Fashioned from Nature at the V&A

A look inside the V&A’s latest exhibition exploring fashion’s complex relationship to nature from 1600 to the present day. 

The exhibition follows the diverse ways nature has been used as both a source inspiration and a resource to be exploited over the past four centuries.

The display takes the viewer chronologically through fashion history, from a muslim day dress embroidered with beetles wings from the 1860s to Emma Watson’s MET Gala 2016 Calvin Klein dress made from recycled plastic bottles. The exhibition reflects fashion’s evolving relationship to nature and documents the emergence of sustainable fashion in the mainstream.

According to the curator Edwina Ehrman, ‘We’re asking two questions: What can we learn from the past? And how can we design a more sustainable future?’

The first section dives into the V&A’s historic archive to showcase the evolving use of natural materials in clothing between 1600 and 1900. During this time, the expansion of global trade and more efficient manufacturing methods saw the introduction of exotic materials and an upscale in production.

It was shocking to see materials rarely used today such as exotic bird feathers, ivory, wale bone, seal fur and tortoise shell on mainly British-owned clothes and accessories. A map illustrating the trade routes between Britain and the locations of various precious materials such as North American furs, Peruvian precious metals and Middle Eastern silks revealed the extent of anthropocentric and imperialist thinking. While admiring a waist coat intricately embroidered with macaque monkeys it was hard not to be reminded of the price paid by nature for the human pursuit of beauty.

Plants, animals and people have long been viewed as resources to be used and exploited.

The birth of mass manufacture and the impact of increasingly intensive farming methods was documented. By displaying finished garments next to the raw materials they are made from, the exhibition emphasised the natural origins of many garments; a fact which can be so easily forgotten when production is geographically distant from the end consumer.

The final section showcased the various ways designers in the last few decades have addressed growing concerns over resource scarcity and unsustainable production practices.

Fashion activism in the form of a ‘Who Made My Clothes’ campaign placards and Vivienne Westwood slogan dresses revealed the need for designers to take responsibility for their supply chains as well as the importance of consumer led action.

Innovative material use from Stella McCartney and novel production methods in garments such as GStar RAW’s first cradle to cradle certified pair of jeans looked to the future and the role of science and technology in finding sustainable alternatives to current practices. In contrast, upcycled garments by Katie Jones looked to what already exists and the potential of make do and mend.

The importance of transparency and traceability could also be seen in a Bruno Pieters suit from his Honest By label, which incorporates information about the fabric and origin into its design. Even fast fashion was represented in the form of an H&M conscious collection dress made from ocean plastic.

While not all garments were convincingly sustainable, the overall message was overwhelmingly positive. It seems hopeful that in the future fashion will have a more respectful relationship with nature. As one of the top five most polluting industries in the world this is essential.

FILM REVIEW: NaturePlay, Take Childhood Back

Written by Aimie Stilling and co-directed with Daniel Stilling, the award-winning documentary NaturePlay tracks the movements of the latest ‘endangered species in the wild today- our children’.

From America to Denmark, Norway and Sweden the film tells the story of two very different childhoods. In America, we see empty playgrounds and children as young as six and seven studying for standardised performance exams. By contrast, in Scandinavia children of the same age are making mud pies, climbing trees and carving with knives.

The film portrays the importance of nature play for child development and the lessons to be learnt from the Scandinavian philosophy of friluftsliv (which translates to ‘free air life’).

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©NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back

Friluftsliv refers to ‘a lifestyle based on experiences of freedom in nature and spiritual connectedness with the landscape’ and is deeply rooted in the identity of Scandinavian people (Gelter, 2000).

At the core of this philosophy is the belief that the ‘reward for connectedness with the landscape is … a new level of consciousness and a spiritual wholeness’ (Gelter, 2000), in other words experience of nature for its own sake is of utmost importance for human physical and mental wellbeing.

NaturePlay beautifully captures the values of friluftsliv in the outdoor-centred learning approach of schools and kindergartens across Scandinavia. One quote from the film that stayed with me was ‘nature doesn’t steal time, it amplifies it’. The natural world inspires creativity and imagination and in pure and diverse environments children find privacy and freedom to explore. In Denmark, the objective of Udeskole (‘outdoor school’) is simple, to spend as much time learning outdoors and from real experience as possible.

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©NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back

The Nordic Outdoor Model of Education (N.O.M.E) promotes learning through the combination of doing and playing. The understanding that ‘play is the work of childhood’ is central. At a Skovbørnehave (forest Kindergarten) in Denmark, children play outside all year round and are exposed to small dangers as part of their daily routine.

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©NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back

Allowing children to work with bonfires, climb trees, use knives and even experience cold weather may seem fool hardy to some, but in this context they are viewed as learning experiences where children can test their physical boundaries within a safe space.

