Provisional Research Framework
List of Potential Research Questions
How can the outdoor recreation industry exit the plastic age?
How can Manzini’s concepts of SLOC resilient systems be applied to outdoor equipment and apparel?
How may we decouple outdoor recreation from its patriarchal and colonial roots?
Provisional Research Framework
Outdoor recreation, the way it’s practiced in the western world, was born out of Europe. It then spread to its vast colonies, where euro-centric ways of life had become the norm. While contemporary outdoor recreation prides itself as being an “eco-friendly” community, with commitments toward preserving the natural world, at its foundation, there is still an underlying hypocrisy steeped in colonialism and the rejection and destruction of nature.
Outdoor equipment is largely made out of plastics and petrochemicals that take decades if not centuries to decompose. Gore-tex, one of the leading materials used for raincoats, is lauded for its lightweight durability, and breathability. The material, however, is made out of polyester, which can take over a century to fully decompose. In the alpine environment, the harsh climate means it will likely never decompose at all. As more people begin venturing into the mountains more microplastics are shed into the environment.
Patagonia, and other companies that pride themselves on being “green,” try to promote a culture of repair and frequently advertise their use of recycled materials. However, given the amount of time it takes for petrochemical-based textiles to decompose, this is more a deflection of attention than a solution. If a polyester garment is kept in good condition, worn for ten years, recycled, and worn for ten more, it will still spend the bulk of its lifespan as plastic waste. Not to mention that the material can’t be recycled 100% and virgin fibres are still required.
In the Ye song “Violent Crimes,” Kanye confesses that “…now [he] see[s] women as something to nurture, not something to conquer.” This face-turn sees an individual rejecting the matrix of supremacy and patriarchal values that they have helped maintain. Values that run deep within their community. The same thing must be achieved for the outdoors, and outdoor recreation. The very foundations of our beliefs and operations must be scrutinized and rebuilt with integrity. Patriarchal and colonial thinking has seen the act of climbing a mountain as an act of conquering. The mountains are seen as a proving ground for masculinity and an enemy to be overcome. Like Ye, we must shift our perception of wild spaces from something to conquer to something to nurture.
Fortunately, the outdoor community is able to change. In the 1970s as climbers learned about the damage pitons were doing to the rock, clean climbing techniques were adopted that reduced the scarring. At its heart, the outdoor community isn’t malicious, we’re keen to protect the spaces we value, but large-scale change and addressing our patriarchal, colonial history is intimidating and difficult.
Other industries create far more damaging plastic waste. The overall plastic waste created by fast fashion companies like Zara and H&M far eclipses that of Patagonia and Arc’teryx. But I don’t wear Zara of H&M. Being able to recreate outdoors is a privilege enjoyed mostly by the wealthy and it is arrogant to expect other industries that serve the masses to change while not holding ourselves accountable.
The methodology for this project will be to re-design key pieces of outdoor equipment as proof of concept for petrochemical alternatives. Nature doesn’t sort materials, it disperses them. Designing for dispersal means designing artifacts that, as they shed, are able to return to the earth.
To achieve this I’ll be looking forward and also looking back. Many plant-based modern materials are able to emulate the properties required of outdoor artifacts. Additionally, humans have been living outside for longer than we’ve been living with climate control. In the 1950s, the development of plastics gave clothing and equipment producers a new tool in their toolbox for producing garments. For the past 70 years we’ve been innovating using this tool and only recently have we realized that we need to stop. Going back to traditional manufacturing techniques; we must ask how they can be evolved and adapted for the modern age, what innovations can be translated to dispersable materials, and what can’t?
Additionally, I’d like to adopt Manzini’s framework for small, local, open, and connected systems. The supply and manufacturing of artifacts would ideally follow such a framework. How close and connected can the material suppliers, manufacturers and vendors be?
All this will be tied together through storytelling. Painting the picture of what outdoor equipment design and manufacturing would look like in an ideal world. I plan to do this through a film as a proof-of-concept that our community can exit the plastic age. Currently, I’m thinking of attempting a plastic-free ski traverse illustrating what technologies are already here, and which ones need work.
Prototyping: Iterating new designs using different techniques. The Biomimicry institute’s article “The Nature of Fashion” will act as a bit of a bible here. Illustrating what technologies already exist and where they’re being implemented in Appendix C, as well as a table of intervention points in Appendix B.
Artifact Analysis: Investigating how we’ve survived in extreme weather conditions in the past before the advent of plastics. What can be learned from these past techniques and what can be used to exit the plastic age?
Storyboards: This is how I hope to connect with my community. It’s not realistic to believe I’ll be able to design artifacts that outperform the current plastic-based ones that have millions of dollars of research and funding behind them. However, hopefully, if I tell a strong enough story it will begin to turn the tides, on both the consumer and the manufacturing side.
Evidence-Based Design: My background’s in engineering so I’m going into this with an understanding of the physical properties required of technical artifacts and how they work (please ignore how arrogant that sounds). I’m interested in creating a proof-of-concept so in doing so the evidence needs to show that these designs and materials are functional.
- Manzini, E. (2013). “Resilient Systems and Sustainable Qualities”. In Current: Design Research Journal, Emily Carr University Press, p10-14.
- Verbeek, P.-P., & Kockelkoren, P. (1998). “The Things That Matter”. Design Issues, 14(3), 28–42.
- Banwell, E., Schuknecht, M., Rattner, B., Hulst, N., Dougherty, B. (2020) “The Nature of Fashion.” The Biomimicry Institute.
- Ye. (2018). “Violent Crimes”. Ye. GOOD, Def Jam
- Willis, A.M. (2020). “Designing Time.” In Fry, T., & Nocek, A. (Eds.) Design in Crisis: New Worlds, Philosophies and Practices. Routledge.