When we think of the faces behind our apparel and textile businesses, we usually picture the cutters, sewers and patternmakers. We don’t have to think deeper into the supply chain in order to bring our work to life. But in actuality, tireless labor and dedication of agricultural workers are at the source of most of our materials. The way we cultivate fiber matters so much more than we realize. Yet so many of us are not conscious of the impacts of our fiber choices because we are, understandably, settled into the status quo of the inner workings of this centuries-old industry.
However, once we uncover the facts, it’s particularly difficult to continue business as usual with a clear conscience; doing so blatantly threatens humanity’s ability to thrive. Cotton fiber is contained in over a third of today’s textiles, but only a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) of that is grown organically, and/or is truly sustainable to human and planetary wellness. You may wonder, “What’s wrong with conventional cotton?”
Conventional cotton is mostly genetically modified, chemical-dependent, topsoil degrading and causes chemicals to run off into local freshwater supplies. Expensive GM seed requires increasing amounts of pesticides as the bollworm becomes resistant, sending global farmers into crippling debt at high interest rates. The cycle continues season after season; farmer suicide is a common and heartbreaking reality for agricultural workers worldwide. With a cotton farmer suicide every half-hour in India, cotton farming uses only 6 percent of the land area, but accounts for more than half of the country’s pesticides. These toxins end up not only in our clothes, but 60 percent of a cotton plant lands in our food system — cotton byproducts are used in snack food (cottonseed oil) and animal feed for the dairy and meat industries.
With the rising cost of cotton, many brands have explored synthetics as an alternative. However, most man-made fibers are derived from nonrenewable petrochemicals, causing a slew of other issues that cannot be undone as plastics never break down in a way that returns them to the Earth as organic matter. Instead, they break down into tiny microfibers and microplastics that ultimately make their way to our oceans and dinner plates. While recycling PET and other synthetic waste into fibers may appear to be a quick fix on the surface, further research is finding that it may cause more harm than good; recycled synthetic garments actually shed more microfibers than their first-generation relatives. Considering the true cost calculations of petroleum-based products and no current long-term end-of-life plan, we cannot discount the serious ramifications of plastics and synthetic fibers, despite an industry push for circularity.
The outlook, if we continue with our current habits, is bleak. However, just as you may not have understood the harms of conventional cotton before reading this article, you also may not know the staggering benefits of the solutions in place. Did you know that regenerative organic agriculture has the power to actually reverse climate change? Did you know that carbon can be pulled from the atmosphere like a sponge (sequestered in the soil) by changing the way we farm? Did you know that regenerative organic cotton farmers can make more money, as well as proactively build their soil to be more resilient to global warming? At the end of the day, these factors are the farmer’s key priorities. Millions of farmers worldwide depend on cotton farming for their livelihoods, and climate change is no longer a distant concept — farmers are living through and experiencing increased severe weather changes that depend on strong fertile soil to protect their crops. But with the current systems in place, farmers are struggling to survive financially, and their soil has become so depleted, it is essentially dirt, devoid of biodiversity and the ability to sustain climate change.
I recently attended a discussion about sustainable fashion at the U.N. where an apocalyptic projection was repeated over and over: We have less than 60 years of topsoil left for farming if we continue our current habits. With an imbalanced focus on circularity as the key to sustainable fashion, cotton was discounted as a vital solution, but I could not disagree more. The advantages of regenerative organic farming, including that of cotton and other fibers, staggeringly outweigh the risks. It is important to focus on individual solutions as spokes in the wheel of a collective movement. The industry is perpetually being reinvented and no one is going to stop farming tomorrow because of a topsoil projection. Realistically, however, they may adopt alternative farming methods that replenish the “skin of the earth,” reestablish soil health, reverse climate change and end poverty in farming communities. The values of regenerative organic farming address the majority of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
When I learned about regenerative farming from friends at the Rodale Institute, I was instantly hooked. “Sustainable” suggests maintaining the current situation, which we know is not enough. “Regenerative” means going beyond doing no harm — but actually repairing the damage we’ve done. I had spent decades working with organic cotton farmers around the world and couldn’t wait to share what I had learned. As a starting point, I was moved to partner with leading experts in India’s cotton belt to establish a groundbreaking farm project called “RESET” (Regenerate Environment Society and Economy through Textiles), which helps farmers (with an emphasis on female farmers) convert their farms to regenerative organic farming methods, using zero-budget natural farming and beneficial soil-building techniques. Fiber farmers are also food farmers, so cotton is rotated and cover-cropped with a variety of plants, like legumes and sorghum. With a cradle-to-cradle approach (what we take from the earth, we must return to the earth), biomass from cover crops also has added value in today’s market. Rather than burning excess crops at the end of a growing season, this matter can be collected and turned into packaging, fuel or other natural solutions. In one harvest, farmers can have three potential income streams: fiber, food and a source of energy and/or other new products. Our RESET farmers are not only proactively positioned to better weather climate change, but they spend less and make more — enjoying a renewed sense of empowerment and autonomy.
Humanity is in the middle of a major transformation. We are becoming aware, challenging the status quo and asking questions. We are finally viewing waste as a resource. After years of intensive research, textile scientists are finding innovative and efficient ways to recycle textile waste. An important part of the mechanical recycling process involves blending short-staple recycled fiber with virgin fiber for stability. So, while we may have a ridiculous amount of unwanted clothes, there will always be a home for virgin organic fiber in the circular economy.
It’s so important to view the rebirth of our industry with forgiveness and understanding. Things are not black and white and solutions do not live in silos. Everything and everyone is interconnected, no matter how far-flung. This may feel at odds with the fashion industry of the past — protective, insular and competitive. By shifting our efforts toward serving humanity and healing ecosystems, we also serve ourselves. This is how we breathe life and meaning into fashion’s circular economy — while celebrating our Earth, and future generations.
Marci Zaroff coined the term “eco-fashion” and is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert, educator, innovator and serial eco-preneur.