Local Peace Economy

Want Sustainable Clothing? It's Time to Meet Regenerative Fiber

Let’s bring the textile industry—and fashion—home.

Photo Credit: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock

Do you know where your clothing came from? Not the store, the label or the brand, or from China, India or Vietnam—I mean, do you know who made your clothing? Do you know what your clothes are made from? Or where the fiber in your clothing came from—the cotton, polyester or acrylic?

Chances are, you don’t. And that’s a problem. It’s difficult for people to have respect for an item—or the person who created it—when they don’t know where the item came from or how it was made in the first place.

For instance, did you know your athletic gear is probably made from plastic? And that 94 percent of U.S. drinking water has plastic lint from our clothing in it? You’re literally washing the plastic from your yoga pants into our water systems. Polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex—it’s all plastic. Ninety-eight million tons of oil was used in the textile industry in 2015. By 2050, that number is expected to be 300 million.

And cotton is no easy solution, using 16 percent of the world’s insecticides. Pesticides can then become concentrated in the cotton, as in tampons, or returned to the food supply via cottonseed.

When Bena Burda, founder of organic apparel company Maggie’s Organics, learned about the harms of cotton, she was horrified. She was working in the organic food industry and thought, "This is ridiculous. How can we not know this?”

Regenerative fiber is a movement to return the entire system of clothing, from agriculture to product and back again, to within 250 miles of where one lives. It's a solution to the large-scale, global exploitative textile system and has components rooted in the local, community-based economy, with local farmers cultivating organic fibers—wool, cotton, alpaca, hemp—and developing the processing required to bring it from field to fabric, fabric to product.

Fashion—as most of us know it—is exploitative and unsustainable, says Anna Canning, communications coordinator of Fair World Project, an organization that advocates for policy solutions like a living wage.

“You have a lot of exploitation in factories around the globe,” she says, pointing to low pay, long hours and forced labor, often of women. In addition, fashion contributes to climate change. The industry “is on track to consume a quarter of the global carbon supply by 2050.” Fashion itself is also resource intensive and disposable.

Worse, our nation has seemingly lost the ability to produce its own ethical fiber.

“There’s only one non-GMO [cotton] gin in the country,” says Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, an organization focused on educating the public on the environmental, economic and social benefits of bringing the textile supply chain home. “We can’t even wash our fibers in California.” The U.S., she says, has “an inability to process fiber in an ethical way.” 

In the last century, due to neo-liberal policy and the frictionless moving of capital, our nation’s ability to foster local fiber systems and cultivate local textiles has been exported to the point where even the memory of how to make textiles has been mostly extinguished, says Burgess.

When the U.S. lost the textile industry, it lost the memory of how to build these systems, and the ability to innovate within them. “The textile industry is a relic from the late 19th and early 20th century, so when we go back to re-envision bringing it home, we’re working on American equipment built in the 1920s.”

Much of Burgess’s work is around building awareness of what it will take to return local textile industries to the United States. “We need to repair cultural and political divides,” she says. Bringing the fiber systems back into the communities can lead to an enormous shift for rural and urban communities alike, especially when the goal is developing these systems with family farms and worker-owned co-operatives.

Doing that holistically fosters diversity from the farm to your yoga mat. “In an adept system,” says Burgess, “you could combine inter-species yarn that would replace our reliance on fossil-carbon fiber.”

Burgess sees inter-species fiber blends as a solution: combining plant and animal blends such as wool-hemp, or wool-alpaca-cotton, all in one yarn. Plastic athletic wear can be replaced with such yarns and fabrics, which can then reduce the amount of plastic that sheds into our oceans and rivers. She points to “pre-Columbian, Roman-Greek recipe blending. There’s a long history of it. We just forgot about it.”

“We call it the soil-to-soil framework,” she explains. It’s a cycle: What’s coming out of the soil and how you’re treating the soil. Creating the structures to harvest, clean and move material off-farm and into cooperatively owned mills. Moving textiles to locally owned cooperative manufacturers. Distributing to consumers. Consumers who are able to care for and mend the product. And then, at the end of its life, the clothing can be recycled or composted and returned to the soil, without further polluting or damaging the land.

There are few of these regional fiber systems in existence today in the U.S., but Burgess and similar groups are working to change that. “We have farms and brands and manufacturers that have pieces of it. It’s a fledgling system. It needs a lot of support from the consumer.”

People need to seek out local fibers and locally made clothing, the way they have sought out local farmer’s markets.

Many Americans today, however, can’t afford to shop at farmer’s markets, let alone buy locally made clothing. If they do shop at a farmer’s market, they often take advantage of “SNAP match” programs some markets offer, where you get a dollar to spend for every food stamp dollar you use at the market. These same folks might want to engage in local, regional fiber—but at $95 a scarf, that might not seem feasible.

“If you don’t have a lot of income, you can learn how to mend,” says Burgess. It then becomes about slowing down the fast fashion machine. Currently, 87 percent of the clothing we consume ends up in a landfill or incinerated.

“It’s kind of like divesting from oil. Divest from fashion,” says Burgess. “You’ve gotta hit it from a number of levels at once."

Burda of Maggie’s Organics turned her shock into a new career in organic apparel. “My real job is to take the people who wear my clothes and connect them with the people who make my clothes. What better way than to take physical product that women are invested in and connect the dots to every single set of hands?”

Fair World Project's Canning approaches the issue from a fair trade perspective. “The reality is, these movements are all working for a just economy for all people. It is an investment to purchase something that takes into account the full cost of production.” Especially American-made production.

“Americans have a long way to go on their behavior to understand what it takes to make a garment and what those things will cost,” says Burgess.

Once that's understood, perhaps we can bring the textile and garment industries home.

How you can divest from fast fashion

  1. Stop wearing plastic.
  2. Wear your clothes a lot more. If you see a hole or lose a button, mend it or find someone in your community who can. Barter or trade to get the job done.
  3. Instead of buying new clothing, have a clothing swap. 
  4. If you’re buying new, look for organic cotton. If cotton is not certified organic, it’s GMO.
  5. Purchase items that are 100 percent wool, flax, linen, or hemp/cotton blends.
  6. Start paying attention. Read the tag. What does it say?
  7. Know who made your clothing. Know who sewed it.
  8. Learn how to make your own clothing. 

Valerie Vande Panne is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Politico, and many other publications.

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