Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

How Regenerative Agriculture Could Help Clean Up the Fashion Industry

by Sheryl Karas, CRARS staff

sheep in grass

“It is raining plastic,” said a headline from an open report published by the U.S. Geological Survey(opens in new window) recently. Microfibers, to be exact—part of the debris you might find in the lint filter of your home laundry dryer. The average person doesn’t think twice about this, but scientists are concerned because they are finding evidence that these fibers are in our water supply and are, literally, raining at times from the sky.

Atmospheric deposition samples were collected at six sites in the Denver-Boulder urban corridor and two adjacent sites in the Colorado Front Range, and microfiber plastics were found in 90% of the filters. More fibers were found near urban areas but, because they were also found in isolated sites in Rocky Mountain National Park, it is assumed that the plastic is a widespread phenomenon and not just strictly associated with urban environments. And neither is this an isolated study. Evidence of microfiber plastics in rain water has also been found by scientists in the French Pyrenees(opens in new window).

Very little is known about how microplastics in the environment may affect our health or the health of creatures that come into contact with it. However, it is of considerable concern as a potential public health issue. In a 2017 survey(opens in new window) of 159 samples of tap water from five continents, 83% contained plastic particles and 99.7% of those plastics were microfibers. We also know that microplastics, including fibers, are now being found in the guts of a variety of sea creatures (including commonly eaten fish). Serious health effects on small creatures like zooplankton(opens in new window) and crustaceans have been reported. These are important food sources for whales and fish. 

How drinking water or eating seafood that contains this plastic will affect human health is unknown. What we know for sure is that it is a ubiquitous problem, and the majority of microplastic pollution is believed to come from home and apparel textile production(opens in new window).

That leads to further worry about microfibers being a source of other toxins in the water supply and food system because the fabrics are often treated with synthetic dyes, waterproofing or antimicrobial agents, even fire retardants. 

The Problem of Waste from Textile Production 

About 2/3 of all textiles are now synthetic, mostly petroleum-based organic polymers (plastics) such as polyester, polyamide and acrylic. The fibers are released into the environment during production as well as during laundering and when disposed. In fact, 85% of the textiles made end up in landfills or are incinerated instead of being reused. And unlike natural fabrics that can be composted and easily and quickly biodegrade in the presence of microorganisms present in healthy soil, plastics resist degrading for decades or even hundreds of years. 

Unfortunately, this is just the latest of multiple revelations about the textile industry coming to the public’s attention in recent years. The textile industry has changed dramatically. 50 years ago, 95% of the clothes bought in the United States were made in the United States. Today that figure is down to less than 3% with the vast majority made in China, India and other countries where labor costs are low. That has made clothing much more affordable to the average American, but it has also given rise to a phenomenon called “fast fashion” where new designs move from the catwalk into inexpensive production surprisingly quickly. The clothing is not made to last and, combined with fast-moving fashion trends (new product lines enter the market every few weeks), they quickly wind up in the trash. According to the EPA(opens in new window), the average American household produces 68 pounds of textile waste per year. It is estimated that New York City alone produces 193,000 tons.

The fact that much of that material is plastic that does not readily degrade is an environmental problem, but even more so is the pollution this industry creates in every step of production. A report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (PDF) states that greenhouse gas emissions from textile production equals 1.2 billion metric tons a year, about 5% of all emissions or about the same amount produced by the entire country of Russia. The pollution produced by polyester and other synthetic fabrics is much higher than natural fabrics because it is produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil. 98 million tons of oil was used in the textile industry in 2015 alone. Carbon emissions for a polyester product(opens in new window) are more than double that of the same product made from cotton. Textile production also pollutes waterways when solvents, dyes, and other by-products of polyester fabric production are released as wastewater. And textile-related pollution is not limited to polyester production alone. Conventional cotton production, for example, accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States. These pesticides and fertilizers frequently can be found in water run-off from the fields that use them. 

