The Greatest Good
The true meaning of design is to offer a solution to a problem.
My name is Juniper Darwin Young, and I’m here to put my money where my mouth is.
When retail’s industry standard is to post a blog entry about their commitment to the environment, to donate percentages and plant trees, and to slap a B-Corp logo wherever possible, how does Unmarked Gear include sustainability into its ethos while also distancing itself from greenwashing?
The answer is as simple as it is difficult to accomplish -- to base everything around leaving no trace. To say that Unmarked Gear includes sustainability into its business practice would be an insult to the amount of effort I’ve devoted into building it. Unmarked Gear does not include sustainability. It is sustainable retail in action.
From my suppliers, to production, to after-market support, everything about Unmarked Gear revolves not around the customer, not around the product, and certainly not around profits; but around lasting impact. The tack is holistic -- encompassing direct, short-term sustainable measures while also supporting longer-term solutions that contribute to sustainability in their own way and time.
I spend a lot of time vetting my suppliers, and my suppliers’ suppliers. Are they local? Where do they produce their own product? Do they also commit themselves to sustainable business? Are they small businesses? Do they have a strong sense for ethics in their workplace? Are they transparent in their strengths and weaknesses? There are right and wrong answers to these questions when it comes to sustainable practice.
Most of my time is spent designing product. At its core, this isn’t that hard. Anyone can design a bag. Here too, however, is where Unmarked Gear stands apart from its competitors. I don’t spend hours sketching what I want my final product to look like, deciding on colorways and eye-catching vanity features. Rather, my own sketches display how I can best use up and divide the fabric and other materials that I purchase. In other words, I design based on the entire life cycle of my materials, not on how I want the final product to look and feel at the point of purchase.
This means adapting features, function, and dimensions to optimize the sustainability of the resources I use. As displayed on my homepage, all my gear is handmade with zero waste. That doesn’t mean 1% waste, not even 0.1% waste. Zero. Zero means I can’t add a pocket here, or I need to alter the size or style of that pocket. Zero means a rolltop closure system uses up this fabric better than a flap style. Zero means having to extend xyz dimension to prevent a 2” strip of fabric from being left over. Zero means adding or subtracting a feature entirely. Zero means telling customers no when they want a completely custom bag. Zero means zero.
That being said, it is inevitable that there will be unusable leftovers. From evening up odd angles at the end of the fabric bolt you ordered, to thread ends that need trimming, to scrap fabric left from making prototypes, this an inherent part of the sewn goods industry. Even this, however, is not an excuse for waste. To mitigate this unfortunate aspect of the biz, I have chosen to use only 100% compostable textile materials (hemp canvas, beeswax, cotton/hemp narrow goods) and 100% infinitely recyclable steel hardware for my gear. That way, even if there is some left over material, it doesn’t end up clogging a landfill for the next millennium. Rather, it becomes a wholly reusable and necessary part of another life cycle, another system. From earth it came, to earth it returns.
The last part of my approach is the most obvious -- using durable materials to maximize the usable lifetime of my products as well as offering repairs and maintenance services to extend that lifetime as far as possible. When we invest in longer lasting materials and products, we eliminate the need to have to consume more frequently. We can further invest in longevity by repairing over replacing.
There is a more nuanced side to this, however, that informs on why I chose to introduce Unmarked Gear as a business over a workshop or some such. The current state of socio-economic disparity dictates that it ends up being more expensive to be poor -- someone who has to buy a pair of cheap shoes every year will end up spending more than someone who can afford to buy a pair of better quality shoes once every decade. However, if those of us who can choose to invest in such better quality gear, we may be able to turn the tables and take fast fashion out of the equation entirely. In other words, every dollar you spend is a vote for a world where mindful, ethical, and sustainable consumerism is the norm.
Money makes the world go round. It’s the ultimate universal language and the common denominator of all humanity. By incarnating Unmarked Gear as a business, I can prove to my peers that putting sustainability at the core of a business is not only possible, but profitable. After all, even a hypothetical cure-all to climate change is useless if people won’t buy into it. Solutions when it comes to the destruction of our planet must be business-sexy in addition to being sustainable.
All this to say that we don’t have to wait on engineers or researchers to develop the cure-all. We have perfectly viable solutions already. By putting sustainability at the core of our designs, production, and support, the sewn goods industry can initiate change immediately. Leave the greenwashing in the compost bin. Why manipulate the facts to present yourselves as “eco-friendly” when you can channel that energy into actually walking the walk?
As the greatest sitcom in the world, 30 Rock, once put it: “There’s only three things standing between you and winning: your breasts, and wanting it bad enough.” What problem are you solving with your gear? Are you a designer, or a hobbyist? Climate change is inevitable and needs a solution now. So tell me, how bad do you want it?