develop a well rounded approach. This is the first part of the discussion, with the second part to look at how Silk and Sword can engage with ethics.


I've done a decent amount of research into good fibres and hides for long wear and minimal eco-footprints, and have come to rest on wool, hemp, jute, sisal and linen, kangaroo hide, and the odd vegetable tanned cow hide where the skin was a byproduct from the meat industry. Incidentally, most kangaroo hides are also byproducts with meat being the primary market.

Wool and other shorn fibres - so long as the animals are treated well and not bred into discomfort to increase production - are a renewable resource with good insulation and comfort properties, and no need to kill the animal. Environmental impact comes from field area and maintenance, sheep health with pesticide baths etc, and the fibre cleaning process using a fair amount of water. Modern methods have greatly reduced the amount of water used in washing. For the quality of fibre, personally it feels ok to provide for a happy mob of sheep (or alpacas) in exchange for growing their winter coats and giving them summer haircuts. There may be details I'm unaware of which could make this a more complicated issue than I think.

Hemp, Linen and other textiles made from plant bast fibres are often naturally resistant to pests, require less water to grow than cotton, and only *require* water for retting to extract useful fibre. The remaining processes to create cloth are largely mechanical. Careful introduction of chemicals can reduce retting waste and increase the ease of working with the fibres mechanically, however it may also increase waste and toxic components in favour of reducing processing time. Dew retting in fields is slow but the most environmentally friendly option, with the rotted plant material returning to the ground - whereas water retting if done in natural water bodies can increase nutrient deposits which in turn encourages algae growth and can suffocate the native ecosystem. To find suppliers of cloth made from various bast fibres is not as easy as choosing a processing method and sticking behind it. Choosing a low impact fibre source does help get on the right track, however.

On this note, we move on to choice of hide. Kangaroos are valuable, as I've previously noted, but on continuing to research I was only further reassured that they were a good choice. As a meat source, kangaroos do not produce methane, wihch makes them a more sustainable option than beef, in addition to a more abrasion-resistant source of leather. The Australian government mandates how many may be culled (or harvested) each year. Culls are mandated regardless of commercial use, in order to reduce kangaroos' high grazing pressure on land, which in turn allows a balanced native ecosystem to thrive. Too much grazing can mean some plant species are left at risk. This is part of why kangaroos are given the status of a pest population. The tough part comes next. They must be killed in the wild, by a lethal head shot, administered by a screened and licensed hunter who must then tag the animal. No butcher or tannery in Australia is allowed to accept any kangaroo which has no tag. This process helps verify certified hunting practices and monitoring of tightly controlled kangaroo population numbers. Harvest limits are set by the government each year after accounting for factors such as drought, to ensure the kangaroo population itself remains healthy.

Lastly, I use some acrylic sheet in my work to make hand-stitched rocking boxes. Acrylic is one of the easiest plastics to recycle, is very strong, and interestingly has a good UV filtering capacity. As a design element, it allows me to really contrast the rugged, flexible nature of leather with crisp, transparent and metallic structures. The alternate material of timber does not provide the same crystal transparency and contrast. For my designs, acrylic is laser cut into shape, as is leather. All materials that I put into the laser cutter need to be checked for their composition, to ensure that being burnt does not release toxic off-gasses. Chrome tanned leathers release lethal chlorine gas, so I handcut any chrome-tanned outsorts I work with. To improve this process, my next step is to fit a filter to the exhaust, to collect smoke particles as physical waste rather than releasing it back into the atmosphere.

And so the adventures in sustainability continue!
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