A workshop to be held at the Department of Anthropology,
University College London,
on June 14th 2010
This interdisciplinary workshop will bring together researchers who work
on textile recycling, including anthropologists, geographers,
historians, political economists, designers, and materials scientists.
This is with a view to develop a research agenda that explores
innovation in textile recycling technologies in the widest sense, and
how these succeed or fail in becoming socially embedded. Textile
recycling activities, as socio-technical systems, arise in specific
cultural contexts within global trading patterns, and their study may
incorporate the underlying relationships between people and things, raw
materials and technologies and the emergence of entrepreneurs and
innovators in social networks amongst other (f)actors.
We see at least three possible clusters of themes emerging, but welcome
1. Reinventing Old Solutions to New Problems?
Industrial recycling practises are specific, historically situated
socio-technical systems. While pre-industrial papermaking industries
used rags as a source of raw materials, 19th century textile mills
looked to recycled clothing as a cheaper source of raw material for the
wool shoddy industries. In the 21st century, the problem has changed to
what to do with mountains of cast-off clothing, and this drives the
search for technologically solutions appropriate to diverse cultural
contexts. Anthropological understandings of technology embrace
materials, makers, designers, and users in a relational networks
including socio-economic, political, and legal factors. In this broader
context, how are some old technologies being reinvented for the future,
and in what fields are new technologies being successfully developed?
2. The value of knowledge and skills in cultural contexts
As different cultures have developed different somatic skills and
practices, we wish to investigate the importance of tacit knowledges to
recycling. Consideration of these embedded knowledges within the global
perspective raises a number of questions specific to the processing of
waste textiles. How are knowledge and skills valued differently within a
textile waste industry compared to primary production? How intimately do
you need to know used textiles in order to process them effectively, and
how do differing levels of entanglement affect your social status within
a recycling system? For those who are bodily engaged with waste, how
valuable are these tacit knowledges and are they acknowledged by others?
And what are the cultural specificities of the valuing of people and
skills within different textile waste sectors? For example, there are
differences in skills and status between an immigrant rag sorter in a UK
factory, an illiterate migrant woman cutting up rags in an Indian shoddy
factory and the designer creating eco-textiles from recycled materials.
Do these differences come down to a narrowing of knowledge domains? Are
these limitations the only factors affecting personal value ranking
within global systems?
3. Networks of global trade
Since at least the early 19thC rags have been globally traded for reuse
and recycling industries. Many rag businesses are family businesses that
have been trading for generations, and have nurtured valuable networks
of business contacts that span the developed and developing world in
both directions. The movement of second-hand textiles across the globe
both creates social relations and at the same time is enabled by
pre-existing social contacts. Why is it difficult to start up a new rag
trade business? A related question is what can waste do as an actor in
international trade? For example, how does the trade in second-hand
clothing and textile waste facilitate the movement of other goods along
similar networks? To what extent is textile waste trade a conduit for
other licit and illicit goods? How might the degrees of regulatory
frameworks surrounding waste enable or inhibit other flows of goods, and
is this conducive to it becoming the visible front for invisible
commodity exchange? Is this particular to textiles, to waste or raw
materials in general?
This workshop is being initiated as part of the ESRC project, the Waste
of the World