How Green are Your Jeans?

By Brooke Schultz
Elm Staff Writer
During her presentation entitled “Environmental Folklore and Sustainable Design,” Dr. Leyla Acaroglu said “wash your jeans less, save the planet.”
This funny, passing comment is just a snapshot of Dr. Acaroglu’s hour-long discussion about “how to use our creative capacity to advocate for social change, using environmental folklore and sustainable design.”
The talk took place on Feb. 18 and was sponsored as a part of the McLain Program for Environmental Studies. Dr. Acaroglu is a New York based Australian sociologist, designer, sustainability advocate, and entrepreneur.
She founded the Un-School of Disruptive Design, Disrupt Design, and Eco Innovators, was named one of Melbourne’s top 100 most influential people in 2010, and has given her own mainstage TED Talk in 2013 among other accomplishments and accolades.
Throughout her presentation, Dr. Acaroglu walked the audience through different ways of thinking, like life-cycle and systems thinking, incorporated the importance of design in sustainability, and busted myths about the environment. For example, she asked, “what period of a jeans’ lifespan has the most negative impact on the environment – the manufacturing, the use, or the end-of-lifetime?”

Dr. Leyla Acaroglu delivers a Ted Talk titled “Paper Beats Plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.”
Dr. Leyla Acaroglu delivers a Ted Talk titled “Paper Beats Plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.”

Manufacturing is the extraction of raw materials and includes growing and transporting the cotton, dying it, and making it into jeans. Next comes the use-phase, when the jeans are in the consumer’s possession. Lastly is the end of life when consumers no longer want them.
Dr. Acaroglu turned her attention to the audience in Litrenta Lecture Hall and asked members to raise their hand and vote for the stage of life they predicted to have the most environmental impact. While the opinions of the audience seemed slanted more toward manufacturing, Dr. Acaroglu revealed that the use-phase actually has the most impact on the environment.
“It’s because its got an active use-phase where you have to wash it constantly, which requires a power-station, detergent, chemicals, and it has phosphorous going out into the ocean,” she said. She explained how a recent study found that there is a huge impact when the products are in the manufacture-phase, but the use-phase “will dictate if its overall environmental impact is really bad or not so bad because of the choice the consumer makes,” she said.
Throughout her presentation, she interacted with those listening, using other examples and then asking the audience what they believed. She discussed paper versus plastic bags, asking which was worse for the environment. The answer was paper bags because, “when you compare a plastic bag and a paper bag, what actually happens is that when you take into consideration everything, from the extraction of the materials, the processing, to the end-of-life scenarios, the plastic bag is always better. They’re lighter – just less material,” she said. For the bag to perform its task of carrying groceries, the bag needs 10-times more paper than plastic.
Dr. Acaroglu said that humans can be conditioned to think in certain ways and are a product of their environment. Her goal is to “reframe sustainability” and to reframe how humans see what they interact with every day.
“Most of the time, our predetermined thinking is just a product of the system and environment that we’ve been socialized in,” she said. “The problem is, our system of environment is not-so into saving the planet right now, so we need to actually be constantly challenging ourselves on what we think we know. If we want to change the world, we need to start by changing our own perceptions and making sure the things we know to be true are actually true.”

One thought on “How Green are Your Jeans?

  1. Great content. Why do we resonate and adopt whichever argument we are presented with? Who was the first to say that paper bags were greener than plastic?

    Take the argument to solar energy. Is it green indeed? What’s the amount of energy needed to mine, transport and melt all the silicon to produce a panel and what’s the amount of energy it will bring during its expected 25 years?. I think it might be a fraction.

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