The New York Times published an article in 2019 with the headline “Avocado Dye Is, Naturally, Millennial Pink”. Yes, you read that right. But have you wondered why?
When we think about agriculture, many words come to our mind: food, farmers, or hard (often underappreciated) labor. Very rarely, however, do we talk about agriculture in the context of fashion, and some of the leading textiles in the industry are plant-based such as cotton, hemp, or bamboo. Dyes used to color the fabrics also derive their pigments from the natural world around us.
Humans have been using fibers and animals to create textiles for thousands of years. Examples include the regenerative design of mudcloth (originating in Mali, around the 6th century), which is a handmade cotton fabric traditionally dyed in mud and plant dyes in Mali. It’s done in an artisanal way, as a tradition passed down from a mother to a daughter.
There’s also a lacebark tree (also known as Lagetta lagetto), native to Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola, which was used by women to make natural lace-like material, mostly in the late 17th to the late 19th centuries. It was, however, until the Europeans realized the softness and lightness of cotton, that it became treated as “white gold”, which then led to colonialism, expansion of slavery, and creation of the institutions that still operate, in one form or another, until this day.
Think about this for a moment. To make agriculture and fashion, systems that have been extractive and exploitative for years, sustainable, it isn’t enough to talk about the prevention of waste only. Waste is often a by-product of mass production and a lack of circular business models in place.
To truly transform and re-frame the system, we need to implement regenerative practices among a variety of industries to make sure that we do not deplete the resources we have at hand right now. It’s no longer about sustaining life as we know it, but about regaining what has been lost already.
But what's a regenerative system?
It’s an intersectional unison of environment, economy, and equity. Regenerative practices lead to the transformation of existing systems by empowering local communities who have bigger geographically specific knowledge, and who then can help to preserve biodiversity and introduce solutions that work in particular contexts.
Using native raw materials that are specific for distinct regions, cultivating regional crops and seeds, and protecting biodiversity go hand in hand. An example of a company that does it right is Suzano, a Brazilian company that’s supplying wood pulp for the mills, which can then be used in textile creation.
The simple truth is one of many wrongs that colonialism brought was crop monoculture. This has caused tremendous repercussions on overall environmental health. The issue of protecting soil should be of paramount importance. Regenerative agriculture and its advocates step in to teach the story of healing, restoration, and what it means to steward the land and bring it to abundance, without using pesticides and other chemicals in the process.
So, what does all this mean? The Industrial Revolution led to the expansion of both the agriculture and textile industries through technological transformations. It’s worth, however, remembering that while technology and research are beneficial and improve many things, they aren’t the same as progress.
For me, progress is improvement within social or environmental contexts, which can be measured against established frameworks. Progress would be figuring out new ways to create textiles that do not disturb the environment, instead of prioritizing more brands switching to organic cotton—which has a big impact on the overall environment as well, despite being “organic”.
Next-gen materials industry is set to soar over the next years. Innovators in the industry are now assessing the performance features of materials such as mycelium leather and other bio-based substitutes for conventional materials.
Let me provide you with an example. The Finnish company, Spinnova, has developed a production technology that enables them to make textile fibers out of wood pulp without the use of harmful chemicals. The Spinnova fiber is therefore 100% recyclable and biodegradable within several months. It also contains no microplastics and involves minimal CO2 emissions and water use. Current partners include The North Face, H&M Group, and Bergans of Norway.
But the truth? Unfortunately, at the current stage, these innovations are often plagued by high initial investment relative to well-established alternatives that benefit from scale economies and resistance to change connected to high risk.
No doubt about it. Thinking about such solutions is essential when we talk about climate change mitigation. The progress needs to go in line with technology and break down the solidified opinions and established business models. The circular models such as resale, rental, repair, and remaking can all lead to a decrease in greenhouse emissions.
To use the metaphor of the water flowing out of the overfilled bathtub, it’s not only about closing the water stream but also about decreasing the total amount of water. In our case, this would mean how regenerative and innovative solutions, as well as cross-partnerships between the private sector, textile companies, and raw materials providers are an indispensable component of a sustainable approach.