These hands-on life lessons are viewed as tools to help children on their way to independence. In comparison to the more long-term health risks of children spending too much time indoors, such as obesity and even depression, falling out of a tree once in while doesn’t sound too bad. What’s more, according to one outdoor kindergarten teacher the children hardly ever get sick.

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©NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back

By focusing on the needs of the child rather than a test score, nature-based education methods seek to teach life skills like creative problem solving which go beyond conventional schooling.

In the words of one educator, common sense is better than rules. Life does not fit into the pages of a book and narrow channels of learning do not maximise human talent or encourage the flourishing of curiosity and creativity in children.

What’s more, ‘connection to nature is a strong predictor of children’s interest in environmentally friendly practices’ in later life (Cheng and Monroe, 2012). In light of the increasingly fragile state of the world’s ecosystems the need for children who know and understand the inherent value of nature is greater than ever.

NaturePlay beautifully captures the joy of children learning through play and puts forward an irrefutable case for benefits of experiential education and a childhood spent outdoors. You can watch the trailer here and if you’re interested, you can organise a screening of Nature Play for your community. I can highly recommend it!

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©NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back
References:
Gelter, H. (2000). Friluftsliv: The Scandinavian Philosophy of Outdoor Life. Canadian Journal of Environmenal Education, 5, 77–90.
Cheng, J. C.-H., & Monroe, M. C. (2012). Connection to Nature: Children’s Affective Attitude Toward Nature. Environment and Behavior, 44(1), 31–49.

Aalto Sustainability MAYDAY

Reflections on the inaugural event of Aalto Sustainability Hub. 

The Sustainability Day brought together experts, practitioners, students and citizens to share knowledge and experience on tackling complex sustainability challenges. The day included a host of activities including an exhibition of sustainability related student projects, panel discussions, guided tours and seminars.

To kick-off the event heard keynote speeches from five inspiring sustainability practitioners; Minna Halme, Director of Aalto Sustainability Hub and professor of Sustainability Management at Aalto University, Dr. Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment, Ilkka Herlin, Chairman of Cargotec corporation, Sirpa Pietikäinen, Member of the European Parliament and EP rapporteur for circular economy and Peter Lund, Professor of New Energy Technologies at Aalto University.

Minna Halme began by reminding us of the core sustainability challenges.

“We are loosing what we want to keep and by-producing things we do not want”

Fresh water, forest, diversity of plant and animal species are in decline. Pollution, waste and levels carbon dioxide are increasing. Minna used the analogy of a high-blood pressure situation whereby the pressure being put on the environment by human intervention is reaching a critical point.

If we do not act we are heading for a heart attack which we may not recover from.

In order to address the multiple complex challenges facing the world today, from climate change to increasing inequality, knowledge and actionable solutions are not enough. Disruptive innovations combined with systemic solutions that draw on co-creative methods is essential for creating the paradigm shift required for achieving social and environmental sustainability. Human well being must be at the centre.  

In the evening, the Test Site for Practical Sustainability was launched.

The Test Site is a student initiative to create an exploratory outdoor space for testing sustainable projects. At the moment a permaculture garden, solar panel, tomato juice bar and ‘gas cow’ are under construction. In the coming academic year I look forward to being responsible for external communications for the site.

Aalto Sustainability Hub is committed to building a sustainable society driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. The strategic ideas that guide their work centre on themes of circular economy, co-creation and the campus as a living lab, where sustainability research can be tested in the immediate surroundings of the University. 

 

Earth Day

A time to remember the planet wasn’t made just for us.

“Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity,” Prof David Macdonald, Oxford University.

The installation ‘Natural Deselection’ by Tim Simpson illustrates ease by which human beings exercise power over the natural world. Three flowers are allowed to grow in artificial setting until the tallest plant reaches a height sensor. The sensor then triggers the death of the two smaller plants. The installation demonstrates with brutal efficiency the concept of ‘the survival of the fittest’.

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Illustration of Tim Simpson’s ‘Natural Deselection’. AG

The theory of Natural Selection devised by Charles Darwin, explains how specimens which are best adapted to their environment outcompete weaker species. The process enables the reproductive and genetic continuance of the best biological traits. While natural selection is an important part of ecosystem development, we see the same process being artificially replicated in human behaviour on countless occasions with damaging results. In food production for example plants are continuously modified to suit human production and consumption.

A carrot should be X shade of orange, X shape and X length. It should take X numbers of days to grow. Any carrot that does not fit our criteria is removed and it’s existence is deemed unworthy. This mentality goes beyond food production, it also dictates our landscapes and our experience of the natural world.

