At this point, I feel like most people are aware of the big, big problems inherent in the fashion industry. The human and environmental costs of continually churning out huge volumes of poorly made clothing is staggering and the industry as a whole has been slow to change. Covid seems to have accelerated change somewhat, but it remains to be seen how long-lasting and widespread those changes are.
However, even before covid there were people out there actively building alternatives to the dominant fashion system. If you want to learn about one of those efforts in depth Fibershed by Rebecca Burgess is a great read.
Fibershed makes the argument for developing regionally based, farm-to-closet fashion systems. These systems are based around the idea of a fibershed, a system that includes “all the people, plants, animals, and cultural practices” that make up a geographic region. It begins by connecting the concepts of clothing and agriculture. Natural fiber clothing is so far removed from the farms it grows on and we rely so heavily on synthetic fabrics and dyes these days that it is easy to forget that for most of human history clothing was an agricultural product.
Next, the book lays out the ways in which our current fashion system is harmful and how a fibershed can provide an alternative system. An organized system is vital because the raw fiber produced by farmers requires significant processing before it can be sold as clothing. The challenges in this are illustrated through a project the author takes on to wear only clothing fully produced within 100 miles for a year.
The following chapters paint a picture of two vastly different fiber production systems. On the one hand, there is the conventional manufacturing processes, those that harm the environment. On the other is a vision of fiber production that actually helps the environment, for example by sequestering carbon in the soil.
Both plant-based and animal-based fibers are discussed in depth. The technical information is interspersed with stories about specific projects. These range from a university researcher working on ways to use milkweed fiber to a small study on the benefits of using sheep to graze cover crops on vineyards.
The book ends with a look at other burgeoning fibershed movements. These are worldwide and varied in scope. They also have had varying levels of success. Some have failed to take off or petered out. Others have been more successful. For example, the Upper Canada Fibershed has found a way to use the coarse wool available in its region to make blankets and other houseware items.
Fibershed is very readable, even if you aren’t familiar with the chemistry of textiles or farming. However, it is very technical. This book doesn’t tell you a story, it lays out an argument. It argues that it is entirely possible to have a clothing system that is good for the environment and good for the people working in it. Getting to that system will require local collective action, scientific research, and time. It’s not the work of one person or even one company. Instead, we need a rebuilding of infrastructure to match the local resources and the needs of the local communities.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who knows that a better fashion system is possible and wants to get a detailed look at what one option for the future could be. I also think it would make a great text for a course on sustainability in the fashion industry or even as a supplemental text to a more traditional textiles course.
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