Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy

fibershed coverreviewed by Maureen Doyle

What will you do to reduce your carbon footprint? Help your local economy? Relieve worker conditions around the globe? Fibershed gives a New Years’ Resolution that incorporates all these and more: purchase things within your fibershed.

What’s that, you ask? It’s where materials for clothing and related goods come from, roughly a 150 mile radius, comparable to a watershed. Too many of our material goods are produced throughout the world, leaving individuals with a large carbon footprint and secondhand responsibility for many unsavory practices.

Rebecca Burgess does a great job of outlining how our clothing choices contribute to the carbon in the atmosphere and other pollution, how the “synthetic biology solution” is anything but, as well as providing real solutions other than supporting ‘fast fashion,’ distant markets, and damaging manufacturing processes. From a basis of personal experience (for example, she starts by talking about trying to grow indigo for dye), she suggests evaluating our clothing much like we do our food, asking how far has it traveled and how was it grown or raised. With this evaluation, Burgess says that we can “move from being net emitters of greenhouse gases to net reducers.”

Fibershed essentially outlines a “cradle to cradle” system of production: designing something with its afterlife in mind, with components that can be composted, recycled, or reused. Burgess simply terms it “soil to soil.” Since soil is able to hold four times as much carbon as plants and three times more than air, this is an important place to focus our attention concerning carbon. Beyond that, carbon-rich soil is better for plants because it retains more moisture and nutrients. As Burgess notes, “If cropland is managed to become a water sponge that recharges aquifers at rates higher than what is consumed to grow a crop, there is a real possibility for growing fiber, food and dye in a manner that regenerates hydraulic function in our farm and ranchland.”

Burgess gave the concept a personal touch with numerous photos and excerpts from farmers, ranchers and artisans of north central California, where she lives. Beyond that, she roots it firmly in various aspects of the world around us, including cooperatives, pastoralism, carbon farming, sericulture, opposition to GMOs, history and geography. Readers with an interest in agriculture and ecology will recognize many names she mentions – such as Allan Savory, Aldo Leopold and Tim LaSalle – and will not be overwhelmed with all the acronyms of modern agriculture.

Those of us interested in agriculture will understand that such a clothing choice makes sense in helping to repay our society’s immense carbon debt. But, how do we convince everyday consumers? For many, unfortunately, the only consideration is price.

Burgess points out that a “life cycle assessment” will demonstrate “cost per wear” to help people see the need, but will folks do it? Many people are lured into the false promises of synthetic biology. Chapter 4 describes, in layman’s terms, why the local or regional ‘soil to soil’ framework is so necessary to combat corporate control and patenting of designer organisms. She reminds us of cases of contamination from Bt cotton in India, RoundUp ready crops and use of CRISPR technology – all once promoted as solutions that now “demonstrate how culturally and ecologically insidious genetically-modified organisms are and why they should be resisted at all levels.”

She could have called it “Why we need a new khadi movement” (which she mentions), but “The False Promise of Synthetic Biology” is probably more catchy. While venture capitalists love such technology and use fancy graphics, smooth TED-talks and speeches by hip, young technophiles to promote it as inexpensive and environmentally-safe, that has not been proven. What has been, Burgess notes, are “centuries of culture and time-tested agricultural traditions,” and she urges us to embrace these as historical victories instead of seeing them as hurdles to “progress.”

To address the threat of synthetic biology, Burgess recommends encouraging government regulation. However, the companies using it now are already exploiting previous rules and the many loopholes woven into them (often by the industry itself). That makes it a challenge to pursue a regenerative agricultural venture, but she thinks we can help them overcome it by starting things like seed banks, water-saving practices, offering free or reduced labor, and collaborating with the business somehow. Burgess gives examples of success stories using animals, human-powered technology and fiber crops that have helped revive local economies and workforces in various places.

She presents a realistic method of creating fibersheds throughout the country that includes markets, supply and demand, issues surrounding the legality of certain crops (such as hemp), and the technical expertise required at each step. She’s not starry-eyed about it – building a community-level fibershed will involve “large-scale financial investment” from such sources as USDA programs, investments, and municipal bonds. Many state and municipal entities will need to be involved, and Burgess estimates about three years of calls, networking, emails, and supply-chain support is necessary before the first “regionally grown and sewn” good is produced.

Fortunately, the means to do it mostly already exist, and she fills the back of the book with regional resources, plus additional reading and helpful hints to people wanting to start something in their area, including alternative crops like nettles and milkweed. These and other natural fibers can be recycled many times and work well with natural dyes. They can be used to create heirloom garments (not just throw away ones). Burgess emphasizes the return of durable clothes that can be handed down (remember hand-me-downs?) as well as the fact that dye plants and fiber plants can be integrated into many crop rotations.

In the not-so-long-term, taking the Fibershed path will help us rebuild a habitat that supports humans as well as regional wildlife and ecology.