Elevating the social and cultural value of waste

Nick Gant and Tanya Dean have sustained a research agenda regarding the role, value and agency that materials, in particular waste materials, have within social and sustainable development.

Waste is a result of how we feel and think as well what we do (Gant 2015) therefore we need to understand how we can elevate the value of waste socially and culturally as much as how we manage it physically.

The 'Sole-Searching' project uses pairs of shoes made of many types of waste material to research the way we 'think and feel' about waste materials as well as how we can use them. Understanding how as society we assign value to waste is arguably the key to preventing it. Some of them would be considered unorthodox using dog hair, breast milk and oceanic plastics etc - but each material, the associated relationship to its user and the role of making with the material interact to provide frameworks for elevating the value of waste through a process of meaning-making.

This research as been presented at a number of international research conferences and by invitation to industry, including as part of sports and lifestyle brand PUMA's Sustainable Design Collective and in features for trend forecasters such as WGSN, Franklin and Till, Fashion Futures.

Through this and related projects Gant and Dean have developed a Valorisation Framework (Gant and Dean 2016) that explains how we creatively elevate the value of waste (valorisation) for more sustainable consumer cultures and 'virtuous' circular economies.

Human Milk of Kindness - Breast Milk Bootees (2013)

This pair engages and challenges our perceptions of materials and how contemporary contexts are asking us to reconsider our material prejudices and preconceptions. The story of the Breast Milk Bootees is an example of how easily our cultural intolerances and sub-conscious perceptions of materials can contradict one-another and can be manipulated. These baby bootees are made from breast milk casein (an early form of plastic) and were created to celebrate international breast milk donor-ship day established in 2013 by The NHS / UK Milk Bank. The shoe story explores how an international network of willing volunteers collect otherwise waste milk from lactating mothers. They distribute this to save the lives of premature and sick babies whose mothers are unable to feed them or who have fallen ill or died in childbirth. Mothers requested the making of bootees made from their milk as mementos having sadly lost babies during childbirth or early life.

Having featured in press in countries right across the world including The Mail and New York Times online the nature of the objects themselves challenge our preconceptions and appreciation of objects made from human material. Equally they demonstrate the power of material propaganda and provocation in life saving recycling. The projects explored different examples of uses of ‘challenging’ materials such as Victorian bios d’urcy in memorial jewellery and how contemporary makers are reimagining other early plastics made from substances, such as human hair.

Shifting strata - Carbon clogs (2010)

Cuttacre open mine Lancashire (2010)
Clog culture
Clog culture
Re-valuing waste from coal industries
Shifting landscape of value(s)
A shifting material landscape
Miners clogs (2011)
Carbon clogs

Flip-flopsam and Jetsam - beach waste (2010)

This story explores a revised appreciation and care for the environment in which we live. These shoes are flip-flops made from plastic beach waste collected by volunteers who scour their local beaches as part of the Marine Conservation Society’s annual beach clean up events. First Initiated in 2010 the materials are collected and heat pressed into new shoes as a reward and memento of the event. The physical act of 'careful' collection and production of this social-souvenir elevates the value and cultural significance and identity of the waste. It also helps to extend the lifespan of the object through its emotional attachment.

Like all the Sole Searching stories the shoe stories form a gateway to wider narratives - In this case how our mismanagement of materials has led to phenomena such as giant gyres of oceanic rubbish the size of countries floating out at sea and new geological formations that are actually part rock and part plastic, giving us a glimpse of the future anthropocene era.

Natural Nurturing - Dog Hair Slippers (2011)

Psychologists and social scientists agree that pet ownership has a proven positive effect on human well-being, to the point where dog ownership can actually be a prescribed therapy for people who have suffered trauma or very challenging personal, social circumstances their life. Dog ownership in children is proven to impact on their capacity for empathy, nurturing and sustaining relationships. The dog hair slippers are made from dog hair of course – the chapter will illustrate the eccentric but well-established culture of people making the odd comforting cardy or warming waistcoat from their pet’s hair. But with over twelve million pet dogs in the UK alone we have yet to really explore the masses of pet hair and its value as a waste material – aside from its use as an excellent absorption tool in mopping up oceanic oil spills.

