Rebecca Burgess, the Executive Director of Fibershed, is a leading voice advocating for a shift in our approach to clothing consumption and production. Her vision for a fiber future centers on quality materials, cultural reverence, and a deeper connection between textiles and the ecosystems they stem from.
In this interview, Burgess addresses the question, “What if everything goes right?” She shares her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities within the textile industry, emphasizing the importance of consumer behavior, policy changes, and innovative agricultural practices in paving the way for a more sustainable future.
When you envision your ideal fiber future, what do you see?
Rebecca: My ideal fiber future would be one centered in an ethos of quality-over-quantity. We’ve been on a slippery slope ever since we started considering fashion highly consumable, which is abnormal. I’d like to see a suite of cultural practices take shape that supports people in understanding the depth of experience and meaning behind their second skin.
The opportunity in my ideal fiber future is that our clothing contributes to the experience of building a true sense of belonging to place. That’s what textiles used to do — textile culture, food culture, music, storytelling, all these things are hardwired to remind us of where we come from and our relationship with landscapes and the things that allow us to exist in these bodies. I think textiles could become a decent, if not a perfect, reminder of our relationship to ecosystems.
That future requires less consumption, but that’s so easy because we’re only wearing about 20% of what we own, at least in Western Europe and the U.S.
It sounds like you’re advocating for a lifestyle shift.
Rebecca: Cultural shifts can and do affect policy, and policy can and does affect culture. Policy is only as good as our minds, hearts, and ability to organize allow it to be. Ideally, culture starts to transform our ways of being, which then brings us towards consensus and/or a majority tipping point that shifts governance.
When it comes to policy, we need to start regulating volume. We’d like to see brands have to declare the units of production they produce per year and also quantify the unsold inventory. Policies that incentivize and/or penalize brands to find solutions for “waste products” are essential. Modulating incentives and penalties based on what kinds of raw materials they are using is also critical.
How might a regular consumer’s life look different in your ideal fiber future?
Rebecca: People are wearing textile and clothing whose fibers are grown on landscapes that the wearer has a personal relationship with. A wearer would meet the land, four-leggeds, plants, ranchers, and the farmers who are generating the raw materials. I’d like to see a future for wearers that provides them opportunities to see the fiber plants growing. A future where we are wearing known landscapes.
I’m starting to see that happen, and I’m seeing it happen across socio-economic strata.
For all of this work to generalize within our wearer experience long term, we need to have an economic system that supports people to stay in business, scale (just enough), and be solvent without perpetuating our current phase of economics that is mostly tied to consistent compounded growth.
Where are you seeing evidence that we’re heading in the right direction?
Rebecca: I see some really beautiful sparks. I’ve seen consortiums of brands work together to scaffold minimums at mills. It’s been really fun to watch companies from a range of sizes start to tap into farming and milling systems as a collective to ensure traceability and farm-level connectivity.
On the policy front, the California Extended Producer Responsibility legislation that’s emerging and the federal level FABRIC Act are both examples of domestic policy aiming to stimulate eco-social sanity within the fashion system.
How does agriculture play into all of this?
Rebecca: Within the existing land that’s already managed for pasture and cropland, we would incentivize growers to build soils that hold more water in drought cycles and create as much climate resilience in our farming systems as we can through natural means and carbon farming. I see no need to grow our annual natural fiber production. I would just like to see growers fairly compensated for what they currently produce. We have a ways to go to support growers to increase their climate adaptive and mitigating strategies, and we have a ways to go to make use of all the existing fibers that are harvested within each annual agricultural cycle.
We have all of these important levers in front of us: agriculture, policy, education, industry … is there one that you think we should pull first or hardest to spark massive change?
Rebecca: My answer changes depending on how I see the world going week to week. But I would say high on the list is that we have to institute a natural capital incentivizing tax code that gets us to an instituted and economy-wide triple bottom line (People, Planet, Profit). That strategy is essential if we’re going to continue to assume that modifying the current economic system is ‘enough’ of a solution.
Right now, a company looks at its spreadsheets, and all it sees is a profit and loss based on one indicator, which is U.S. dollars or whatever your currency is. It doesn’t have to equally put importance on its emissions, its waste, its biodiversity metrics, its water metrics. If we can’t weight these other things on equal terms, we can’t do this work in perpetuity. We will continue to have what we have.
We need natural accounting.
Do you think your ideal fiber future is attainable?
Rebecca: Yes. The efforts we have to make are both increasing our eco-efficiency and plateauing our growth. Many people’s brains explode when you say that.
I appreciate Ursula K Le Guin’s quote: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
It does feel somewhat hard to imagine.
Rebecca: But there are some interesting indicators that show me where it’s already happening.
When you put the regulatory kibosh on biodiversity-smashing CO2e pumping growth, you then leave room for new things to emerge.
What would it feel like to be part of the future you envision?
Rebecca: It will feel healthy and whole. No opaque details that we suppress because of how exploitative and harsh they are. Your clothing will come from a system that is much fairer, clear, and connected, and you will feel a part of that system.
It feels like you’re contributing to something that’s reciprocal. I inject my energy, my money, my time into the system, and it actually creates a really positive eco-social feedback loop. And I understand that feedback loop. I know who’s involved in it, and it feels good.
I don’t think we’re that far off from actually creating those systems in textiles. It’s not that hard; we already know how to do it.
Images by Paige Green