(To download a PDF of the full 2020 Annual Report, click here or on the cover image below.)
This year cast a bright light on the impacts of the financial architecture that textile and apparel brands have constructed for themselves within the last three decades of neo-liberal trade and economic policy. Due to the closure of retail outlets worldwide spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains approximately $20 billion worth of garments sitting in factories. The world’s largest companies placed pre-pandemic orders and are now simply not paying for them Unfortunately, the situation is not surprising, as this economic system was designed to force financial risk to those at the base of the supply chain. The trend of externalizing costs onto human communities and the earth’s ecosystems is evident in our country’s own recent textile manufacturing history. As the United States was formulating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act in the 1960s and 70s, jobs were already being moved overseas. From 1973 to 1996 alone, the United States lost 39% of its textile manufacturing jobs(1), yet we remain the second-largest globally ranked consumer of clothing.(2)
The centralization of the $2.5 trillion global textile industry has hit a zenith; 20 international textile brands control 97% of the industry profits. This concentration of power and wealth is rooted in inequitable business architecture. A recently published report by the Workers Rights Consortium drew from interviews with 396 garment workers across 158 factories in nine countries: 77% of those interviewed reported that they or a member of their household had gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic, 88% reported that the lowering of their income had forced a reduction on the amount of food they consumed each day, and 80% of the workforce expects that they will need to further reduce the amount of food they eat.(3) In contrast to this growing poverty, McKinsey & Co. reported in October that the largest textile brands increased their market value by 11% during the pandemic.
If nothing changes in our behavior and the political landscape, fast fashion is set to raise its market value by 20% by 2029.(4)
When Fibershed initiated a project in 2015 to elevate the role of Climate Beneficial™ agriculture within a prominent textile company’s supply chain, we became aware of the functional aspects of the ‘purchase order’ process. This mechanism illuminated to us the role that the larger name brand companies play within the creation of our clothing. Textile brands do not own, nor are they financially invested in, the mills that make the goods they sell. Instead, they issue purchase orders to the top of the supply chain (usually the cut & sew facility), who then place purchase orders to knitting and weaving mills, who then place purchase orders with the spinner, who then place orders with distributors of raw fiber. Within this purchase order issuance process, finances are not typically exchanged until a finished garment is ready to ship. The farmers and the ranchers are the last to be paid. Fiber is only understood through the number on a bale within a classing system that gives no recognition for the nuances of land stewardship, soil carbon, drought, fire, crop failure, or biodiversity protection. A ranching or farming family can go years without being paid for their wool clip or cotton harvest—forcing a series of decisions that make it nearly impossible to incentivize enhancements to ecosystem function on open range and cropland systems. It is this same purchase order system that has generated widespread issues of economic destitution for the world’s garment workers. This lopsided power dynamic within production and distribution systems favors the name brand and not the names of those within the workforce that operate the mills and the farms.
Fibershed has responded to these issues through directly tying ecosystem function to the price of raw fiber commodities, and through pushing for direct payments to ranchers and farmers within the same year the crop is harvested. Since we began our work, we’ve enrolled 200,000 pounds of wool that have directly incentivized over 160 Carbon Farming practices on over 13,000 acres of land. The Climate Beneficial Fiber Verification Program work includes holding and continually fostering deeper relationships with land stewards that operate on over 170,000 acres of land. The scale of these working lands is evidence of the opportunity we have to grow the ecological and community economic benefits of this work. Simultaneous to the ongoing expansion of land-based impact, we’ve worked to refine new on-farm climate impact measurement and modeling tools, and this has brought us into collaborations with partner biologists, Colorado State University, Resource Conservation Districts, the Carbon Cycle Institute, Regen Network, University of California Cooperative Extension Service, The Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems (at CSU, Chico), and the National Center for Appropriate Technology. The work to build climate benefitting, regional food and fiber systems is held up by a community of scientific and agricultural acumen.
Even with all of that coordination and collaboration under our belt, this year, due to a dissolving textile economy, we saw little to no payments offered to our farms and ranches. This scenario drove us to search for methods to refine economic solutions for land stewards further. Through a new partnership with a longstanding collaborator, we co-developed a Climate Beneficial Fiber Pool that has provided immediate economic relief to several ranching families that operate across 84,000 acres of land. The #NoRegrets initiative provided an innovative financial instrument known as a revenue-based loan that has further enhanced our community’s ability to control the pricing of raw material as well as enhanced our ability to add value to raw wool in the form of washing and combing. Each value-addition step that we can do ourselves provides increased value to our rural communities.
We continue our work to build an economically and environmentally just textile model from the ground up. And this work has shown us over the last decade that we cannot fully succeed until we restructure, and in some cases rebuild, manufacturing systems.
We’ve understood this reality since 2013, when we saw that we’d need to build new regional manufacturing systems to simply make use of all the wasted natural fibers and hides that the global commodity markets were leaving behind. Further back in shaping this paradigm, experiences in my late teens and twenties as a sweatshop-free campus organizer and co-founder of an Art and Revolution chapter at my University had sent me to the streets in DC and elsewhere to protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. I’ll never forget the North American Free Trade Agreement being signed on television to a living room full of blue collar family members loudly booing. I’ve watched some of those same family members succumb to politically driven dog whistles that are now so much more audible to the former working class than at any point in my lifetime. I’ve observed (since my teens) the free trade rhetoric; I’ve watched the environmental and economic injustices proliferate from these agreements; and I’ve experienced the challenge to regulate corruption and greed in the textile industry, as the players are consistently leaping to the next unregulated location. Human rights lawyers and labor organizers have an incredible amount of continuing work. In support of uplifting labor and doing what we can to help create a more level playing field, this year, Fibershed held panel discussions and teach-in style meet-ups led by the Los Angeles-based Garment Worker Center. Garment workers in LA include a community of over 65,000 individuals who are working to pass state-level legislation to end the piece rate payment system, which relegates sewers to earning as little as $2.50 to $5.00 an hour within California state borders.
Taking inspiration from work in North Carolina (a region of the U.S. textile-manufacturing sector ravaged by NAFTA), Fibershed has been researching the structure and operational capacity of the Carolina Textile District, a for-profit and non-profit collaboration that supports democratically operated textile manufacturing businesses coordinated through a cooperative structure. The Carolina Textile District provides services to a range of designers, artisans, and makers to help them manufacture textile goods. Fibershed’s Regional Fiber Manufacturing Initiative (RFMI) team has been granted extensive consultation time with the Democracy at Work Institute legal group (the lawyers who developed the structure for the Carolina Textile District), which will continue in the coming year. In 2020, our RFMI team provided engineering consultations, financial modeling, and entrepreneurial incubation to a diverse community of emerging manufacturers in the Western region. In the coming year, we will expand our coordinating efforts as we work to understand the legal architecture needed to develop a cooperatively owned Western Textile District. Our goal remains unwavering—and that is to develop soil-to-skin systems that heal the soil, contribute to the reversal of climate destabilization, and revere everyone involved in the process in a manner that sustains lasting prosperity.
This has been a year that felt like it contained lifetimes of lessons, trials, and opportunities. A key opportunity of 2020 has been to see more clearly, to allow historic and current injustices to be internalized, and grieved. And, to use our creative capacities to envision and implement systemic changes. Thank you all for the grace you’ve shown us as we grow, learn, and refine our work and approach. We have so much good work ahead and are blessed and honored to be able to do it amid such rich partnerships and collaboration. I hope you enjoy this report and feel heartened by the work that you’ve supported.