The Future of Fashion

Fashion: Amongst industries that have negative impacts on the environment, the $3 trillion-dollar global clothing industry is seldom mentioned. Yet the apparel sector – whose profits are built on exploitative agricultural and labor practices – has been deemed to be the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. The textile sector uses over 8,000 chemicals – including heavy-metal-rich dyes, bleaches, solvents, and detergents – to make more than 400 billion square meters of fabric sold annually. And according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the fashion sector: 

  • Accounts for 8 to 10 percent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined 
  • Consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the needs of five million people 

Many shoppers forget that a large percentage of natural fibers – including cotton, hemp, flax, wool, leather, and abacá – originate on farms. As odd as it sounds, the fashion industry may hold the key to “mainstreaming” regenerative agriculture. Compared to the food sector, apparel is more visible and permanent. You probably don’t know what someone ate for breakfast, but you can see what they are wearing. With this in mind, brands like Allbirds, Eileen Fisher, North Face, and Patagonia are making a statement by sourcing materials directly from regenerative farms as part of a broader effort to offset carbon emissions, build organic soil matter, and contribute to bioregional economies. However, the path to industry-wide adoption of sustainable practices remains riddled with bottlenecks including: 

  • Traceability – Because of fashion’s global supply chain, most designers couldn’t tell you where their materials came from, let alone who grew the fibers and for what price. 
  • Cost – Compared to petroleum-based fabrics, natural textile fibers are more expensive and less yield-intensive. The steep price disparity currently relegates sustainable goods to the high-end spectrum.
  • Investment – Brands need to devote a large chunk of time and money to help farmers convert from conventional to regenerative practices – a process that can take multiple years to achieve. The shift in production also contradicts the “fast fashion” framework, where goods are made as quickly and cheaply as possible. 

To ease the transition towards a model of textile production that boosts biodiversity, supports local producers, and cleans up existing pollution, new organizations and initiatives are cropping up including Fibershed and The Savory Institute. Both nonprofits are aiming to restore the world’s grasslands by helping companies like Kering and Timberland in sourcing regenerative fibers and dyes directly from sustainable producers. As consumers, we can each do our part by demanding that our food AND clothing come from more ethical and transparent supply chains. The next time you need a new garment, invest in a regenerative brand that meets the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or holds the Fair Trade certification. These labels ensure that a company treats its workers and the environment with respect. 

Watch: With tomorrow being World Soil Day, it seems appropriate to feature “Living Soil,” an hour-long documentary. Not only does our soil support 95 percent of all food production, but it also represents one of our most effective tools for sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere. The societal and environmental costs of soil loss in just the US are estimated to be as high as $85 billion every year. We encourage readers to watch the film to learn more from innovative farmers and soil health experts with solutions that can rejuvenate degraded land across the country.