The term “Grand Challenges,” although I had not yet fully read the definition, reminded me of a constant focus in my study – material industries. Believed to be covered under the wings of the SDGs, our global economy is large if not entirely consistent in the material. Textiles and apparel, food and agriculture, and technology being the major three industries that are the nucleus of all material industries. Their respective supply chains cover every issue from climate change to human rights and are abundant in challenges.
For example, in the fashion industry effects and perpetuates environmental degradation, human rights violations, and tamper in good governance practices globally so that anyone could buy a $5 t-shirt and a $15 pair of jeans before it even makes it to the sale rack. I use this to preface that a “Grand Challenge” is just as Branscomb defines as a “technically complex societal problem(s) that have stubbornly defied solution.” To want to solve the challenge of restructuring material economies and industries to do better by the environment, foster job creation that is positive, and aid in good governance practices is a lofty goal to want to reach. According to the United Nation Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the clothing and textile industry contributes 2.4 trillion dollars to global manufacturing, employs 75 million people worldwide who are mostly women, are responsible for 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the fashion industry, and 500 billion dollars is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and lack of recycling. The fashion industry has an implication on almost all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and therefore I and others agree that the industry itself is a Grand Challenge.
Solutions for this industry and other material economies are not simple by any means. How do we reshape how consumers interact with material economies, how do we restructure economies to be more circular, if circularity is even the answer or a short-term solution, and how would this affect vulnerable populations in the transition periods and in the long-term are all questions that have multiple avenues for foreseeable positive impact if addressed in some collaborative fashion. But, with any Grand Challenge, if industry, government, and other stakeholders are willing to come and work together to use their expert judgment to synthesizes disparate and often conflicting sources of information from their perspectives to produce an integrated picture of success by producing viable solutions the concept of a Grand Challenge may not seem so grand anymore.
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