Your Clothes Are an Agricultural Choice

If you care about what you eat, you should care about what you wear.

woman holding skeins of wool
Woman holds skeins of wool.

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Every time you acquire an item of clothing, you are making a choice between the biosphere and the lithosphere. The biosphere refers to agricultural production and plants that are transformed into wearable textiles, such as cotton, hemp, linen, and more. The lithosphere is the shell, or crust, of the Earth, from which fossil fuels are extracted and turned into synthetic fabrics like polyester.

I had never before thought of clothing in this way, as a dichotomous choice between carbon pools, but once that image took root in my mind, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. One system is clearly better than the other, and yet at this point in time, 70% of the clothing we wear comes from the lithosphere. We are now, as a global population, mostly wearing plastic.

This was just one of several profound revelations offered by Rebecca Burgess in a fascinating episode of a podcast called "For the Wild." Burgess is an expert in restorative ecology and fiber systems and director of Fibershed, a U.S. organization that works to rebuild local fiber systems. She was interviewed by host Ayana Young to discuss the current mess that is modern fashion and what steps can be taken to improve it. While the entire hour-long episode is worth a listen for anyone interested in sustainable fashion and/or soil health, I wanted to highlight a few points that jumped out as being more unusual and of less common knowledge.

"Fashion Is an Agricultural Choice."

First of all: "If much of our clothing originates from the soil, why don’t we interrogate the fashion industry the way we do the agricultural industry?" We don't often think of our clothing as emerging from the dirt, at least not in the way we do vegetables and grains and other foods that we put in our bodies, but they do – and therefore merit the same attention and concern about the practices required to grow and harvest them.

We criticize supermarkets and fast food restaurants for their role in driving rainforest deforestation through the consumption of beef, but our fashion choices are guilty of the same. Why don't we talk about the fashion industry's role in illegal deforestation and seizure of land across the Global South, and its connection to serious soil and land contamination and degradation? Most likely because people aren't aware of the connections.

Synthetic Dyes

Burgess spoke at length about synthetic dyes, which are used to color most of the textiles we wear. It's estimated that 25% of chemicals produced globally are used to produce clothing, and many of these go toward dyeing. Heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, tin, cobalt, lead, and chrome are needed to bind the dyes to the fabric, and are present in 60-70% of dyes. An array of energy-intensive processes fix the dyes to the fabric ("heat, beat, treat," Burgess said), and vast quantities of water are used to rinse out the surplus dye. 

This is where the most visible pollution occurs, when unbonded dye molecules are flushed out into waterways as effluent. We see the effects on rivers in Asia, where communities involved in textile production are suffering the effects of exposure to endocrine disruptors contained in the dyes. We also know very little about the effect of synthetic dyes on human bodies, which inevitably absorb the chemicals as fabrics rub onto our skin. 

There are far more chemicals contained in our clothing than we may realize. A range of finishing treatments, such as wrinkle preventers and stain guards, as well as screen-printed designs, contain chemicals such as bisphenol A, formaldehyde, and phthalates. The same chemicals that we don't want in our water bottles go onto our clothing without question, and then enter waterways via the washing machine.

Engineered Materials

Burgess went on to discuss specific materials – a conversation that I found to be particularly relevant to Treehugger, where we're quick to cover innovative new fabrics. Not all plant-based materials are ideal, she pointed out. Tree-based fibers such as eucalyptus and bamboo, Tencel and modal, may use closed-loop chemical processing, but Burgess is leery of the fact that virgin rainforests and entire tree farms are being used for the purposes of making clothes. The ethics of such practices need to be evaluated. In her words, there should be "lots of question marks about using a tree for a shirt."

Regarding the use of upcycled plastic in clothing, which is a trendy move for many fashion brands these days, Burgess has no patience. It is a "quick fix" that perpetuates the ubiquity of plastic. Using shredded plastic in clothing is arguably the worst way to use it because it creates plastic lint faster than any other material on Earth. Forty percent of plastic released in washing cycles goes directly into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Burgess said, "To take plastic and to shred it, which is what we do when we make clothing, and to make it more prone to leakage into the biology of our planet, is just heinous. And yet it's touted as green! It's quite backward."

Coming up with new materials is redundant, in Burgess' opinion. There is such a surplus of natural fiber currently available to us that it makes no sense to be turning to fancy techno-fixes to make our clothing. 

"The idea that we need new materials is just absurd. We don't need more. We need to use what we have. I'm sitting on 100,000 pounds of wool that a shepherd just sheared from his sheep that he used to help with a fuel load reduction project in California, or was grazing in BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land to help manage goatgrass and ameliorate wildflower populations. We work with so much material that's actually tied to different ecosystem goals, but there's nothing new or shiny about our work." 

Where innovation is truly needed is in figuring out how to clean up the mess we're in, and how to "break open the shackles of centralization and wealth concentration" within the fashion industry. This process can begin by people striving to source their clothing from within their own geographic region – a goal that Burgess said is easier to attain than one might think.

The episode gave me plenty to think about, as I'm sure it will Treehugger readers, too. At the very least, I will start thinking about fashion much as I do food – an agricultural product whose "soil-to-skin" journey should be made as short as possible. You can listen to it here.