On entering the building, we were very warmly greeted by the ladies of Grupo de Maes - there was a very obvious warm energy and mutual caring between the two groups.
Grupo de Maes stemmed from a sewing course given by a local cultural NGO (OCA – Escola Cultural). It became evident that this was a common theme in Brazil - an enterprising group taking skills they’d learnt from a social investment and spinning out into a business of sorts. In this case, a collective of seamstresses had been upskilling over a number of years, including obtaining funding to share cultural experiences and skills with other groups across Brazil. One area they had become strong in is the embroidery from the Pernambuco region in the north east of Brazil. Traditionally, it was produced by slaves based on European stylings – one of the techniques was even named after Louis XIV.
Some of Grupo de Maes' handiwork
Ecotece has been helping Grupo de Maes to become more commercially savvy, move to more sustainable inputs and access brands and markets. For example, they have been pushing the women to move from incredibly delicate but time-consuming designs to new ones that are far quicker to produce (per given unit area). This brings the costs down to make it viable for brands to source from them. Typically a 10cm by 10cm piece was easily taking 2 hours, through simplification, enlargement and iteration, they were getting down to 30-45 mins. The most difficult part of this change was behavioural because the Grupo de Maes women felt they were making far less intricate and beautiful designs – ‘selling out’ essentially. Ecotece helps to manage this transition and also supports with basic electronic record keeping and process mapping.
Prototyping new designs (note upcycling dog food packets for the base fabric!)
Today was an important showcase day with the visit of Fernanda Yamamoto, a very well-known designer and brand who had been particularly taken with Grupo de Maes' embroidery. She was interested to see the updated embroidery and the environment where the women worked. She arrived shortly after us with her team and then we were all treated to a tour of the building and an extensive review of the various products – first the older intricate designs, and then reluctantly the newer formats. There was much discussion of the history, approach, process and challenges of various pieces – a lot of which was lost on me partly due to my fashion inexperience and my lack of Portuguese. Cecile from Ecotece as ever was very helpful in giving a running commentary.
Show and tell about OCA, Grupo de Maes and their embroidery work
Tour of the building
This show and tell then lapsed into a tour of the rest of the building owned and ran by OCA who support youth education and women in the community. The building was of a lovely open design acting as a community hub for local children and mothers to relax, learn and be creative - it is of a somewhat haphazard construction which suited the organised chaos of kids running around having fun. It resides on a heritage site just down a gentle slope from the best preserved Jesuit village in Brazil dating back to 1580. The building itself is extremely fit for purpose with large open spaces for activities, maker spaces, a library, kitchen and a long series of wardrobes to keep all the various costumes for the children. Further, the building itself was an example of social circular economy with the majority of the construction being produced from donated telegraph poles from the nearby town of Itu. Luckily, the founder of the organisation was a professor at the architecture department at FAU-USP, a university in Sao Paulo. He well understood the design requirements for using reused materials and the need to construct something that was appropriate to the surroundings and respect the heritage of the site.
Surrounding area: around the building, Jesuit village (including upcycled art) and local area
Then to cap off the tour, we walked up to the Jesuit village and then to the local park. Interestingly, a park of this nature would not usually survive in such good condition in most favela/periferia areas as they tend to be exploited (understandably), typically as illegal landfill sites or habitation. Being part of or at least adjacent to the heritage site likely helped it stay relatively untouched.
We ended the day back in the OCA building with a traditional “lanche”, afternoon snacks of coffee, corn cakes, bread and other knickknacks. I was variously poked by laughing kids at this point who wanted to test (shout?) English greetings – as good as my Portuguese.
It was a lovely day, getting to see the community and observe how Ecotece works on a typical day. A big thanks to Cecile Petitgand of Ecotece who has been unendingly helpful with translations, connections and general pointers.
As I begin my Churchill Fellowship trip, I wanted to address the incongruence between the sustainable practices I’m exploring and the fact that travel, particularly intercontinental travel, makes a huge contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. While some of the mitigating actions I’m taking are small, orders of magnitude smaller in some cases than say a flight from London to Sao Paolo, sticking to those principles can have large effects over time. Here it is about demonstrating principles.
My aim is to perform some carbon mapping during and post trip so that I can report the footprint of my travels so watch this space!
