Investing in a Regenerative Fiber Future: A Conversation with Sacred Futures’ Charity May

Bringing about systemic change requires hope, perseverance, and knowledge. But realizing progress toward a more equitable and sustainable economy also requires access to capital. In sectors like fiber and textiles, strategic investment targeted at the right stakeholders can kick-start much-needed transformations. By directing capital to individuals and groups already equipped with hope, perseverance, and knowledge, we can empower them to challenge existing norms and carve out space for a more just and ecologically sustainable future.

Charity May is a visionary investment leader at the forefront of redefining capital’s role to shape a more inclusive and resilient economy. As the Founder and Principal of Sacred Futures, Charity has experience in real estate private equity and investment banking. She brings a deep commitment to regenerative economies to her work as a member of the Investment Committee for the Fibers Fund. 

The Fibers Fund is a collaborative effort between Fibershed and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF), crafted to inject capital into an industry poised for transformation. The initiative seeks to support textile producers and processors in the shift toward ecological harmony and social equity.

For Charity, that means working with investors to understand capital’s evolving role as a catalyst for long-term social and environmental impact. “Ultimately, we must prioritize the health of our planet, the restoration of our soils, and the well-being of people over short-term financial gains,” she says.

Fibershed was excited to talk to Charity about her efforts to nurture investments for collaborative transformations in fiber and textile systems.

As a member of the Investment Committee for the Fibers Fund, among your many advisory roles, you’re in a unique position to assess and shape the future of the fiber and textile industry. Could you share your vision for an ideal fiber system future? 

My ideal fiber system future is deeply interconnected, rooted in ecological and historical contexts. From soil to seed to design and production, every step should be expressive, allowing us to tell human stories that connect us to the process. Waste doesn’t exist, and there’s a focus on renewal and restoration, requiring capital as a catalyst. It also involves reimagining our relationships with the land and each other. In my opinion, that is how we pursue equity.

Where is capital most needed right now in fiber and textile systems? 

There are two very distinct areas where we need as much capital as possible. First, there’s a pressing need to support our land stewards and farmers. In the United States, many fibers are grown conventionally, neglecting soil restoration and climate-friendly practices. Transitioning to sustainable methods requires substantial financial resources and respect for time, emphasizing the need for patient capital to facilitate this transition. Additionally, creating demand in the market for these regenerative products is vital.

Second, once products reach the market, there’s a significant need for hard asset infrastructure like processing facilities and mills. Much of this infrastructure either isn’t operational or is lacking in the U.S. context. Capital investment can address this gap by fostering bio-regionalism and enhancing resilience within local regions. Investing in regional processing infrastructure is crucial and necessitates investment capital to revive textile production and manufacturing.

In your ideal fiber future, would the Fibers Fund be needed?

As the ecosystem of the fiber industry grows and becomes more resilient, reflecting the vision that we’ve set forth, the types of capital necessary will also evolve.

I see the Fibers Fund adapting to these changing needs over time, remaining a vital connector in the fabric of this work. Its form may shift, reflecting the dynamic nature of capital and the evolving priorities within the fiber and textile sector. This adaptability is a positive aspect, ensuring that the Fibers Fund remains relevant and effective in supporting the industry’s growth and sustainability.

How can we ensure that our investments in this system are equitable?

We know that the textile history of the United States is deeply rooted in extraction and the exploitation of Black and Brown people. The evolution and healing that’s required cannot be facilitated without centering those communities and acknowledging that history.

For instance, consider cotton and the history of African Americans. The production of cotton at the time was directly linked to slavery and the atrocities inflicted. Yet today, we have African American farmers who feel connected to the land and the production of cotton. They require as much care, resources, and support as possible for their commitment to developing a more sustainable cotton product in this country. This process involves repairing our relationship to that particular product and, more broadly, addressing the Black experience. Here I want to uplift the incredible work of Tameka Peoples at Seed2Shirt who is championing building this ecosystem of healing around cotton. This is a complex conversation that requires acknowledging historical context and centering experiences to envision how our relationship to these products and processes can change.

This discussion extends beyond the U.S. context; there are parallel narratives of production and exploitation of labor globally. For example, Los Angeles has an interesting history related to garment factory production, which was outsourced during the Industrial Revolution due to cost factors. This outsourcing often led to the exploitation of human life, neglecting fair wages and work environments. These international touchpoints are crucial to advancing the conversation.