In many aspects, human behaviour imposes strict parameters on the growth and development of nature.

The ‘selections’ we make not only influence our perception of the world or our idea of what a carrot should look like, it affects biodiversity and nature’s resilience to change. Biodiversity is made up of ecosystem diversity, species diversity and genetic diversity which together effect the chemical and biological flows of the planet. Biodiversity increases resilience to climate change and underlies the stability of all life on earth. Our obsession with ‘natural’ selection has led us to the sixth mass extinction of species. The current rate of extinction is 100x higher than normal. Within several human lifetimes, three quarters of animal species could be lost.[1]

When will we learn that nature is not ours to control?

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Vallis, Frome. AG

“Teach your children
what we have taught our children-
that the earth is our mother.
Whatever befalls the earth
befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
If men spit upon the ground,
they spit upon themselves.”

Chief Seattle

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Slad Valley. AG

[1] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150623-sixth-extinction-kolbert-animals-conservation-science-world/ 

Link here to view ‘Natural Deselection’ by Tim Simpson

 

Design for Government; The Systems Perspective

Looking at the future of Finland’s Hiking Areas: New Uses, Users and Identity in the second phase of the Design for Government course.

“Nature doesn’t need us, we need nature” Per-Erik Skagerlid – Swedish Nature Conservationist.

This spring I started a new project-based course titled ‘Design for Government’.  The course aims teach to us how to apply design thinking to complex challenges in the government and public sector. At the beginning of term we were divided into multidisciplinary teams and given the task by the Finnish Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture to come up with ‘new uses, users and identity’ for Finland’s State Hiking Areas. For the purpose of this project we will focus on Evo Hiking Area, which is the largest continuous piece of forest and only State Hiking Area in Southern Finland.

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Evo Hiking Area. Illustration: Abigail Garbett

In the first part of the course we focused on the ‘Human Perspective’ where we became familiar with the task at hand. This involved meeting members of the Ministry and Metsähallitus who manage the Hiking Areas, interviewing various people involved from Scout groups to the international tourists, carrying out desktop research and finally conducting a field trip to Evo (You can read more about the first phase here).

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First impressions of Evo Hiking Area from the ‘human perspective’. Layout: Andreas Sode, Illustrations: Abigail Garbett

For the second phase we have been focusing on the ‘Systems Perspective’. For this section we built on the data collected thus far to form a more holistic view of the brief and the problem we would like to address. We began this process by expanding on our initial affinity diagram (where we mapped our key findings from the desktop research on a post-it note wall) to include key quotes and insights from our interviews. In the picture below you can see how our understanding has grown from week 2 to week 6.

After we felt satisfied that all our data was represented on the affinity diagram, we began to structure our points into categories and visualised the relationships between different stakeholders. Through this process we identified education, human well-being and ecosystem health as being important leverage points for us. We used systems mapping to illustrate the problems and needs of our stakeholders and with Mengxiao’s excellent illustrator skills our post-it notes were transformed into a complex systems map.

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Systems Map of needs and problems. By Mengxiao Li

Evo Hiking Area has a unique history as the home of Finnish forestry education and currently includes a teaching forest managed by HAMK University and nature reserves. The area is frequently used by the nearby Lammi Biological Station and Scout groups who have a unique educational agenda. We also discovered that local primary and secondary school teachers would like to use the area more to teach children about nature. Andreas helped us to understand the relationships between these educational institutions via a second systems map.

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Education Activities in Evo Systems Map. By Andreas Sode
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Local School Teacher Perspective. Illustration by Abigail Garbett

We also identified that these activities are only possible if the native ecosystem is properly looked after and respected. We spoke with biologists and a conservationist working in the field to better understand the ecosystem perspective. On the one hand the extinction of plant and animal species is happening at faster rate than ever before and one the other we are loosing our knowledge about the natural world.

“The ‘collective memory’ is not maintained and there is a lack knowledge of what once grew” Annette Sode – Biologist.

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From Guardian Article: ‘Have Children Lost Touch with Nature? Illustration by Abigail Garbett

In the context of Finnish Hiking Areas it is essential education and respect for nature is promoted. 

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Looking at Hiking Areas from an Ecosystem perspective. Illustration by Abigail Garbett
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A ‘Rich Picture’ of Evo’s Ecosystem. Illustration by Abigail Garbett

We used Peter Checkland’s ‘rich picture’ technique to illustrate the ecosystem’s complex role in providing education, work and leisure time in Evo.

Looking forward, we will focus on two key research questions for the final ‘intervention’ phase of the project. We aim to consider the potential for Hiking Areas, in particular Evo Hiking Area to provide meaningful nature experiences which raise awareness for the natural ecosystems on which we all rely.