Could Regenerative Fiber Production Provide a Solution?

In the world of fiber production there is a new concept being discussed—Rebecca Burgess calls it the “soil to soil” framework. Burgess is the executive director of Fibershed(opens in new window), an organization devoted to public education on the environmental, economic and social benefits of bringing the textile supply chain home to local communities in the United States and other places around the world. She encourages people to think about fiber production as starting with farmers producing organic fully recyclable fibers like cotton, wool, alpaca, flax and hemp on farms where the soil is sustainably managed. Natural dye plants like indigo, madder and many others can also be grown in this way. Structures could be created to harvest, clean, move, mill and manufacture the materials in the same region, further creating income and work for the local economy. (All these structures used to exist in the United States.) Eventually, at the end of the textile or garment’s useable life, it could be recycled or safely composted and returned to the soil without polluting or damaging the environment. 

In fact, the idea behind regenerative agriculture is that the process could improve the condition of the soil and the ecological systems that support us. Farming practices such as managed grazing, minimal or no-tillage, cover crops and biologically beneficial compost application improve soil fertility, bringing back even severely degraded soil. This also increases the soil’s ability to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere, making that aspect of the textile creation process part of the solution for addressing climate change. Farms working with full systems of textile production run in the same region would also reduce the carbon emissions related to transportation. And if those mills and textile manufacturing plants are designed with a healthy environment and a reduced or neutral carbon footprint in mind, the entire system could be thought of as regenerative. The beautiful, durable, even fun, clothing we wear could then be considered “climate beneficial” as well as beneficial for local economies.

At least one large company has already gotten behind this in the wool industry. North Face(opens in new window), an outdoor gear and clothing store in California, teamed up with Fibershed and a willing wool producer, Bare Ranch(opens in new window), to produce wool using regenerative methods. Wool is already thought of as a natural carbon sink because the grass and plants that pull carbon from the atmosphere are eaten by sheep, alpacas and goats and transformed into the wool that they grow. But when the land is managed correctly with appropriate cover crops and managed grazing, the grazing animals and their manure actually can assist the land in regenerating and becoming a much more effective carbon sink as well. Wool is a renewable and humane resource. The animals have already been bred over hundreds of years to produce thick coats that need to be clipped off for their health at least once a year. It is also a naturally fire retardant material that needs no chemicals added for this purpose and comes in a variety of colors that that do not necessarily need dying. Wool garments are extremely durable and need less laundering than others as well.

The idea of growing cotton regeneratively is also gaining traction. Dr. David Johnson(opens in new window), adjunct faculty member at Chico State, has been investigating the use of biological soil enhancements in cotton fields for the Institute of Sustainable Agricultural Research at New Mexico State University. Using BEAM, the biologically enhanced agricultural management process he developed to create fungal-dominated compost, Johnson documented carbon sequestration 20-50 times what was found in the 40 equivalent no-till soils tested. He has also reported dramatically improved crop yieldsThe cotton he used in his testing grew 6 feet high and produced over five bales of cotton per acre without fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. The average in his area is about two and a half bales per acre. 

Here at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at Chico State, we have been developing a proposal to assess the impact of BEAM compost applications and winter cover crops in a commercial cotton production system. The study would analyze the effect on a variety of indicators of soil health as well as cotton yield and fiber quality. A second field trial is also proposed to compare full tillage, minimum till and no-till on soil health, cotton yield, cotton quality, water use and economic return. The idea is to research methods that might help the industry reduce fertilizer use by regenerating soil fertility.

The regenerative approach to textile production is still very new yet growing quickly right here in northern California. Fibershed lists 168 producers, all in this region, offering a wide variety of products from fiber and dye plant seeds, wool and alpaca roving and yarn to fully made clothing, home textiles, and other artisan products. There are also programs available to learn how to get started with your own regenerative fiber venture or join forces with those involved already. Learn more at Fibershed.com(opens in new window).