Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, with livestock accounting for 77% of global farming land. As awareness of the scale and impact of industrial agriculture grows, more people are turning to regenerative agriculture as a viable alternative.
However, while it’s natural to associate the word agriculture with food production, we need to remember that farming also includes fashion. Cotton alone accounts for 2.5% of the world’s arable land, and it’s predicted that by 2030 the fashion industry will use 35% more land for cotton, forest for cellulosic fibres, and grassland for livestock. It’s vital, therefore, that the concerns we have around food production are also applied to farming for fashion.
So what could a regenerative fashion future look like?
Fibershed: the regenerative option
Enter Fibershed. In general, a Fibershed is a specific geographical area that has the natural resources and infrastructure to produce locally harvested and created textiles responsibly; minimising waste and benefitting the environment.
More specifically, the non-profit Fibershed was founded in California in 2010. It was formed after textile artist Rebecca Burgess embarked on a year-long challenge to only wear clothes that were grown, dyed and made locally (including milling, spinning, cutting and sewing). What started as a response to global industrial practices quickly grew into much more, promoting alternative, ecological methods over fast fashion. It addressed the environmental and social issues of a hyper-consumerist fast fashion model, by instead choosing to support local businesses and makers, emphasising quality and transparency.
The larger movement that followed brings together regional initiatives that are known as ‘soil-to-soil’. These include areas like farms, ranches, designers and fibre producers, who all play a part in building a regenerative textile system and understanding of how fashion can impact the carbon cycle. Fibershed aims to redefine the relationship between clothes and the land that produces them by connecting people to the local areas where their fibres are made. The overall goal is to strengthen communities by focusing on local resources and promoting regenerative farming practices that sequester carbon.
Fast forward a decade, and there are now over 30 official Fibershed communities across the globe. Each one develops its own regional and regenerative fibre systems, suited to individual locations, that help people create regenerative wardrobes. They promote locally grown fibres, natural dyes, and local makers, and advance the concept of fibre systems that centre on individual regions, by focusing on healthy soils and carbon farming, agroecological research, and education and outreach.
The California branch runs educational programmes that have reached thousands of students and producers, while also conducting research and programs that have influenced both huge textile companies and small scale projects too.
Farming and fashion
Just like regenerative farming for food, a Fibreshed ethos goes beyond sustainability by considering the entire system. Not only how fibres are grown and clothes are produced, but also how they’re worn, how long they last, and what happens when they’re no longer used. This is what is meant by the phrase soil-to-soil.
It begins at the growing stage. Like other forms of regenerative farming, the soil is managed in such a way as to build up soil organic matter, creating healthier land and sequestering carbon. This means no synthetic chemicals or fertilisers, as well as using other regenerative practices, which can vary depending on the land. Each garment is then constructed using only natural fibres and dyes, (and ideally in mills powered by renewable energy) meaning it is completely compostable and can easily return to the earth. It comes from healthy soil and can return to it, creating a system that mimics the natural world.
Every activity Fibershed runs works towards the ultimate goal of developing this regional soil-to-soil system; where textiles are grown, processed, designed, sewn, worn and composted locally. They prototyped the 150-mile wardrobe, with all growing, dyeing and labour generated within a 150-mile radius. It produced no toxic freshwater effluent, reduced the carbon footprint to 1/6th of a conventional garment, and developed a network of designers and producers who could collaborate to build new models for the fashion industry.
This all shows what’s possible when we rethink how fashion functions and reconstruct how we interact with natural systems. Fibershed stresses the importance of decentralisation as a more resilient model. As Covid aptly demonstrated, complex supply chains that sprawl across the globe don’t do well under disruptive circumstances (never mind the environmental cost and increased chance of exploitation with a complex supply chain).
Each individual Fibershed community manages its resources to create systems that are far more durable than the current norms in fashion. Designed to last generations, a Fibershed takes full responsibility for a garment’s lifecycle, reducing pressure on areas of the world that currently bear the brunt of both manufacturing and waste from the Global North. All of these practices together produce clothing that is known as ‘climate beneficial’, creating a new standard for the industry. Fast fashion is defined by impossibly fast rates of production and consumption, copious waste, worker exploitation and swathes of textiles in landfill. Fibershed’s model reduces mass consumption while still meeting basic human needs. As the main priority becomes a soil-to-soil culture, each piece can benefit the planet.
How does this work in practice?
One of the most well known examples is Climate Beneficial wool. Wool is created using natural inputs like sun, water and grass, while also renewing itself annually when sheep regrow their fleece. Farmers who integrate regenerative practices like holistic grazing will sequester carbon into their soil, meaning they can measure the footprint of the wool these sheep produce. The wool becomes climate beneficial because more carbon is stored than released.
A typical wool garment produced overseas has a net carbon footprint of 33 kg in CO2-equivalents. The Fibershed approach reduces that, and can in fact sequester nearly 38kg in CO2-e per garment.
Fibershed also run events such as the Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium. Not all regions have the infrastructure for soil-to-soil systems, and these events brings people across the industry together to discuss opportunities and solve problems. They also develop prototypes to investigate the viability of different ideas.
An example of this is the Grow Your Jeans project. It explores growing and producing indigo dye, a natural alternative to synthetic dyes. It’s a slow process that can take up to ten months; the prototype allowed local producers to test growing and processing methods that could work for their region.
In 2015, four local farming operations grew indigo, and together they harvested and processed the leaves to create the raw materials. Fibershed supported them by providing seeds, consulting on best management practices, and otherwise serving as a bridge between research and business development.
What can we do where we are?
To learn more, the Fibershed Producer Directory includes a variety of participants in the Northern California Fibershed, or you can also check out the Fibershed Marketplace. If you’re based further afield you can find a Fibershed affiliate near you to see what’s happening in your local area, or check out the Fibershed calendar (and website in general) to learn more and keep up to date with progress.
While we’re not all able to suddenly start making Fibersheds happen where we live, the organisation does also have suggestions for things we can do at home. Some you may have heard before, as they relate to sustainable fashion in general: wear each garment for multiple wears, invest in timeless pieces that will last, curate our wardrobes well so we don’t throw things out, mend our own clothes instead of throwing them away.
On top of this, Fibershed has also developed a comprehensive clothing guide, which you can download here, to provide practical advice on implementing the ethos in everyday clothing choices. It boils down to:
- Wear natural materials: so that they can return to the soil one day
- Avoid plastic clothing: synthetic textiles are a huge source of microplastic pollution and don’t break down back into nature.
- Choose quality garments over quantity: buy fewer, ethically made goods that will last, without exploiting farmers and workers.
- Keep clothing in use for as long as you can: more than half of garments produced these days end up in a landfill within one year, yet extending the life of a garment by just 3 months reduces its carbon & water footprints by 5-10%