by Miko Takama
We know shockingly little about where the clothes we own come from. When we think about what we wear, we don’t think about the consequences of the manufacturing and disposal of our clothing nor the materials in our clothes.
Unfortunately, the current fashion industry’s way of making textiles and garments is horrible for humans and the planet, and we have been disconnected from the impact of our clothes for so long that we’ve been lulled into a passive, non-questioning state of being as a consumer. Farm-to-closet fashion is essentially about knowing a lot better about your clothes, but it’s also about disconnecting from a harmful system and reinvigorating a local economy where the process of farm-to-closet is beneficial for the environment and all the people involved in the supply chain.
It’s time for us to look at raw materials, relearn what it means to produce and consume, invest in agriculture that heals the planet and people, and build new relationships with our clothes.
Consequences of Fast Fashion
Since the beginning of fast fashion, the way we produce and consume fashion items have changed and become more dangerous. Sometime in the 1990s or 2000s, retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Primark started popping up on the street. Clothes became cheaper than a cup of coffee, trend cycles sped up, the production process moved overseas for cheap labour, and nobody knew where those clothes came from. Due to the low prices, clothes are now considered disposable products.
Right now, about 98% of the clothes sold in the U.S. are made overseas, most brands do not own their supply chains, so whatever happens in the farming, milling, sewing of their garments is conveniently out of their jurisdiction. It has allowed some of the worst human rights offences to take place. Undocumented overtime, worker abuse, fire and safety code non-compliance, child labour are just a few of the issues in the fashion supply chain. Because fashion’s supply chain is complex and spread out around the world, transparency and traceability are more difficult.
Fast fashion’s impact on the planet is also notorious including its use of textiles that are a blend of natural fibers and synthetic fibers (https://www.publicecology.de/journal/noblendedmaterials) which makes the final textile horrible for the environment because it cannot be recycled or biodegrade since it’s not 100% synthetic nor natural. Then the textile is dyed with toxins while dumping all the wastewater from the dying process into rivers. Around 20% of freshwater pollution around the planet is attributed to the dyeing and treatment of garments, making the fashion industry the second largest polluter of clean water globally.
The biggest problems with fast fashion are overproduction and overconsumption. Due to the number of humans producing and purchasing garments at an incredibly high rate, the cumulative impacts made by the synthetic and toxic materials in our clothes quickly add up. Somewhere between 80 to 150 billion individual garments are produced every year globally, a doubling in only 15 years, supporting a $1.3 trillion textile industry that employs 3 hundred million people in nearly every country.
Cotton, for example, people often view conventional cotton as “natural, therefore good” without realizing its agricultural and social impacts. The truth is that conventional cotton involves excessive use of water, genetically modified seeds (GMO) and chemical dependence, pollution, and heartbreaking stories of farmer suicide. Small and midsized farms around the world are struggling from a commodity-based model dominated by large agricultural interests that leverage everything against the farmers.
Within a farming community in India, American agrochemical multinational corporation Monsato is responsible for huge socio-economic damage ever since they launched illegal operations and pressured farmers to adopt a strain of genetically modified Bt cotton. Since 2002, the use of Bt cotton has grown exponentially in India. However, since their seeds are expensive, they lose effectiveness after one generation and later become resistant to fighting insect infestations, leading to poor yields and heavy debts incurred by local farmers.
According to the Agricultural Ministry of India, the socio-economic crisis spurred on since the adoption of Bt cotton and it has led to a devastating increase in farmer suicides between 2011 and 2021. Bt cotton centralized the power in the cotton industry by dictating farmers’ lives as a domain.
The pandemic has also thrown up plenty of hurdles to making and shipping products. Global transportation bottlenecks have slowed the time it takes a product to make it from the factory to the customer from a few weeks to two-and-a-half months. In the freight industry, rising oil prices and a shortage of shipping containers have caused the cost of overseas transportation to quadruple since 2019. The fashion industry is in the midst of a supply chain crisis as a result of globalization and due to the pandemic and restrictions.
If we want to be part of peaceful global community members, we need an economy that is as resilient and self-sufficient as possible. Because if we depend on resources that come from outside, only the people with power will control these resources and the economy becomes domination oriented. We also learned from this Pandemic the importance of being self-sufficient. It’s never been more clear that we need to address the environmental, economic and social issues in the fashion industry and understand the benefits of decentralizing the textile supply chain.
Wardrobe Challenge: Beginning of Farm-to-Closet Fashion
It all started when Rebecca Burgess, weaver, dyer and an activist, started by searching for alternative substances of synthetic dye and discovered plant-based dye. She rode her bike to collect blackberries, dandelion leaves and bought cabbage and beets. She had an image of a wardrobe that would be made from natural fibres and dyes grown within a strategic area centred on where she lived. She would focus her attention on the plants, animals, and people that lived in this fibershed with her and determine how, or if, she could create a wardrobe and live in these homegrown clothing items. And that’s how her personal project started, to source all of her clothing from her fibershed and develop an environmentally friendly, locally made (150-miles radius from her house) wardrobe for twelve months.
She began with a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money to cover the costs of the raw materials and services of textile artisans, as well as to document the project’s progress. The next step was to set up meetings with neighboring farms, ranches, design students, and community members who were interested in collaborating on the development phase of garment creation.
