Dr. Albert Bartlett

Professor Emeritus, Nuclear Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder

WHAT'S SUSTAINABLE FASHION?"MY FRIENDS ASKED, WHEN I TOLD THEM WHY I WAS HEADED TO SWEDEN. EXACTLY. I HOPED TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY WITH SOME INVESTIGATION IN STOCKHOLM. BUT EVEN AFTER MY RETURN, I WAS STILL TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT FOR MYSELF. ON THE ADVICE OF A HUFFINGTON POST READER , I REFERRED TO DR. ALBERT BARTLETT'S LAWS OF SUSTAINABILITY. LAWS—YES! THIS SOUNDED SOLID.


Professor Bartlett, of bolo ties and Boulder, Colorado, holds a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Harvard. He has been writing and lecturing about sustainability for forty years. He is a Malthusian, which means his work relies on assumptions set forth by a chap at the turn of the 19th century, who took issue with our planet’s exponentially increasing population.

Those two main assumptions are:

1. That food is necessary to the existence of man.
2. That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

Okay, food and sex—no argument here. But what about fashion? I propose one more postulata:
3. That fashion, in the 21st century, has as much to do with our identities and happiness as the first two earthly pleasures Malthus presented in 1798.

I read Bartlett's "Reflections on Sustainability," including his 21 Laws defining the word and the walls started closing in. "Smart growth" is a little like a first-class ticket on the Titanic, he says and sustainable growth is an oxymoron altogether. The underlying problem, I learned, is population growth, which would be totally sustainable—if the earth were infinitely flat.

The greatest shortcoming of the human race, Professor Bartlett once famously said, "is our inability to understand the exponential function." That's the rate at which our population is increasing. Quite frankly, it’s a problem. Bartlett points to global warming as indication we humans have already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity.

Okay, so we’re reproducing on a rapidly shrinking planet. But what are we supposed to wear? At wit’s end, I did what any desperate fashion enthusiast would do. I contacted the nuclear physicist.

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Within moments, Professor Bartlett replied to my email, with his home telephone number and a warning he knew nothing “about fashions.” That’s okay, I thought, the more I read, the more it seems I know nothing about sustainability. I picked up the phone.

Professor Bartlett assured me I wasn’t alone in my confusion about the term. I asked him whether he finds many people who understand it.

"Not really, no," he said. "They like to use the word 'sustainable' because it has cache and its sort of the popular thing to do, but they use the word without really thinking about what it has to mean."

A sustainable activity, according to the professor, must be able to continue indefinitely without compromising the future of life on Earth as we know it.

"Do you think that sustainable fashion is an oxymoron?" I asked, and steeled myself for an answer that might cause me to scrap my entire project.

"I don’t think so," he said.

Eureka!

"How would you define that?" I asked. There was a long pause. A very long pause.

"Well," he began. "You’re going to have to manufacture your clothes using either natural fibers or artificial fibers. So, in either case, there is an energy input and a carbon input. So one would have to assess the amount of carbon—in terms of energy for instance—that’s used in manufacturing clothing, and assign a value of that carbon to the clothing item."

I thought of a brand or two that were working on that.

"But I don’t know how you would say whether clothing is sustainable or not," he continued. "If you use natural fibers then presumably you could continue to harvest them. If you’re using artificial fibers, like those made out of petroleum or some other hydrocarbon, and those then are being consumed, and are not renewable."

He went on to explain that some natural fibers, like cotton, require a great deal of water to produce. And pesticides, I said.

"Yes, yes," he said. "And energy to tend the crops and harvest them and so on. There's a tremendous amount of energy involved."

"Is this something you think about when you're buying clothing?" I asked him.

"No," he said. "I never thought about it."

"Do you buy clothing often?" I asked.

"No," he said.

I asked whether there was such thing as sustainable development. I felt like I had King Solomon on the phone, so I better just go for it. Sustainable development is totally possible, he told me, as long as it doesn’t involve consumption of raw materials. So then, something completely recycled might be sustainable? "That would approach it," he said, but reminded me that even recycling requires energy—which consumes raw materials.

I wondered whether there was a more appropriate adjective than “sustainable,” to describe the fashion industry's efforts. Conscious?

"It might be durability, or something like that,” said the Professor. “Good luck.”

FOREVER FASHION

According to Professor Bartlett’s definition, truly sustainable style would last forever, without using up any non-renewable resources. I’m not just talking about just a perfect pair of jeans with timeless appeal. No, I’m referring to the future of fashion, to fashion enduring, as Bartlett would say, “for the period in which we hope humans will inhabit the earth.”

I wasn’t sure I could picture no-impact pants that would last forever, but I felt stronger with Professor Bartlett in my corner—at least I had an idea of what sustainability was supposed to mean.

Will fashion live on? Hell, yes. But if we’re set on sustainability, it probably won’t look much like the industry we see today. That’s where Mathilda Tham comes in.