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Want Sustainable Clothing? It's Time to Meet Regenerative Fiber

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Want Sustainable Clothing? It's Time to Meet Regenerative Fiber

By Valerie Vande Panne

Do you know where your clothes came from?

No, not the store, the label or the brand. Or China, India or Vietnam.


I mean, do you know who made your clothing? Do you know what your clothes are made from? Or where the fiber in your clothing came from? The cotton, the polyester or the acrylic?

Chances are, you don't. And that's a problem. It's difficult for people to have respect for an item or the people who created it when they don't know where the item came from or how it was created in the first place.

For instance, did you know your athletic gear is probably made from plastic? And that 94 percent of U.S. drinking water has plastic lint from our clothing in it? You're literally washing the plastic from your yoga pants into our water systems. Polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex—it's all plastic. Ninety-eight million tons of oil was used in the textile industry in 2015. By 2050, that number is expected to be 300 million.

And cotton is no easy solution, using 16 percent of the world's insecticides. Pesticides can then become concentrated in the cotton—like tampons, or returned to the food supply via cottonseed.

When Bena Burda, founder of organic apparel company Maggie's Organics, learned about the harms of cotton, she was horrified. She was working in the organic food industry and thought, "This is ridiculous. How can we not know this?"

Enter regenerative fiber, a movement to return the entire system of clothing—from agriculture to product and back again—to within 250 miles of where you live. It is a solution to the large-scale, global exploitative textile system: It has components rooted in the local, community-based economy, with local farmers cultivating organic fibers—wool, cotton, alpaca, hemp—and developing the processing required to bring it from field to fabric, fabric to product.

You see, fashion—as you know it and as you're probably wearing it, right now—is exploitative and unsustainable, said Anna Canning, communications coordinator at Fair World Project, an organization that advocates for policy solutions like a living the wage.

"You have a lot of exploitation in factories around the globe," she said, pointing to low pay, long hours and forced labor, often of women. In addition, fashion contributes to climate change. She said the industry "is on track to consume a quarter of the global carbon supply by 2050." Fashion itself is also resource intensive and disposable.

Worse, our nation has seemingly lost the ability to produce its own ethical fiber. "There's only one non-GMO [cotton] gin in the country," said Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, an organization focused on educating the public on the environmental, economic and social benefits of bringing the textile supply chain home. "We can't even wash our fibers in California." The U.S., she said, has "an inability to process fiber in an ethical way."

In the last century, due to neo-liberal policy and the frictionless moving of capital, our entire nation's ability to foster local fiber systems and cultivate local textiles has been exported to the point where even the memory of how to make textiles has been extinguished, said Burgess.

When the U.S. lost the textile industry, it lost the memory of how to build these systems, and even the ability to innovate within them. "The textile industry is a relic from the late 19th and early 20th century, so when we go back to re-envision bringing it home, we're working on American equipment built in the 1920s."

Much of Burgess's work is around building sensitivity and awareness about what it will take to return local textile industries to the United States. "We need to repair cultural and political divides," she said. "If we can … bring these fiber systems back into the communities, and re-envision what that looks like," that can lead to an enormous shift for rural and urban communities alike, especially when the goal is developing these systems with family farms and worker-owned co-operatives.

Doing that holistically then fosters diversity from the farm to your yoga mat. "In an adept system," said Burgess, "you could combine inter-species yarn that would replace our reliance on fossil-carbon fiber."

Burgess sees inter-species fiber blends as a solution: combining plants and animal blends such as wool-hemp blends, or wool-alpaca-cotton, all in one yarn. Plastic athletic wear can be replaced with such yarns and fabrics, which can then reduce the amount of plastic that sheds into our oceans and fresh water. She points to "pre-Columbian, Roman-Greek recipe blending. There's a long history of it. We just forgot about it."

"We call it the soil to soil framework," she explained. It's a cycle: What's coming out of the soil and how you're treating the soil. Creating the structures to harvest, clean and move material off-farm and into cooperatively owned mills. Moving textiles to locally-owned cooperative manufacturers. Distributing to consumers. Consumers who are able to care for and mend the product. And then, at the end of its life, the clothing can be recycled or composted and returned to the soil—without further polluting or damaging the land.

There are few of these regional fiber systems in existence today in the U.S., but Burgess and similar groups are working to change that. "We have farms and brands and manufacturers that have pieces of it. It's a fledgling system. It needs a lot of support from the consumer."

People, she said, need to seek out local fibers and locally made clothing the way they have sought out and found local farmer's markets.

Many Americans today, however, can't afford to shop at farmer's markets, let alone locally made clothing. If they do shop at a farmer's market, they often take advantage of "SNAP match" programs some markets offer, where you get a dollar to spend for every food stamp dollar you use at the market. These same folks might want to engage in local, regional fiber—but at $95 for a scarf, that might not seem feasible.

"If you don't have a lot of income, you can learn how to mend," said Burgess. It then becomes all about slowing down the fast fashion machine. Currently, 87 percent of the clothing we consume ends up in a landfill or incinerated.

"It's kind of like divesting from oil. Divest from fashion," said Burgess. "You've gotta hit it from a number of levels at once," said Burgess.

For Burda, she turned her shock into a new career in organic apparel. "My real job is to take the people who wear my clothes and connect them with the people who make my clothes. What better way than to take physical product that women are invested in and connect the dots to every single set of hands?"

Canning approaches the issue from a fair trade perspective. "The reality is, these movements are all working for a just economy for all people. It is an investment to purchase something that takes into account the full cost of production." Especially American-made production.

"Americans have a long way to go on their behavior to understand what it takes to make a garment and what those things will cost," said Burgess.

And once that's understood, perhaps we can bring the textile and garment industries home.

Ways you can divest from fast fashion:

1. Stop wearing plastic.

2. Wear your clothes a lot more. If you see a hole or lose a button, fix it, or find someone in your community who can fix it. Barter or trade to get the job done.

3. Instead of buying new clothing, have a clothing swap. Host a clothing swap potluck.

4. If you're gonna buy new, look for organic cotton. If it's not certified organic, it's GMO.

5. Purchase items that are 100 percent wool, flax, linen or hemp/cotton blends.

6. Start paying attention. Read the tag. What does it say?

7. Know who made your clothing. Know who sewed it.

8. Learn to make your own clothing. There are so many people who remember how to do this, and we would be wise to learn from them while they're still with us.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

Sustainable t-shirts by Allbirds are made from a new, low-carbon material that uses a mineral extract from discarded snow crab shells. Jerry Buttles / Allbirds

In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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