Scaling Out: Thinking About Sustainability, Food and Fashion

Senior Lecturer in Cultural Production and Consumption at the School, Jennifer Smith Maguire, considers the outgrowths of a recent School based workshop

Several years ago I bought a schizostylis coccinea ‘Jennifer’ plant. I was attracted by the promise of autumn colour, and — embarrassing to admit — the cultivar’s name. I hadn’t anticipated the astounding rate at which my small pot’s worth of green spikes and pink flowers would spread. By the third year, shoots were popping up nearby, encroaching on the turf originally allotted to less invasive species. Last year, they threatened to completely take over the entire front of the garden. I found myself in the unhappy position of having to decide: survival of the fittest or order-imposing intervention? Last weekend, the latter option won out and I ripped out about two-thirds of the schizostylis, discovering that the tiny bulbs had been sending out creeping root shoots. A hidden network of rhizomes stretched out before my eyes, establishing new bulbs that, in turn, sent out further shoots far across the garden.

This was the sort of rhizomatic structure that I’d been doodling on the 24th of September, while listening to a fantastic talk by Kate Fletcher on ‘Making Sense of Sustainability.’ Kate recounted the challenge often posed to her work on sustainable fashion: can small-scale initiatives translate into large-scale garment manufacturers? I think about this sort of question in my own research: biodynamic winemakers are saving the ecosystem two hectares at a time, but what’s the point? Unless the industrial wine companies (and food producers more broadly) embrace sustainable agriculture, there isn’t much hope for saving the planet. Kate mused, in matters that resonated strongly with me, that perhaps the answer wasn’t for producers to scale up but to scale out.



Kate’s talk was part of a one-day workshop on sustainability in food and fashion that I organized with Maria Touri of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communications. Through funding from the Society for the Advancement of Management Studies and our respective departments, the workshop brought together a small group of academics and practitioners. Keynote talks, small group activities and whole group discussions focused on what the fields of food and fashion might learn from each other, in terms of the possibilities and challenges for more sustainable modes of production and consumption. [See also Green Growth 2.0: Ecocultures and the New Food Economy, by Steffen Bohm (University of Essex), Primark on the Rack: Keeping Conversations Going with Political LEGO, by Ian Cook (University of Exeter) and Eating Social Science(ists)?, by Mike Goodman (University of Reading]

Scaling out has an intuitive appeal. It maintains the small-scale ethos that some of the workshop practitioners felt would be crushed if they were to get ‘too big.’ It is also about interconnection, something noted for its absence within today’s marketplaces. The need to re-establish connections between producers and consumers through involvement, participation, co-production, attentive consumption, learning through making and doing, and building people’s skills and literacies of use, cut across the day’s many conversations.

However, for sustainability to be sustainable it has to be big as well as small; it has to be normal, not only alternative. Perhaps ‘the big’ need to adopt a scaling out mentality but we must also remember that small-scale isn’t a panacea, and that it remains vulnerable (the scaled up acer saccharum now threatening to take over another part of my garden would never be ripped out as blithely as the schizostylis diaspora). Small-scale initiatives and SMEs may very well be doing things ‘better’ in John Elkington’s terms of taking care of the triple bottom line: planet, people and profit. But, they are not schizostylis bulbs with self-generating rhizomes reaching out to take over the world. Those rhizomes need to be built by people and we hope the workshop was part of that work.

Originally published at

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