Can fashion ever be a climate solution?

We interview Deborah Barker, Co-Founder and Director of Southeast England Fibreshed, which is helping DIRT Charity to fulfill its mission to turn fashion into a climate solution by leading The Wool Project. Deborah explains the benefits of agroecological and biodynamic farming and how they are on a mission to tackle the disconnect between the wool farming industry and the fashion industry.

Deborah Barker, guest contributor
stack of jumpers

A (short) history of fibres 

It starts a few centuries ago, with the history of wool. In medieval England, wool was a major export and a driving force of the economy, both domestically and in terms of exports; in fact, English wool was perceived as the best in Europe by cloth producers. But since the eighteenth century, when merino – a finer, softer wool – started being exported from Australia, the economic contribution of wool in the UK has been on the decline. 

Nevertheless, there is still a huge amount of wool in production today in the UK – around 70,000t is produced annually. Rather than being used in textiles, however, much of this wool is used for aeroplane and cruise ship carpets, on account of its fire resistant, antibacterial and hard-wearing qualities.

Somewhere along the way, we have lost the connection between wool and our clothing, in great part due to the post-war rise in synthetic materials. But wool is hardier, more malleable, it regulates body temperature, can be cleaned by UV light and, at the end of its life, if it’s being processed biodynamically, it can be repurposed to overwinter plants and will degrade back into the soil. Compared to a synthetic material into landfill, which takes 200 years to break down and sheds microfibres throughout its life, the benefits of wool are undeniable. 

sheep grazing in a field

Bringing together fashion designers with farmers 

Fashion is grown in soil, and the way we currently grow our raw materials causes tremendous harm to soil, and is a catalyst for climate change. We could grow fashion crops and cosmetic ingredients in a way that heals soil and restores nature to full health and thriving biodiversity. Regenerating soil is a long-term solution and the fastest answer we have to climate change.

says model, sustainability consultant, climate activist and DIRT Charity’s founder Arizona Muse.

The Wool Project aims to tackle the disconnect between the wool farming industry and the design industry, to put farmers back in touch with fashion and remind people that clothing is an agricultural product. 

Sustainable considerations are very much part and parcel of this story. If wool is farmed in the right way, an agroecological and biodynamic way, its production can actually enhance the environment. A key global challenge at the moment is soil health. 54% of all life is under the soil and, if the soil health below ground is good, it will be good above. A system like biodynamic farming nourishes biodiversity both below and above ground. 

The first step of the project involves working out how many farmers are farming in this way and to communicate to them the potential value that wool for textiles can bring for their businesses. We can then work out how to get this wool into the supply chain of the textiles industry and increase designers’ understanding of wool. 

This is another key challenge; when designers are in college, they’re not exposed to wool and mainly work with synthetics, or they understand it from a very narrow perspective, when in actual fact there are numerous different breeds of sheep, all with uniquely different wool which could be used in numerous ways, from shoes to outerwear. There is currently one designer, Phoebe English who created a jumper and beanie from biodynamic wool for an exhibition at the British Library for British Fashion Week.

The differences with current large-scale wool production

There is currently very little biodynamic wool in production especially on a larger scale, so this is very pioneering work. We want to bring together both designers and farmers to create some samples and show what could be possible with biodynamic wool. We want to bring designers onto farms, so they can really feel and see the environment and understand what a difference they make on so many levels when they work with wool produced on a biodynamic farm.

Much of the wool yarn and textile used in the UK clothing industry is produced in Australia, processed in China, and is often then packaged back in Australia, before being shipped here. Despite the huge distances involved, the wool is very cheap compared to UK-produced wool, but the carbon comparison is also huge, and we are all now waking up to the implications of that.

Until you have experienced for yourself the contrast between a conventional arable and biodynamic farm, it is difficult to truly grasp the difference in the vitality of the land, and biodiversity. 

The implications for the broader textiles industry

With this project, we are looking at sustainable fashion not from just a ‘least harm’ perspective, but actually to do ‘positive good.’ Farming fibres in a regenerative way has a positive impact on water systems, biodiversity and soil health - not to mention the benefits to the communities that surround the farms or are part of the supply chain (or supply network, as DIRT Charity likes to call it). 

The link between farming and fashion is often overlooked. I set up Southeast England Fibreshed with my daughter, who is a biodynamic farmer, and Harriet Miler, an international knitwear designer who has a background in luxury brands like Jil Sander. We feel it is a very natural partnership between biodynamics and textiles and are seeing this trend spread across the industry, with institutions like the London College of Fashion and Central St. Martins offering regenerative fashion courses that expose students to biodynamic farms in the UK.

The future of the project

At present, there is an insufficient supply of biodynamic wool to fulfill the requirements of large-scale industrial garment production. This is the very reason this project has been initiated, and it underscores the importance of consumers acknowledging that everything we need and wear starts its journey on a farm. To live within planetary boundaries, buying less but choosing better is essential. 

The aspiration is for more farmers to embrace regenerative biodynamic practices, enabling designers worldwide to access these wool and fibre resources. This project is the first step in a long journey to be taken to meet the needs of the global wool industry. Wool, so long as it is cultivated on agroecological biodynamic farms, can become a climate solution. 

We are seeing interest in the project grow from all sides. Farmers are really on the frontline of the climate crisis, they’ve been dealing with the extremes of drought and flooding for some time. The textile industry, meanwhile, accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is facing pressure from both governments and consumers to do more about its environmental impact. 

We are excited to see the project move forward, beyond the numbers and data to addressing infrastructure issues and creating an ecosystem of farmers and designers. 

DIRT Charity is working on establishing ten new Demeter-certified standards for the garment industry. Find out about what DIRT Charity is doing here

By sponsoring the initial stages of The Wool project, in collaboration with DIRT Charity and Southeast England Fibreshed, LGT Wealth Management is excited to contribute to a healthier, more resilient and regenerative textile ecosystem. 

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