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Graphic by Andreas Sode

Our team is made up of Andreas Sode from New Media, Ming Unn and Mengxiao Li from Collaborative and Industrial Design, Riina Ruus-Prato from Product and Spacial Design and me from Creative Sustainability.

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The Team! Illustration by Abigail Garbett

 

Design for Government; the Human Perspective

The Future of Finland’s Hiking Areas: New Uses, Users and Identity

This spring I started a new project-based course titled ‘Design for Government’.  The course aims teach to us how to apply design thinking to complex challenges in the government and public sector. At the beginning of term we were divided into multidisciplinary teams and given a brief by the Finnish Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture.  We will spend the next three months working on a solution to the brief which we will present on the 22nd of May. For the first phase we have been focusing on the ‘Human Perspective’ by building a picture of the current situation and learning about the needs of different stakeholders.
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Design and Government

At first design and government might seem like an unlikely pair. What does design have to do with making legislation? However, the movement towards design for government acknowledges the ability for designers to drive innovation and create more participatory and citizen-centric governance. Designers in Government can transform policy, civil servant work and citizen services. The role of design in the public sector is rapidly expanding in Europe and Finland in particular. In 2016, Anne Stenros was appointed by the Government as the ‘Chief Design Officer’ (or ‘Chief Disruption Officer’ as she prefers to think of herself) for the City of Helsinki. We met Anne in our first class and learnt that ‘disruption’ is a mandatory requirement for any designer wishing to pursue a career in the narrow confines of Government silos.

The Brief : The Future of Finland’s Hiking Areas: New Uses, Users and Identity

This year’s brief was written by the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture in collaboration with Metsähallitus, a state owned company in charge of managing Hiking Areas. In a nutshell the brief asks us to first, create a distinct brand image for Hiking Areas, and second to find new and innovative ways of increasing tourism there. It raises wider questions about the trend for eco-tourism and the impact of man on nature. In an increasingly urbanised world, the need for accessible nature experiences in rising and must be examined from both an environmental and social perspective.

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Photography: Ming Unn

The Human Perspective

The first stage of the project is about ‘taking the human perspective as a starting point of design’. So far we have met with stakeholders from the Ministry and Metsähallitus and have begun researching our test site, which is Evo National Park. We took a trip there and have begun collaborating with local users and visitors in the area. We are also in the process of interviewing potential new users and experts within the field.

Evo stakeholder map

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Photography: Ming Unn

Our team is made up of Andreas Sode from New Media, Ming Unn and Mengxiao Li from Collaborative and Industrial Design, Riina Ruus-Prato from Product and Spacial Design and me from Creative Sustainability!

 

How to Change the World, Week 4

Happiness and sustainable deeds diary, 29th – 4th Feb.

This is the fourth week of my happiness and sustainable deed diary where I aim to write down one thing that makes me happy and one sustainable deed, however small, that I have performed each day for a month. This week I have been thinking about the role nature plays in bringing happiness to life. I was reminded of this poem:

I part the thrusting branches

and come in beneath

the blessed and the blessed trees.

Though I am silent

there is singing around me.

Though I am dark

there is vision around me.

Though I am heavy

there is flight around me.

Wendell Berry.

Monday 29th January

Happy For: Today I found it hard to find something that made me happy but seeing a whole length of clear water ahead of me at the swimming pool made me feel very grateful. Sustainable Deed: Buying loose vegetables.

Tuesday 30th January

Happy For: Productive and fun group work and the feeling of a shared success. The image of pink clouds floating above Uppsala. Sustainable Deed: Cycling to school.

Wednesday 31st January

Happy For: The first sunny day in a long time, escaping class and finding animal footprints in the snow.  Seeing a set of freshly developed photos and remembering events from the past few months. Sustainable Deed: Attending the first meeting for the proposed Test Site for Practical Sustainability in Otaniemi Campus.

Thursday 1st February

Happy For: New friends and the sense of belonging that comes from spending time together. Sustainable Deed: Learning how to fix the breaks on my bike at Unicornshki, Helsinki’s Female and Gender Variant Bike Group.

Friday 2nd February

Happy For: Swimming, the movement in my legs and arms. Being looked after by Benjamin and Maria when I didn’t feel well. Sustainable Deed: Mending a ripped skirt and Maria’s cloth bag.

Saturday 3rd February

Happy For: Talking to my family and getting to see my grandparents faces on video. Sustainable Deed: Using hand-me-down winter boots.

Sunday 4th February

Happy For: Talking to Vanessa and being transported to Montpellier for half an hour while walking along the frozen coast of Helsinki. Sustainable Deed: Limiting the amount of water I use to do the washing up and clean the kitchen.