“Economic meant something very different in the 19th century” remarked Dr Mark Nesbitt, “it meant practical or useful." I was visiting the rubber archives at the Economic Botany Collection in Kew Gardens and had misunderstood the term ‘economic’ to imply natural products that were valuable. It was a fascination with the power of economics that led me to wild rubber, and my fascination with wild rubber brought me here to this little narrow corridor of drawers in the back of Kew. The collection was founded in 1846, a few years after Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock filed separate patents for the process for stabilizing rubber (vulcanization), and five years before they displayed extraordinary rubber moldings (pipes, brooches, combs..) at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
I’m interested in economics because I believe it's the most important tool we have to address major social and environmental issues. Let’s take the poster child of environmentalism: deforestation of the Amazon. When Goodyear, Hancock and Macintosh were first developing their rubber products, rubber could only be sourced from the Para tree which grows wild in the Amazon. For many years it was the Amazon’s gold. Then in 1876 an English explorer and Scottish botanist, Henry Wickham and Robert Cross, boarded a weekly steamer from the Amazon to Liverpool with 70,000 Para seeds which they took to Kew. 2,500 of those seeds germinated, and in the 1880s [the seedlings] were sent to Singapore where Henry Ridley persuaded Malaysian farmers to begin the rubber plantations which proceeded to see the collapse of the Brazilian wild rubber market. [Something which in the short term was welcomed by Amazonians, as the rubber trade had been largely facilitated by slave labour, but in the longer term undercut a market which would have offered the forest intrinsic value.]
Since the 19th century, the forest itself has offered very little economic value comparative to the short term economic gains that can be made from cleared land (logging, agriculture, cattle ranching). For example, in 2012 the average yield (R$/hectare) for native (wild) rubber offered 2.5% of the yield for pineapples, which requires cleared land. With the exception of WW2 when the Allies supply chains to oriental rubber were cut off and “rubber soldiers” were deployed to the “green hell” of the Amazon en masse to tap, since the nineteenth century wild rubber tapping has been unable to compete with the production costs of plantation rubber, and has become a comparatively unprofitable business.
In the 1970s a movement for rubber tappers emerged led by tapper and activist Chico Mendes. Mendes formed a rubber tappers' union, keen to protect tapper’s rights, and in the process protect the survival of the forest. The movement united indigenous people, environmental conservationism and a sustainable economic policy based on extraction rather than destruction. They laid the foundation for ‘extractive reserves’ - state owned and protected areas of land, where local communities could manage the land sustainably. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees,” Mendes famously said, “then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.” On December 22nd 1988 Chico Mendes was assassinated in the back doorway of his home. His wife and two children were inside the house. His two security guards ran away. I visited Mendes’ home in Xapuri, Acre, Brazil a few weeks ago, and was inspired to see how the legacy of his work continues to shine through a complex canopy of environmentalists and entrepreneurs alike. There are now [48?] extractive reserves in Brazil, and several factories and cooperatives in Acre developed for the sustainable production of forest products such as Brazil Nuts, timber, and of course, wild rubber.
My fascination with economics and supply chains stems from - and loops me back into - my work in fashion, where I studied the stories and impact of the many things we consume, produce, and promote: from diamonds to cotton, from cashmere to butter. I have founded several companies that seek to use economics to apply social agendas: from a knitwear company which names it knitting grandmas (thenorthcircular.com) to a social network connecting people to do things for others for free aka the gift economy (impossible.com). I have now collaborated with designers to produce three products from wild rubber (jewelry, trainers and a dress) and am exploring the development of other wild rubber products via wildrubber.com.
For centuries capitalism has ascribed value through competition, anonymity and opacity. As we move into a digital age of transparency, openness and information, can information, story telling and a greater understanding of provenance and context shift that narrative to one that values the social and environmental imprints of things? Is a sweater more valuable when it is hand knit? Is it more valuable when you know who knit it? Is rubber that is manually hand tapped by indigenous communities who walk great distances to find it, and which conserves the forest in the meantime, inherently more valuable? No story is perfect, no story is fully transparent: we want to harvest the power of the crowd to audit the companies we represent. What we consume becomes part of our own story and identity. Economics should be about stories we are proud to sell, to share, to become. This is not impossible.
This article was originally published in the Financial Times Weekend magazine December 2014. Visit wildrubber.com to learn more.