Red Flags

For nearly two decades, I was oblivious to the concept of sustainability. It was an unfamiliar and foreign word, and therefore, I felt it didn’t affect me. I thought the word simply referred to recycling or other “green” activities. It wasn’t until arriving at Oklahoma State University that I really gave the idea any attention. In a broad sense, sustainability is finding processes that allow one to maintain a certain lifestyle or way of doing something. Specifically, in the industry of Design, Housing, and Merchandising, we can think of sustainability as a means to battle the existence of what we know as “wicked problems”. These issues are essentially solution-less, and have a negative impact on large amounts of people. They typically have six distinct attributes: 1) vague problem definitions, 2) variable solutions, 3) solutions have no endpoint, 4) solutions pose irreversible effects, 5) solutions require unique approaches, 6) urgency. These characteristics are what causes wicked problems to stand out among other issues. Wicked problems can include widespread hunger, sweatshops, or pollution.
In the 1700’s, when Europeans stumbled upon what became known as “Easter Island”, it was practically uncivilized and barren. Oddly enough, and in stark contrast to the squalor of the island, they found hundreds of immense stone statues had been erected on the island. It is shocking to think that a civilization that was once so technologically inclined to construct these statues was eventually demolished due to a lack of resources. It poses an interesting concept that remains relevant to this day: humanity is and has been, and likely always will be, dependent on their natural, earthly surroundings. When that environment struggled to sustain the lives of the original Easter Islanders, the people group stopped succeeding. In retrospect, this historic warning should be a red flag to us. Unfortunately, for generations people on the earth, most obviously those in developed countries, have taken advantage of their resources, and lacked any consciousness to the consequences of our decisions. Wastefulness and gluttony have become commonplace, and the truths of the disposal of our waste is the last thing on our minds. Convenience, ease, and price are our priorities. This is no simple task to reverse this mindset, to say the least. For decades, even centuries, the vast majority of the earth’s populations has lived without concerns or guilt, and still today, many are unaware of the waste and pollution their existence can cause. The paradigm will never have a chance to change if each person opts not to make a personal, conscious decision to change their self-narrative, and ultimately alter the way in which they utilize their resources. Each person has what is known as a “carbon footprint”. This term is used to describe the damage a single individual can inflict on the environment, simply by existing. Until people are enlightened about their impact, it’s hard to imagine anything changing.
As a Design, Housing, and Merchandising Student, I am particularly interested in researching the effects of wicked problems in regard to the practices of apparel production. I would like to explore the concept of sweatshops, and why is it so difficult to find a solution to the evils involved. With so many American companies offshoring their production, it is easy for Americans to overlook the idea that somewhere, our clothes are being made by underpaid, neglected, and possibly abused individuals who have little else to turn to, except a miserable job that allows them to live another day and hopefully clothe and feed themselves and their children.

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