transparent visualizations and toxic fashions

Description

As an anthropologist interested in sustainable fashion, my research is broadly focused on the study of objects and materiality through the intersection of design, economics, and law. For this project, I focus on the ways in which the toxicity of the contemporary fashion industry is called out, or queried, through practices of visualization. As an industry that relies on transnational production processes, visualization is a key strategy used by advocates to document the social and environmental impacts of (fast) fashion. However, it is also an increasingly important tool by which self-declared “conscious” companies distinguish their work. To this end, I am drawn to the paradoxical role of visualization as a key means by which the challenges (and progress) in establishing a more sustainable fashion industry are made transparent. In this essay I include images from advertisements and branding campaigns of fashion companies that comment on the sustainability of their work in juxtaposition with the imagery found in journalism. In addition, I include original photographs of garments that challenge how we think about the permeation of toxicity in fashion. Through these images my goal is to query why visualization is privileged as the medium by which sustainability is made transparent.  

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transparent visualizations and toxic fashions

As an anthropologist interested in sustainable fashion, my research is broadly focused on the study of objects and materiality through the intersection of design, economics, and law. For this project, I focus on the ways in which the toxicity of the contemporary fashion industry is called out, or queried, through practices of visualization. As an industry that relies on transnational production processes, visualization is a key strategy used by advocates to document the social and environmental impacts of (fast) fashion. However, it is also an increasingly important tool by which self-declared “conscious” companies distinguish their work. To this end, I am drawn to the paradoxical role of visualization as a key means by which the challenges (and progress) in establishing a more sustainable fashion industry are made transparent. In this essay I include images from advertisements and branding campaigns of fashion companies that comment on the sustainability of their work in juxtaposition with the imagery found in journalism. In addition, I include original photographs of garments that challenge how we think about the permeation of toxicity in fashion. Through these images my goal is to query why visualization is privileged as the medium by which sustainability is made transparent.

Found Image: “Your Clothing is Toxic”: Mass Media and the Interpellation of the Fashion Consumer

Substantive Caption: I chose this cover art from Adam Matthews’ (2015) Newsweek reporting on the environmental degradation caused by garment dyeing in India because of the role it played in igniting a conversation about the environmental footprint of our clothing. Designed by Oliver Munday, the neon color palette of this image visualizes the chemical and toxic implications of garment dyeing processes. Moreover, the juxtaposition of pink and green speaks to the particular vulnerabilities of women and the environment in the fashion industry. The ‘melting’ of a green t-shirt suspended from a hanger signifies the chemical composition of the majority of contemporary (and presumably the reader’s) clothing. The black and yellow emblem on the front of the shirt is a recognized symbol of hazard (though it represents ionized radiation in particular).

Design Statement: 

Drawing on the work of Althusser, I am interested in the way in which images address and interpellate viewers as a particular kind of subject within a system of power. Here, how does a combination of image and text (in addition to visual enhancements such as a neon color palette) work to interpellate the viewer to recognize their complicity in the environmental implications of toxic fashion?

SOURCE

Matthews, Adam. 2015. “Toxic Fashion: The Environmental Crisis in Your Closet.” Cover art by Oliver Munday. Newsweek Magazine, November 10, 2018. https://www.newsweek.com/2015/08/21/environmental-crisis-your-closet-362409.html

Found Image: The Ref Scale: A Consumer’s Guide to Measuring Environmental “Savings” in Fashion

Substantive Caption: This is an image from the LA-based fashion brand, Reformation. Reformation is a self-defined fast-fashion company that prides itself for focusing on sustainability in the fashion industry. In their signature slogan they claim that “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” I chose this images because it is representative of the ways in which Reformation markets its vision and version of sustainable fashion to its consumer base. This image reveals the company’s well-know “Ref Scale” - a quantitative representation of each garment’s environmental impact. The Ref Scale focuses on three major concerns in the garment industry: water, carbon dioxide, and waste. For each Reformation garment, the company provides an ‘environmental savings’ analysis through this scale by indicating the amount of water, CO2, and waste that was “saved” by purchasing a Ref garment (compared to industry standards). This information exists as a personalized dashboard for customers to track their environmental savings for each garment they purchase.

Design Statement: 

I chose this image because I am interested in how toxicity, or perhaps toxic savings, is quantified within the fashion industry. In particular, what are the ways in which (positive) impact is measured and distilled among fashion producers and consumers? How does sustainability constitute or engender particular forms of value in fashion? This advertisement is especially interesting to me because of the ways in which numbers - which here signify sustainability - are embedded within a photograph that highlights and draws upon a particular ideology of a healthy environment (such as clear, blue skies) and human/environment relations (bare feet as a signifier of being close to nature, white as a sign of purity).

SOURCE

Abrams, Margaret. 2016. “Reformation’s Eco-Friendly Perks Program Is Even Better Than Earth Day T-Shirts.” Photo Courtesy Reformation. Observer, November 14, 2018. https://observer.com/2016/04/reformations-eco-friendly-perks-program-is-even-better-than-earth-day-t-shirts/.  

The Toxic Waste on Your Back

Caption Statement: This image is meant to bring to the fore the layering of toxicity in our contemporary moment. In particular, it speaks to our dependence on petrolium and the lifecycle(s) of plastic. Here, the viewer is presented with a photograph of a black women's puffer jacket from the online retailer Everlane in the plastic bag from which it was shipped. The viewer is immediately confronted with text printed on the polybag that reads "This ia a poly bag. Almost every manufactured good that ships from a factory comes in one. This one is made from reycled plastic. Please recycle it again." Within the poly bag, though, the Everlane jacket itself is claimed to have been produced from 15 "renewed" (recycled) plastic bottles. Taken together, this image at once comments on the potentialities of using industrial or post-comsumer waste (espeically waste that is not biodegradable) into objects of beauty or utiliy, as well as subverting the inverse of this materiality: the continual use and implications of virgin plastic (in fashion and other domains). 

Design Statement: I think because this is an image of apparel (among other things) it invites the reader to try an idea/concept/worldview on for size. Clothing largely serves as a boundary object between human - nature/environment. On the one hand, it could potentially protect one's body from toxicity in a multitile of ways: from physical/materual toxic substances (here I'm thinking of hazmat suits, bee-keeper apparel), to toxic environments (NASA space-suits could fit into this category), but also from socially toxic encounters by choosing to dress in a particular way. In this light, clothing can be seeing as a shield to toxicity. On the other hand, apparel repurposed from once (and potentially currrently) toxic substances engenders space to think about what it means to wear toxicity. Wearing toxicity could be read as an index: here, the Everlane jacket coud index the toxicity of plastic waste as a global probem. But here I'm thnking more about the embodied aspects of wearing potentially toxic material: how does this image, then, invite the viewer to think about what it means to have these repurposed materials enter the apparel market? What does it feel like to wear recycled polyster? What are the implications of this? 

Melissa Begey: Cite As

Cite as:

Begey, Melissa. 2019. Transparent Visualizations and Toxic Fashions. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. 

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November 24, 2018