Soil to Skin Textiles: Why Climate Beneficial Wool Fibers Matter

We overhaul our closet contents, reinvent styles depending on the season of weather or fashion, and redesign home interiors for a fresh look. It’s time textiles reinvented itself too, with a major ethos shift from disposable to regenerative… cue climate beneficial fibers.

West coast living; colorful produce abundant, breezy palm trees, laid back vibes, Golden State to Pacific states. America’s west coast is the birthplace of many regenerative innovators, no doubt inspired by the diverse natural landscapes of national parks, mountainous backdrops and rugged coastlines. Fibershed is one such pioneer, a nonprofit passionate about regenerating the textile economy by “developing regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers”. Changing the way we buy into a throwaway culture is fellow California-born Coyuchi, a bed, bath and apparel company of Point Reyes. A leading textile brand with a commitment to circularity, they source Climate Beneficial Wool through Fibershed.

Climate beneficial fiber
Image courtesy of Coyuchi

Fast fashion culture has long been at the centre of ethical debates, with the human cost increasingly exposed and reported on. We ask the question #WhoMadeMyClothes, but do we know who grows it? The year 2050 could see the fashion industry swallow up a quarter of the entire world’s carbon budget, as textile production sees total greenhouse gas emissions fly higher than the combined sum of international flights and maritime shipping – at more than an annual 1.2 billion tonnes. At the heart of fabrics adorning our homeware and apparel is a textile industry ready for change. Upcycling, rental fashion, thrifting, take-backs, recycling, renewing… ever evolving innovations are allowing consumers to explore the way textiles can express not just individual identities, but the increasingly conscientious identity of an industry long plagued by harmful and polluting practices. Circularity and climate beneficial approaches go hand in hand, with each step in a fiber’s circular lifecycle mindfully feeding into the next.

What are climate beneficial fibers?

Woollen winter wardrobes, everyday favourites of cotton origin, or the flax fibers in a cool linen dress can all be cultivated in a way that benefits the climate. Regenerative agriculture methods are key, with a focus on topsoil regeneration like organic no till and rotational grazing. Through a process known as carbon sequestering, CO2 is pulled from the atmosphere and stored in the soils for years, even centuries or more. The anchor, then, in any regenerative supply chain is the soil in which seeds for fiber and food take root. Farming that works with the environment has the promise to transform our relationship with earth and the climate crisis, and Fibershed is tapping into this extraordinary potential.

Fibershed climate beneficial farm
Image courtesy of Coyuchi

Fibershed sprouted from a 2010 commitment founder Rebecca Burgess set herself, to wear a wardrobe grown and produced entirely within a 150 mile radius from her home in northern California. Over a decade on from its inception, Fibershed boasts an impressive repertoire. Spanning a range of social and educational programmes, offerings include annual Wool Symposiums, workshop hostings at the Fibershed Learning Center, a Regional Fiber Manufacturing Initiative, free downloadable educational curricula, and a number of Fiber Systems research projects.

Fibershed named the complete regenerative cycle of a fiber the Soil to Soil Fiber System; a cyclical process in which regenerative agriculture nurtures natural fibers, which are then treated and used holistically. Practices within the cycle include recycling excesses during production and design stages, and colouring with natural plant dye – a practice even more essential when considering that textile dyeing is the world’s second largest water polluting industry.

One year of research reevaluating local Californian wool resources and investigating the feasibility of a regional milling economy led the Fibershed project to create an ideal wool mill blueprint with the ultimate goal of a net-negative carbon impact. It works from the fundamental pillars of water recycling, composting systems and renewable energy. Now, Fibershed members have partnerships with iconic brands like The North Face, who stock a Cali Wool Collection. The Climate Beneficial wool is sourced from Bare Ranch California who follow Fibershed’s Carbon Farm Plan, developed with the Carbon Cycle Institute.

Fibershed climate beneficial partner farm
Image courtesy of Coyuchi

Local versus Global

Integral to Fibershed’s systems, regionality promotes a growing community across the United States and in a recent move, the United Kingdom. Members form local links, in a local supply chain, powered by renewable energy. Fibershed communities adopt a pioneering “farm-to-closet” approach through collaboration between farmers, ranchers, land managers, designers, manufacturers, and the consumer.