After meeting local farmers, she managed to get her hands on organic, color-grown cotton, merino wool and more materials within a two-hour drive from her house. She also came to appreciate the fibers produced from the Camelidae animal family - alpacas, llamas, and guanacos - all of which existed in her fibershed and provided protein fibers.
As she made fibre and yarn purchases from these farms and ranches, she set up meetings with friends and colleagues who were interested in making prototype garments from locally grown materials. Several local knitters kindly helped her make sweaters, leggings, and socks. Eventually, the prototype fibershed wardrobe grew to include shorts, wide-leg capris for biking, work pants, sleeveless tunics that double as a dress, separate sleeves, below-the-knee bloomers, and undergarments.
From her hands-on learning journey, she learned about textile making that is not reflected in today’s industrial economy. Instead, she found geographic pockets of time-tested indigenous practices and approaches toward textile making that existed symbiotically with ecosystem health and function. The project organically evolved into a social network of collaborations that spanned the farm-to-closet process, and her fibershed wardrobe was a vernacular that communicated the wild, naturalized, and domesticated diversity of her home region.
Her personal project brought some surprise opportunities, including the realization of the soil carbon as a potential to eliminate the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, decarbonizing the atmosphere and re-carbonizing the soils, and bringing the narrative to other fashion brands has become her next mission. Agriculture is one of the top sources of global greenhouse gas emissions, conventional agriculture contributes up to 25% of the emissions worldwide, and topsoil could be gone within 60 years if we keep up with the current rate of degradation. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, supports people and animals working together to restore the health of our planet, primarily through practices that increase soil organic matter, barring pesticides and lowering CO2 emissions.
Rebecca realized that farm-to-closet fashion combined with regenerative agriculture can be a meaningful practice that other people can benefit from and connect with the soil, plants and animals that grew and people who made the clothes. It can create a world in which our own local fibersheds improve our resiliency, our economies, our environments right where we are. Now the question was, how could this be a real thing, how can she bring this project to other people?
Fibershed: New Textile Economy
Rebecca’s next mission led her to start a non-profit organization Fibershed, to bring the idea of farm-to-closet to fashion brands so that brands could source their raw materials in their neighborhood while making their supply chain carbon negative (taking more carbon from the atmosphere than emitting), and by doing so, they can contribute to the local economy, produce garments that can go back to the nature.
“What companies and people don’t recognize is the power of farmers and ranchers hold today to turn around the health of our soil, which can not only improve the nutrient density of food and quality of fibres but that they are the stakeholders in the climate solution”, Rebecca said in Fibershed’s podcast.
“Rarely anyone thought that the farming part of their supply chain could not only reduce carbon emission and store it in the soil for decades and centuries”.
We are starting to see big fashion brands such as Patagonia, Timberland and Christy Dawn exploring ways to incorporate farm-to-closet fashion and support regenerative agriculture. Patagonia started experimenting with its own Regenerative Organic Certification with more than 150 cotton farmers in India way back in 2017. The pilot aimed to rehabilitate soil, respect animal welfare and improve the lives of farmers while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and trapping more carbon than conventional agriculture. Farmers use a range of methods that have been around for centuries including composting, crop rotation, and intercropping.
Smaller brands that don’t have the financial capability to own land and practice regenerative agriculture can still get involve and support the movement by incorporating materials that are produced using regenerative farming methods. 1 People incorporates bluesign® certified Regenerated Silk to create garments and scarfs (bluesign® certifies a safe and sustainable ecological impact where harmful substances are eliminated throughout the whole process). The brand also donates 40% of its profit to organizations that help the brand achieve its mission, to alleviate poverty.
By promoting pillars of environmentalism and ethical labour, fashion can be a more transparent, accountable and equitable industry. The process of farm-to-closet fashion creates opportunities to build new relationships that are rooted in sharing skills, physical labour, and creativity, all of which carry meaning, purpose, and a way to belong to one another and to the land. While the fashion industry can weave in regenerative agriculture with a focus on carbon sequestration, we cannot secure a truly regenerative textile economy without worker welfare, social equity and policies that protect the biodiversity of our planet.
Rebecca’s experience is an example of a powerful story that can empower consumers with knowledge and allow them to make informed purchase decisions. Just like knowing the origin of our food and who grew it can make it taste better, bringing the stories of garments to the forefront can make your style feel better - touching us on an emotional level which is something that we’ve lost since the arrival of fast fashion.
In order for us to make farm-to-closet fashion mainstream, we have to purchase brands that are trying to do the same. Because every time we buy something, we are investing in their business model. We need to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to consume? What does it mean to be materialist?” We need to care about the material that is sourced and how it’s made instead of the acquisition of the material. When we begin to connect with the impacts our clothes have on the land, air, water, labour, and our own health, we can change the way we consume and buy less and get rid of the throw-away-tomorrow mentality of fast fashion.
If you’d like to support Fibershed, you can make a donation from here: https://fibershed.org/join/.
Learn more about Miko Takama's journey to improve the fashion industry and become more sustainable sustainability at https://www.publicecology.de/ or follow @publicecology on instagram.