land as a defining limit for fashion production

This was our living room for the final two months in New York in 2020. Living temporarily with less while being mostly confined indoors due to the pandemic was an instructive experience.

One of the more invigorating reports that I have recently read comes from the Biomimicry Institute. The Nature of Fashion makes a strong case for transitioning away from fibres made from petrochemicals, which currently represent more than 60% of the total fibre mix. The report argues that because systems inevitably leak, we should not create fibres that cannot be absorbed by biological systems. Microfibres released from polyester garments are a case in point. I particularly appreciated the report’s critique of how circular economy is often visualized as two separate cycles, the technological and the biological. The report points out that because the biosphere is the bounding entity for all activity, it is more accurate to show the technological cycle bounded by the biological one. I encourage you to read the report with this critique of the report’s focus on synthetic biology by Rebecca Burgess and Jess Daniels of Fibershed, a critique I agree with. For further context, this 2018 report elaborates on the uncritical adoption of synthetic biology by the fashion industry.

Returning to the task of phasing out fossil fuel-based synthetic fibres – I refer to these as ‘carbon out of place’ – the immediate assumption might be that they ought to be replaced with natural fibres to maintain fibre production at current levels and then grow from there. I was reminded of this rereading the 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, which made the assumption that because population is projected to grow, clothing production must as well. This is a problematic assumption when evidence shows we are producing more clothes than we know what to do with. (Food production is similarly problematic.) In a recent paper I co-authored we showed that the rate of growth in clothing production has overtaken the rate of population growth; the two are not connected. After I posted the Burgess & Daniels critique on LinkedIn, Holly McQuillan pointed out the challenge ahead, that phasing out synthetic fibres with natural fibres to maintain current levels would be highly problematic. Instead, a scaling down is needed. I fully agree. In Earth Logic Fletcher and Tham (p. 44) elaborate: “LESS is the largest provocation associated with transition to sustainability. Here lies the greatest temptation to veer into techno fixes. Yet, only by staying with the trouble of less can the scale of change deemed necessary be achieved. Instead of procrastinating with incremental reductions, we need to face the reality of less and address the real social-economic problems that growing out of growth creates. This includes employment of people in the textile and clothing industry.”

As a thought experiment, I proposed a deliberately simplistic limit for a way forward: we ought to determine what the capacity of current land used for fibre production is, once all fibre production has been converted to regenerative or carbon farming. That should be the non-negotiable ceiling. We should not convert any more land to fibre production; what is already being used must suffice. From that we then calculate what can actually be produced. In transitioning to ecologically sound forms of agriculture, it is likely total production will contract, albeit with many benefits within the overall planetary system. The industry is still in a mindset of limitless production, seemingly made ‘possible’ (but not really) by synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels, not bound by limits of land use. I’m well aware that this deliberate push toward contraction is a deeply unpopular proposition within the industry and the ‘green growth’ proponents in academia, but nonetheless something we must consider and act upon. We cannot afford further avoidance of the difficult conversations. Donna Haraway’s call to “stay with the trouble“, repeated above by Fletcher and Tham, demands us to face the reality. We should nonetheless do so with all of our creativity and imagination, even playfulness.

A related aside, I recommend this recent paper by Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis on the theory of ‘green growth’; their review finds little support for it in empirical evidence. In connection this recent review of the Sustainable Development Goals is also a helpful, if sobering, read.

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