Most of my flights have been booked through Diversity Travel who support Fellows to find the best deals. Diversity provides carbon offsets for their flights – while there is a lot of debate over the effectiveness and appropriateness of carbon offsets, as long as it doesn’t provide an excuse for more travel, my sense is it is better to do than not. Flights are likely to be the vast majority of my footprint and thus the final amount of CO2 will very much depend on the assumption/perspective one takes on the carbon offset. I’m waiting on Diversity to send me their policies so I can delve into the exact details and pass some comment on this…
I will aim to keep land travel to public transport to share my emissions with many others. When practicality dictates, I will try to use Uber or the ilk in keeping with one of the key tenets of the circular economy: maximising the utilisation of assets.
Similarly to the above, I will be using AirBnB / house shares as part of maximising the utilisation of assets. Again, I know there have been unintended consequences e.g. San Francisco, but my view again is that the social impact is neutral and the environmental impact of not building big hotels and resorts are positive.
From a utilities usage perspective, I will generally be out and about so I will not be in the accommodation much meaning my power and water needs will be small. I cannot control my source of electricity (fossil fuel versus renewables) so I will assume a worst case scenario when I come to calculate.
As an aside, if I were to buy iPads and a lot of textiles from virgin resources, then this category could rival the Flights category for carbon footprint due to the large associated extraction energy (without even considering the depletion of material stock). I’m sure I will succumb to one or two souvenirs in the end but I’m more than happy to walk away with memories (sometimes snapped by my camera).
Food, drink and other consumables…
Local sourcing is generally a good rule of thumb. However, it becomes very tricky very quickly – consider growing a tomato in a greenhouse with heating and lighting in the UK versus sourcing from Spain – the carbon calculations will most likely show that the foreign veggies are better for the environment. The New Zealand lamb industry like to point out that their lamb is less burdensome to the planet even when eaten in the UK when compared to Welsh lamb, due to the efficiencies in farming practices which outweigh the travel footprint (I’ll let the reader look through the data and decide for themselves!). The trick is to stick in season with your local area – don’t buy fresh strawberries in December in the UK, but go wild in May/June. The implication for me is that I will have to learn what food is in-season wherever I go! Luckily, I’ll be in rather fertile lands meaning that I shouldn’t be limited to turnips.
The above categories cover the main contributors to my footprint and will be something I keep a record of as best I can while tripping, with the intention of collating it all at the end to show the environmental impact. I’ll try to aim low!
I happened to be in Belfast to meet a good friend from my New York days - we hired a car to go up the coast to the Giant’s Causeway, a thoroughly recommended trip in my view
Photos from the road
Coincidentally, I had come to hear about an innovative model being operated by the East Belfast Mission so we took a small detour before we headed up the coast. We parked up in a side street in a rather deprived area that had some striking political murals like the more famous ones on the other side of the city
East Belfast Murals
I was met by Gary Robb, Centre & Development Manager at the SKAINOS Centre which is a state of the art facility operated by EBM since 2012 hosting other community support organisations like New Life Counselling, Tear Fund and Age NI. Gary was kind enough to tell me more about the local context, EBM’s work and in particular how it extracts value from the circular economy.
The local area of Ballymacarrett of East Belfast is particularly socially deprived having been decimated by the decline of the shipping industry resulting in high unemployment and homelessness. EBM continue to play its historic role since the 1800s of supporting and regenerating the community through a variety of activities including outreach, homeless support, employability training, day care, cheap access to community spaces and a community café. A small but poignant symptom of the pressures of the area’s deprivation was highlighted in the café – I noticed that we were only given disposable cutlery and our hot drinks were provided with just the milk required. This was because unfortunately there was a tendency for proper metallic cutlery and jugs of milk to go missing.
EBM operate a triple bottom line i.e. social, environmental and financial objectives for their business arm (‘social economy projects’) that help the sustainability of the social projects. They run several ventures that showcase the circular economy through the social enterprise model, going to market with a nice suite of brands:
Refresh and Restore (including some Refurb, Recycle and Repaint products)
Beyond this EBM provide cheap access to high quality facilities i.e. sharing economy:
Employment project poster, chapel and sports hall for hire and therapeutic garden
It was great to see the excellent work EBM was doing, delivering social and financial value from the principles of the circular economy. Thanks to Gary for his time and sharing his insights.