Collaboration facilitates an exchange of information and support as companies grow – and the successful partnership between Fibershed and Coyuchi is no exception. Coyuchi partners with a number of conscientious systems from Fibershed, to White Buffalo Land Trust, to 1% for the Planet. Their longest running farm group relationship is with Chetna Farming Cooperative in India, who supplies them with Fair Trade Organic Cotton. Coyuchi CEO and President Eileen Mockus explains, “Coyuchi has partnered with our manufacturers and industry groups to tap into the knowledge and expertise needed to become circular”, noting that value in regional approaches further lies in reducing environmental impact.

Fibershed climate beneficial partner farm
Image courtesy of Coyuchi

Home Brand Innovation

Coyuchi’s 1991 establishment saw the first organic cotton linen hit the market, and decades later they continue to lead the industry by example with socially and environmentally regenerative pursuits. Aided by innovative circular initiatives to ‘turn accountability into action’, the company is closing the loop on textile creation and targeting the 2.1 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste tossed aside every year in the US alone. In 2020 Coyuchi became the first home brand to enter the circular economy. Mockus tells us, “I sit on the Board of Accelerating Circularity, a non-profit group, that is working on mapping circular systems and initiating trials to facilitate the steps the industry needs to take. Coyuchi has proof of concept with our first circular product and we’re actively engaged in how the industry will evolve.”

Coyuchi circular initiative diagram
Image courtesy of Coyuchi

The Renewal Workshop and Coyuchi teamed up in 2017 to meet consumer desire for an easy way to recycle items, now under the Coyuchi 2nd Home Take Back program (of which 83% of items received can be mended and cleaned for reselling in store). Recycling is one antidote to the 87% of total fibers for clothes ending up incinerated or in a landfill. In the Netherlands, The Renewal Workshop launder sent-back linens, repair them, then resell as ‘renewed’, and if not up to scratch they’re passed onto designers and artisans for upcycling usage. Recycled linens are made into yarn or composted, with future hopes to respin recycled cotton for a completely closed loop. By late 2020, Coyuchi had measured a remarkable resulting impact – including saving a staggering 36,475 lbs of toxic chemicals, and water equivalent to 25 Olympic swimming pools. Accessible infrastructure has the potential to streamline such processes, which is important to ensure initiatives like these thrive. As Mockus highlights, “For circular models to succeed in textiles, there needs to be a lot more coordination to facilitate take back, renewal and recycling.”

Climate beneficial organic wool
Image courtesy of Coyuchi

Whose choices matter, anyway?

From post consumer initiatives to the heart of the design stage, every choice in the supply chain effects change. Mockus explains, “In home textiles, it all starts with the fiber and the fabrics we create and [we] want our designers to be tied into the process. Regenerative fiber systems aren’t something that can be added on at the end, they are built in from the beginning, from product concept and design.”

Consumers possess purchasing power to vote for a textile ecosystem that grows with the earth, not against it. Mockus advises, “Right now, the best thing consumers can do is support brands making commitments to regenerative fiber systems, like Coyuchi. We are on a journey toward regenerative agriculture and it will take time to bring the fiber into our supply chain. We are fortunate to have Climate Beneficial Wool and look forward to bringing regenerative organic cotton into our assortment in the future.” The landmark Regenerative Organic Certification was established in 2017 by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a collective of corporate, nonprofit and philanthropic allies. Amongst others, the collective features Patagonia, 1% for the Planet and the Rodale Institute. It’s an industry standard-setting move in the right direction, as Fibershed continues to research and advocate for a number of fibres beneficial for the climate.

Coyuchi’s Climate Beneficial Wool range includes the Tahoe Wool Blanket, which Mockus is currently enjoying along with “organic relaxed linen sheets, supporting European farmers who grow linen only every 7 years amidst a rotation of other organically grown food crops.”

Coyuchi full circle recycled cotton throw
Coyuchi Full Circle Recycled Cotton Throw. Image courtesy of Coyuchi

Of the future, Mockus hopes “to restore soil health in California and around the world, to reduce the impact of climate change.” The textile industry is a necessary root for branching industries like fashion and homeware. To keep it growing in the right direction and in a way that supports it’s offshoots, we can embrace organic and regenerative agriculture, climate beneficial fibers, regionality, circular lifecycles for textile products, and championing innovative companies. A healthy textile economy looks collaborative, regeneratively closed loop, and driven by the support of conscientious consumers and brands. Why not see how close to home you can sport your soil-to-soil socks, sweaters and sundresses?

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