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Ethnographic Postcards: The Good Polyester

This text was written while sitting on a park bench during a warm summer’s day. It was too hot to sit inside an office, although I had a deadline coming up. I was lost in my thoughts and decided to “just write something” to jumpstart my paper. I had one quote in mind and decided to expand freely from there with the intention to experiment with writing vividly about an inanimate textile material. The designers’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Location: Helsinki, Finland / Accra, Ghana

“I know it’s polyester, and I don’t know where it’s from, but I bought it from the local market, and local craftsmen created these garments out of the fabric. They are well paid now, the migrants from the north. So, it’s still sustainable, I think.”

The above was said by David, a Ghanaian designer in his 30s, when I asked about the polyester fabric he used in his newest collection. In his collection, he used a plethora of materials, such as discarded cotton fabrics, Fugu, which is a hand-woven cotton cloth, and polyester.  

In November 2020, Vogue wrote a piece stating that Ghanaian, and more generally African, fashion would be at the forefront of a more sustainable fashion industry, also interviewing David.

If the value of sustainability is about preserving the earth for future generations, we often think of it as something related to goodness and even virtuosity. In Finland, designers talk about good and bad fibres, while in Ghana, designers discuss being good to the surrounding community. Could a garment made of polyester be classified as being “good”, considering the future of our planet?

The popular ethos among eco-conscious people in Finland is that it most definitely cannot. Instead, polyester is manufactured from oil and further pollutes our oceans by shedding microplastics. If recycled, some say that the fabrics release even more of these tiny particles, endangering our sea life and, as a consequence, our bodies.

However, in the corporate world, recycled polyester is often used as an answer to the problem of unsustainability. This stance can be seen in the innovation jargon that emphasises continual economic growth, pushed by fast fashion companies: once a polluting textile material is traded into a sustainable one, such as recycled textiles, the problem of “unsustainability” is fixed, and so, the shopping can continue.

Usually, recycled polyester is sold to us paired with slogans of “being good”: buy this, and you will be a better consumer or even a better person!

These imperishable polyester garments are then discarded as quickly as they are put on the market. Some find new homes in Finland through second-hand clothing shops and charitable donations. However, many of them are shipped to the shores of Ghana, one of the biggest destinations for Western second-hand clothing. When it rains, heaps of clothing block Accra’s sewage systems and create floods that make life difficult for the city dwellers.

While imported second-hand clothing creates a visible ecological crisis in Accra, local market vendors sell rolls of vibrantly coloured polyester blends to local Ghanaian designers, who market themselves as sustainable fashion producers. Why is polyester, among other textile fibres, allowed to be part of a sustainable brand in some cases, while in others, it is not? 

When I discussed the use of polyester in Ghanaian designs with designers and shop owners in Finland, many thought of it as a scarcity issue: that African designers would have to “make do” with whatever fabrics they could find. 

Laura, a Finnish shop owner, who only sold slow fashion made with natural materials, understood the use of polyester in this case. In her own shop, she refused to sell woollen pullovers with fine glitter threads sewn in as decoration.

The pullovers had been knitted in Fiskars, some 90 kilometres from Helsinki, and the wool yarn was produced in a small mill in Latvia, whose owners the designer knew well. However, the glitter yarn was plastic, so it did not fit the shop’s sustainable clothing collection. 

Clearly, the categorical assessment to measure the sustainability of material was more lenient when evaluating the work of a Ghanaian designer compared to a Finnish one. Indeed, the evaluation of sustainability through material compositions is a matter of classification. And classifications tend to shift and change throughout history.

To return to the initial question: can a polyester garment be good? I bought one orange-coloured shirt made of a polyester and cotton blend from Ghana, and knowing the people who made it made me value the purchase decision more than others. 

The shirt and its materials had travelled through an intimate and local value chain where the designers personally knew the textile traders and sewists. According to designers, this type of intimacy in the value chain creates greater well-being as there are fewer opportunities for “faceless” exploitation.

If we consider this sense of intimacy as a factor in sustainability, even as a force against fast fashion, then a shirt made out of polyester could, in fact, be good. 

What are Ethnographic Postcards?

Ethnographic Postcards” began on the small island of Vallisaari as part of a writing workshop during a University of Helsinki anthropology discipline outing held in May 2022. 

The workshop was inspired by anthropologist Alisse Waterston, who prior to the outing on Vallisaari had just visited Helsinki to present at the Anthropology Visiting Seminar.

Her paper, “Making Knowledge Accessible“, explores how anthropologists can take on more experimental formats and efforts to communicate the work we do. To apply what she taught us, we walked along Vallisaari’s coastal trails and shared our experiences and emotions associated with writing. 

Ethnographic writing can be very personal and ignite unexpected feelings when diving into stories and experiences that have been gathered from the field.

Writing makes visible what we do know, but it also sheds light on the possible wrongdoings of the ethnographer – making the writing process a daunting task to start with. 

Writing groups are a space where one can share feelings of joy and success, but also of fear and procrastination – all things related to the process of (ethnographic) writing. 

We met once a month with the aim of writing a standalone piece of no more than 1000 words within forty-five minutes. Also inspired by Professor Waterston, we used Carole McGranahan’s online series of Flash Ethnography in American Ethnologist as a prompt. 

Everyone who participated usually came to the collective writing sessions with an idea about what they were going to write about – a person, scene, conversation, place or subject based on each person’s fieldwork. 

As works in progress, the purpose of these writing sessions was to turn these ideas into life; to see how they catch the light. 

This series of anthropological stories is the outcome of our writing sessions. We take postcards as a metaphor to share personalised events. 

Similar to the postcards mailed as souvenirs from another place that showcase an iconic city landscape or monumental site, our postcards evoke memories from the anthropologists’ field sites.

AntroBlogi in English

AntroBlogi has always been adamant about promoting the use of the Finnish language in sharing academic viewpoints and knowledge produced within Finnish anthropology. With this series, AntroBlogi has opened the door to experimenting with other languages too. 

Finnish anthropology hosts researchers from all over the world – and AntroBlogi should be a virtual space for everybody making a difference in the local community. 

This does not mean that there will be less Finnish language content on the site nor that we will try to pivot to a global audience. Similar to the “Ethnographic Postcards” series, we want to keep our publishing work open-ended so that it keeps evolving together with the discipline and the local academic community.

Editorial team

  • Writers (What are Ethnographic Postcards): Suvi Rautio & Emmi Holm
  • Editor: Emmi Holm
  • Proofreading: Maija Sequeira
  • Podcaster: Eemi Nordström
  • Layout: Niina Ahola
  • Featured image: Volha Flaxeco/Unsplash (Unsplash license)
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Emmi Holm

Emmi Holm on väitöskirjatutkija Helsingin yliopistossa. Hänen väitöskirjansa käsittelee vastuullisen muodin tuottamista Suomessa ja Ghanassa, sekä siihen liittyviä narratiiveja sosiaalisessa mediassa. Aikaisemmin Emmi on työskennellyt muun muassa tutkimuksen yhteiskunnallisen vaikuttavuuden parissa.Katso kirjoittajan artikkelit

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