Faux - Businessmen's brogues (2009)

The familiar ‘squeak and pop’ of a wine bottle being opened are met with a baulk from our central character and user, a successful businessman, sits upright and aghast in his customary gentleman’s club chair. He recoils, outraged that the bouquet of his favourite vintage Bordeaux has been held captive by a synthetic, plastic cork! This assault on the ritual and tradition to which he is so resolutely accustomed must surely be a joke, what possible explanation can there be for this fraud, this faux, this plastic impostor!

Synthetic corks have evolved because of the capitalist mantras of ‘cost reduction’ and ‘the customer is always right’. Consumer perception has sustained the illusion that natural corks are the cause of ‘corked’ wine - a term describing tainted, unpalatable wine. Evidence demonstrates that this can occur from a range of situations and is actually often a consequence of pollutants and pesticides in the environment. Unfortunately, a lack of consumer awareness and consumer demand for ever-cheaper wine is dramatically undermining one of the best examples of man and nature in sustainable symbiosis – the farming of natural cork from the world’s cork oak forests. The consequence of this consumer misperception and demand has led sections of the wine industry to turn to artificial corks as a ‘cheaper alternative’. These are fabricated, from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), an oil derivative that is extruded and ‘foamed’ to actually try and emulate its natural rival. In these changing times, where the price of oil can rise ten-fold in a matter of months and the environmental consequences of pursuing these minerals is under understandable scrutiny – does this synthetic, imposter really ‘cost less’? The ‘faux’ brogues symbolise the fictions that we perpetuate through misperception. Conversely, cork oak forests provide unique habitats for many rare species, including the world’s most endangered cat, the Iberian Lynx and large, sustainable farming communities are also losing their livelihood.

Ironically, the shrewd, commercial acts that may have elevated our businessman to ‘where he is today’, may have in parallel, inadvertently led to the contamination of his ritual, by a fake – a poignant reminder to us all of the consequences of our actions and demands.

Rags to riches - Glass slippers (2011)

Our changing appreciation of what is waste in modern society and how we are reconsidering material ‘values’. The Glass slippers are crafted from crushed, broken champagne flutes gathered at weddings. This story illustrates how each pair of sole-searching shoes exploits the embodied histories inherent in the waste materials used in their construction. In this case the glass demonstrates how even a modest, everyday and industrial waste material can become ‘beautiful’ and can enrich products with enhanced meaning and value. Having explored in detail the nature of these Cinderella shoes, their material meaning and crafted fabrication. Industrial waste materials are being beautified and having their status elevated through the act of making and their application in poetic ways.

Physically digital - Secretary shoes (2012)

3D printed shoe'pre-weeded' in paper block
Secretary Shoes 3D printed paper

With the advent of personal computers we were promised a new era of the paperless office – in fact the opposite has transpired and we now consume more paper than ever before. In fact the average US citizen consumes 5.4 trees per year - we are all publishers now! The Secretary Slippers are made using a type of 3D printer, using recycled sheets of office paper. Blocks of discarded boardroom papers are layered one sheet at a time, glued and cut into shape and slowly the shoes are literally grown from a digital form. The chapter will explore our continuing and evolving relationship with paper, which like the ‘bubble perm’, we were meant to leave behind in the eighties! Paper is a huge economy, which sits as a metaphor at the very forefront of our understanding of the-sustainability-conundrum and cycles of demand and consumption in a new digital epoch.

Research methods and dissemination

Presenting findings at PUMA HQ 2012
Data gathering about material perceptions
Data gathering about material perceptions
Presenting findings at PUMA HQ 2012
WGSN trend forecasting industry article