How do you believe investment strategies can be aligned with support for the smaller regionally focused businesses and communities within the fiber and textile sector?

Aligning investment strategies with support for smaller, regionally focused businesses and communities within the fiber and textile sector requires creativity and patience. Patient capital is essential, as it necessitates both understanding immediate needs and envisioning long-term sustainability.

To achieve this alignment, we must consider what a successful soil-based textile production facility would look like 20 or 50 years from now. This involves mapping out different types of capital needed at various phases and recognizing the time investment required. Capital should be patient and considerate in terms of repayment and returns to investors.

The Fibers Fund has a unique opportunity to educate investors on the importance of patient capital in this work. This could involve innovative approaches such as combining grant capital with low-interest loans, creating flexible repayment terms, and becoming a strategic partner in business development and execution. By honoring this process, we can foster a supportive ecosystem for sustainable growth within the sector.

Your work with Sacred Futures involves guiding companies toward regenerative practices. How do you think these principles can be translated into the fiber and textile industry?

When considering how regenerative principles can be applied to the fiber and textile industry, I believe there’s little translation needed. Regenerative practices view humans as part of nature and take inspiration from natural abundance and life cycles. For instance, in nature, a seed grows into a tree that produces fruit and seeds for future growth, embodying a continuous cycle of renewal and abundance.

Similarly, companies in the fiber and textile sector can adopt organizational models that mimic nature’s interconnectedness. This involves building networked relationships throughout the production process that are life-giving rather than extractive. Additionally, practical applications in farming practices, such as climate-beneficial agricultural processes like crop rotation, can enhance soil health, increase biodiversity, and have positive environmental impacts like carbon sequestration and improved water infiltration.

Money acts as a tool to support the right investments that enable these regenerative practices to take root and flourish within the industry.

How do you approach balancing financial returns with the social and environmental impacts of investments?

I’m going to answer from the perspective of someone speaking to investors. We cannot risk the health and well-being of our planet and of each other for maximum growth of a dollar. There is no balance in that. We must work together to rethink our approach to money.

This could involve radical shifts such as redefining the concept of money or, on a more practical level, asking ourselves, “How much is enough?” and being transparent about our methods of achieving that sufficiency. Financial models can still calculate target rates of return, but we must consider the long-term impact of these returns. Are they accumulating wealth for a select few, or are they reinvesting capital back into the community and rejuvenating our landscapes? 

I urge investors and fund managers to sit with these questions and challenge the traditional separation between financial returns and broader community impact, which includes people and planet. There is no greater priority other than the health of our planet, the restoration of our soils, and the well-being of people.

What advice would you give to other investors and organizations looking to support regenerative and equitable initiatives within the fiber and textile industry? 

I would encourage a holistic approach. Take a moment to observe the textiles around you in your daily life — the clothes you wear, the cushions you sit on. Consider their origins, how they were produced, and whether they align with your values and health needs.

Reflecting on my personal journey, I’ve realized the importance of connecting with textiles that honor my health and well-being. This could mean adopting soil-based textiles that are breathable and suitable for my skin, especially given that  I have allergies and sensitivities to certain fabrics.

Start by acknowledging the role textiles play in your life, then recognize the impactful work organizations like Fibershed are doing. They raise awareness, empower farmers, and promote climate-beneficial agricultural practices across the production process.

Every individual, from investors to brands and designers, has a role to play in this collective effort. Once you’ve done your research and understand the importance of regenerative practices, consider reaching out to initiatives like the Fibers Fund to invest your resources. Together, we can create a regenerative textile sector that aligns with our values and dreams.

What do you think it would feel like to be a part of your ideal fiber future? 

Being part of my ideal fiber future would evoke feelings of joy, wholesomeness, and positive intergenerational connectivity. Textiles carry the rich stories of humans and their relationship with the land, making them powerful conduits of culture and heritage.

In this future, there’s a vibrant tapestry of colors and experiences, creating a sense of beauty and rightness. It feels like a harmonious blend of past, present, and future, where we cherish and nurture the stories woven into every fabric.

Overall, being part of this ideal fiber future is not just about textiles; it’s about honoring our connections, celebrating diversity, and creating a sustainable and meaningful legacy for generations to come.