Everyone is talking about the carbon footprint of food, and the search for the most “climate-friendly” diet sparks lively debates. But clothes, too, are something we choose and need daily. Clothing is an intimate matter. It touches our skin all day long, like only someone very dear to us gets to do. It keeps us warm and protects us from the elements. For that reason alone, it matters where our clothes come from and how they were made. But our wardrobe choices also have a climate impact, whether we think about it or not.
Of course, there are already plenty of garments on the racks of clothing stores labeled “sustainable.” The movement variously called “sustainable fashion” or “ethical fashion” or “slow fashion” has prodded us to ask where our clothes come from, and put pressure on clothing manufacturers to address the massive ecological and ethical issues in the industry.
But the regenerative fiber movement goes further. Instead of minimizing damage in the current processes of clothing production, it boldly insists that our clothes can and should be produced in a way that actually restores degraded ecosystems and soils. The raw materials of natural-fiber clothing—unlike synthetic fabrics, which are essentially fossil-fuel derived—come from the land: from fields where cotton, hemp or flax grow, or from pastures where fiber animals graze. Our clothes come from the ground up. The regenerative fiber movement focuses on what happens at the ground level on these farms.
It’s an innovation of the most old-fashioned sort. Clothing production that has the potential to help slow down climate change is happening, not in the high-tech labs and factories of major textile manufacturers, but at the grassroots level — literally. Where the hoof of a fiber animal meets the soil on the pasture. Where the farmer is monitoring the health of the grasses and forbs and the soil and the animals, and the plants are doing their work transforming sunlight and water and air into things we earthlings enjoy.
It’s simple, really. Degraded, eroding soil — what characterizes most conventionally managed farmland today — is a major source of CO2 emissions. Healthy soils with vibrant plant life, in contrast, draw down and store excess carbon from the atmosphere. One type of farming contributes to climate change, the other one helps to mitigate it.
Regenerative agriculture, also called carbon farming, refers to farming practices that have been shown to rebuild healthy soil, and as a result increase the soil’s ability to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere. The practices most appropriate for fiber farmers are different types of managed intensive grazing, compost application on pasture, and planting trees on pasture—a practice known as silvopasture.
The products of farms that have implemented these practices are not just “sustainable”; their very production helps to slow down climate change. In the case of fields of hemp or cotton or flax managed in this way, or fiber animals on pastures managed in this way, the end product is, in fact, textiles whose very production helped to pull out carbon from the atmosphere. A climate change solution you can wear, you might say. A “climate-beneficial” wardrobe.
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As I write this, I hold in my hands a skein of wool with the words “Climate-Beneficial” written on the label. Fibershed, a California-based non-profit promoting regional and regenerative fiber systems, rolled out its Climate-Beneficial™ certification program a few years ago to recognize fiber grown in regenerative farming systems. Fibershed supports farmers in transitioning to regenerative farming practices such as managed grazing, conservation tillage, and compost application on pastures, and spearheaded a pilot project to produce a fabric made of regeneratively produced wool.
What does this mean for you?
If you can sew or knit your own, you can begin to create your own climate change mitigating wardrobe, at however small a scale. Knitters, crocheters, weavers and spinners can look for yarn and fiber certified as Climate-Beneficial™ on the Fibershed Marketplace. If you sew, you can check about the availability of Fibershed’s Community-Supported Cloth woven out of wool from Lani Estill’s Bare Ranch, the first certified Climate-Beneficial™ fiber farm, and produced as regionally and sustainably as possible.
Even if knitting or sewing is not your forte, there are other ways to stay warm while keeping the climate cool. Some big-name clothing brands—most notably Patagonia and The North Face—have collaborated with Fibershed to create pilot lines of clothing for which the fiber was sourced from regenerative fiber farms.
Here are the beginnings of my own “climate-beneficial” wardrobe so far: an apron dress, a scarf, a hat, and mittens. (I wrote about sewing the apron dress here.)
Apron, hat, scarf, mittens. I know. It’s not exactly enough to keep me clothed year-round. But, first of all, it’s a beginning, and there is power in beginnings, right? Even more importantly, these items of clothing serve as a tangible point of connection for me. When I put them on, I’m not merely putting on some clothes. Because I know where the wool fiber comes from, and that the soil on those pastures is being revitalized through regenerative practices, I put them on and actually, viscerally feel a connection to the pastures, the sheep, and the soil from which they come. Lastly, these handmade items become a handy tool for introducing the concept of regenerative fiber to others. When someone comments on what I’m wearing, I tell them the story of where the wool comes from and what makes it different. Sometimes it elicits a mere “Oh.” But at other times, it sparks an excited conversation about the possibility of farming, of producing what we need, in ways that are not destructive but restorative.
My most recent knitting project was probably the most meaningful one yet. The lustrous, fog-colored fingering-weight yarn for it came from Heartfelt Fiber Farm in Sonoma County, California, for which I had the opportunity to develop a Carbon Farm Plan in 2016. As I was developing the plan, farmer Leslie and I walked the land of her small farm many times and I got to know her animals—the rare, tiny Ouessant sheep, Icelandic sheep, and Cashgora goats—by name.
When I cast on a knitting project with fiber from her land, from a sheep that I know by name, I felt like the fibers that run through my fingers connect me to the soil I sampled and the landscape I mapped and to farmer Leslie’s hard work and dedication. The knowledge that the very production of that fiber helps to build fertile, carbon-sequestering soil and address one of the biggest challenges of our time probably warms me as the knitter and the wearer more than the wool itself.