Fashion consumers take note: Our planet is in environmental peril and our obsession with clothing isn’t helping this enormous carbon footprint we’re leaving. Rebecca Burgess is an educator, writer, and natural dye farmer from Northern California who’s trying to make us re-think our wardrobes in myriad ways. First of all, because today’s textile industry is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses on earth—and one of the biggest water polluters in the world—Burgess says we have to de-centralize the fabric supply chain and develop an international system of regional textile communities that will support local farmers and artisans. Six years ago, Burgess committed to developing and wearing a wardrobe of garments whose dyes, fibers, and labour were all sourced within 150 miles of her home. Her efforts were so successful and lauded, that she established “Fibershed”, a resource for creating and hand processing organic fibres and natural dyes into clothing. It’s all part of a growing “slow fashion” movement that’s about turning away from high volume global production and embracing handcrafted, local fare. Rebecca Burgess was in Toronto recently as part of the Textile Museum of Canada’s Conscious Consumption program. I caught up with the passionate eco-warrior to discuss ways that fashion could reduce its ecological footprint, the value of quality over quantity, and the logistics of changing the system.
JEANNE: Something that started as a personal experiment blossomed into this incredible movement. What brought you to the point where you wanted to come up with a wardrobe that had all been produced locally and show those possibilities?
REBECCA: I was at an airport, sitting in a plastic chair, and CNN was on. I was watching US troops being deployed to Afghanistan and it dawned on me that all of this effort to protect oil resources was something that I was actually complacent with, even though I wasn’t deploying those troops and I wasn’t armed and trying to protect our derricks and distribution lines: I realized that I was sitting in a plastic chair, and my clothes were dyed in fossil carbon synthetic colour and I looked around and every piece of the material culture—even the paint on the wall—had fossil carbon pigments in it. I mean there’s all this that we’re digging and extracting out of the earth’s core for fuel, for colour, for form plastics, plastic clothing—the acrylics, the nylons, the stretchy jeans, all of that. I’m complicit in this war because of my connection and reliance and consumption of these materials that come from the earth’s fossil carbon resources. I was also on my way to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico at the time, about to start exploring these natural dye recipes that were plant based that had been on the landscape in North America for several thousand years. And I thought if I’m going to be writing and publishing about natural dyes and I’m concerned about war and imperialism and people taking from other people, I should probably look at what I’m wearing cause it’s the one arena in which I have some control, because I’m a weaver and I’m a natural dyer. So I just made a commitment that around the time the book would get launched that I would be a role model. I knew I needed to hold my own values true by wearing these clothes. I could no longer be a hypocrite.
J: The statistics surrounding this whole arena are scary. It’s astounding just how much waste there is…. Was that something you became increasingly aware of the deeper you got into it?
R: Definitely. The wonderful documentary True Cost pretty much sums up for me the core issues around labour, water pollution, climate, and waste. And Green Peace came out with something called Dirty Laundry, all about the wastewater in China related to endocrine disruptors that we’re using in the clothes that are finishing agents. They bioaccumulate in our bodies and don’t break down. Imbalances are created and that’s the core that we know of for environmental causation of cancer, early aging, and weight gains that are unexplainable. A lot of the things that we see in our modern world we can draw back to some of these compounds that are used in the fashion industry.
J: What about the high priests of the fashion scene? What kind of reception do you get from those kinds of naysayers?
R: I think they’ve dismissed a lot of this. I haven’t actually received a direct naysayer comment from the industry. But I can imagine what their quips would be. ‘So you want regional production? How are we going to clothe the population?’ They can make some very tactically strong points, but my retort to that is that we have communities on the landscape—like in my home community. We’re throwing away and under utilizing over a million pounds of wool that we did a qualitative analysis on and 900,000 pounds of it is wearable—it’s under twenty-two microns. So it could be in your Dior line. It could be whatever you want it to be. You could actually materialize this into something useful which could help your marketing campaign.
J: What a great marketing story!
R: So if we were to strengthen regional economies around fiber, I think that the fashion world would end up with more material resources to draw from. But brand identity has become most of the driver for how businesses are created. They’re into marketing ideas and they’re not really interested in the supply chain. They’ll chase down the best margins from an entire world. The world is their oyster when it comes to mills. So in a way, they are actually looking for supply chain partners all the time. They’re scouring the landscape for them. Fibershed could have a simpatico relationship with the industry if the industry could start marketing quality clothing, over quantity.
