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Last week we ReWilders went to the G F Smith paper factory as part of the ReWilding programme, which was more of a product manufacturing plant rather than paper making.

It was interesting to see the processes behind paper – products like how sketchbooks are hand-glued?! – and fun to go up a 14ft cherrypicker (!!) but now that I’ve time to digest the experience… I don’t think I found it creatively inspiring in the slightest lol.

I had some thoughts though, which I’ll share here:

  • I love paper as a material – I get really excited by it.
  • I’m really interested in the seaweed, hemp and beer paper they’re doing. I’d be interested in learning – in the grand scheme of planetary health and ecosystems, and manufacturing processes – how much more sustainable they are? I wanna play with some, see how they feel to work with compared to what I’m used to.
  • I was struck by the industrial violence of the machinery – the way it pummeled, pressed, cut, sliced, bound and manipulated the paper. I’m used to handling materials in a very careful, intentional and intimate way and well, machinery designed for Fordian efficiency is just brutal isn’t it?
  • I noticed no ‘voice’ of the forest in the factory, or no real apparent understanding or respect for the tree beyond it’s monetary and extrinsic value. I get this is a business and that’s their priority, as a person who is sensitive to these things – it felt really extractivist to me.
  • There’s a lot of reference to FSC and B Corp certification around environmental sustainability questions, both in this factory and elsewhere – but both of those things (despite the original good intentions of both initiatives) have come under a lot of global fire for being greenwashing tools across industry and that they don’t go far enough (it’s not hard to find the critiques). I’m not saying GF Smith is using these ‘industry stamps’ to greenwash themselves, but it doesn’t carry the weight anymore like I think they think it does.
  • There’s a quote on the Environmental Sustainability page that narks me a bit though: “There aren’t many industries around that can aspire to becoming genuinely sustainable. The paper industry, however, is one of them; it is inherently sustainable.” (Jonathon Porritt, Forum for the Future). Is it though? Just because you’re (as in the royal ‘you’, not just GF explicitly) extracting things out of the ground doesn’t make it sustainable – basically all timber forests are monocultures and lack biodiversity, and machinery and transportation don’t magically fuel themselves. Very small scale enterprises could probably be sustainable, but when we’re talking INDUSTRY like we are in this context, the most sustainable industry is one that doesn’t exist – so an ‘inherently sustainable’ industry is kinda paradoxical. And I’m pretty confident that no industry can be ‘genuinely sustainable’ whilst looking to maximise revenue and turn a profit.

I think I’ll get a lot more from the paper-making factory in Cumbria (we’re going next month) than I got here. Except… I’m hoping that I don’t experience what I felt when I went to a silk making factory in Shanghai. I visited a silk factory as part of an educational visit and I was horrified. I learnt how mass-farmed silk worms are dumped into rows and rows of giant boiling vats of water, boiling them alive so that the silk fibres unravel and become ready for further processing. In that moment I could honestly feel the screams of these worms in my soul (I still shudder at the memory) and burst into tears and went to go wait outside alone for an hour whilst the others finished the tour. I wasn’t vegetarian/vegan back then, but that experience had a huge profound on me – it stuck with me and I ended up making work (Finest Silk, 2011) in response to that experience.

It was brutal. It was on such a mass scale. About 150 silk worms die to make a single tie, 10,000 to make a single sari, so you can imagine the sheer scale of it. And the staff were so desensitised, and noone else seemed to give a shit? I couldn’t comprehend how easy it was for my classmates to buy all these silk scarves in the factory shop after the tour ended. It made me so hyper critical of ‘industry’, and I never bought or wore silk again.  It’s this experience that probably helped shaped why I’m so affected by the ‘violence’ of machinery and process, and critical about who’s getting exploited down the end of the line.

I’m hoping that I don’t have a similar experience at the pulp factory, where I hear the screams of the trees and struggle with the concept of paper because… how would I be able to actually function as an artist? I bloody LOVE paper. How could I function in this society? I think seeing industrial logging would be difficult maybe, I dunno. It’s a chewy thing that could require even more cognitive dissonance than I already need to nurture to avoid daily breakdowns at the immorality of our systems.

So yeah, although I’m cynical and a miserable bastard sometimes – the visit was good, the staff were absolutely lovely and I learnt a lot about what they do (I do think they’re trying to be one of the good guys).

Yet despite being surrounded by it, I missed the voice of the material in the room.


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