J: But it’s also about building awareness for the consumer to want to pull back and rethink their buying habits…
R: That would be it. We would need them to come onboard with us and say, ‘Yeah, let’s educate. Let’s use our marketing bullhorn to change behavior!’ We’ll still make money but we might help a lot of small communities and regional economies to stay stable, instead of these very desperate poor economies in Southeast Asia, and Mexico, and South Africa. Instead we could decentralize that and we could have healthy, working communities all over. And you could highlight really skilled artisans again in your supply chain. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
J: The whole notion of recycling clothing is becoming increasingly popular—whether it be shopping vintage or just trading clothing with others. How positive is that kind of thing for your cause?
R: Part of our solution set is to keep clothes in play as long as we can. The ethical clothing brand ZADY did some analysis and came to the conclusion that if we wore our clothes fifty more times, we would reduce the carbon footprint by half. There’s a new milling program called ‘Ever New’ and it’s all about keeping natural fiber clothes in play. But whether you’re recycling natural fibers or coming together to trade clothes in a clothing swap, all of that has great value because you’re keen into the human need for novelty but you’re not asking for more exploitation
J: It’s such a system that you’re up against—truly a David and Goliath scenario. When you think of fashion retailers, it’s what makes their world go round: the newness, the change…. What happens to all those retailers if people don’t need the stores to stock all that new stuff to purchase?
R: In countries like Haiti, where we’ve sent all of our used clothing that doesn’t sell at Goodwill or the secondhand stores, there are retail spaces now that will take your clothing and sew new hems or add a piece, or take something out and put something else in. What if you went to a former retail outlet and you brought your old clothes and there were ways to refurbish them through dip dyeing them in natural dyes that had been harvested from rooftops gardens on the top of the store? So when it fades, bring it in and we’ll have a workshop and you pay to have it done. Money will still circulate but it’ll circulate and create novelty but in not an extractive way. It would perpetuate the old but put a new spin on it.
J: Like renovation businesses!
J: Well it’s certainly about changing a system. I’m curious to know what type of person it is that takes on a challenge like that. What kind of kid were you?
R: Stubborn. But there’s one bit of my childhood that I think about when I hit a hurdle or see that my values aren’t being reflected in the world around me. I remember as a child having a lot of people who were raising me, because I had a single mom, so a lot of people had to take part. Like, I didn’t know who was picking me up from school. It was kind of like not knowing where you’re going next. So I had to teach myself at a very young age that you are completely okay and here and self-contained. Even if you get to great grandma’s house and no one’s home, you can crawl in through the window and get in. So when things get rough or challenging, I always know there’s a solution. And if I have to be patient and wait for it, in the meantime, I’m okay. And I just self nurture to get through these obstacles.
J: I would think you must be idealistic and optimistic in order to keep on carrying this heavy torch, but how long could it take us to really get to the kind of world that you see?
R: It’s up to this collective of people on our planet right now to say how much do we want to invest in this system of regional economies, regeneratively farmed agriculture that produces the clothing, and the recycling systems that accompany that. The whole system that localizes is just waiting for our investment. We did a mill feasibility study to see how much would it take to process the wool in our community and produce local cloth. That wool mill would cost twenty-six million dollars. And so I took it to Silicon Valley investors and they said, ‘What’s the demand?’ So I have been road mapping what demand really is. And maybe it’s all of our commitment to just investing in one sweater per year that was farmed locally. If a whole community did that, I could get that that mill off the ground tomorrow. If my small town community of seventy-five hundred people just bought one sweater per year, that would be it! That’s all I need to show—that either a small group has a big interest or a large group has a small interest.
J: Are some of these garments that these farmers and artisans are producing for sale on retail websites?
R: There are some. There’s the FibershedMarketplace.com for our Northern California community. We have a list of artisans and farmers on our non-profit site and there are sites associated with a lot of these people. If you go on our non- profit site, Fibershed.org, you can see all the communities across the world that are starting to organize and give you lists of all the farmers and artisans in their home communities. The way I got the wardrobe made during the one year challenge was I picked a farmer that I liked—some lady who raised the softest sheep’s wool and was a sweet women to work with. Then I went to a design school and drove a student from the school to the farm. The designer would meet the farmer or rancher, have lunch together, and we’d tour the farm and draw up what the sweater would look like. It was the most beautiful way to get garments made.