Review: “Fibershed” by Rebecca Burgess

I just finished reading Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists and Makers for a New Fiber Economy.  Reading this book was like reading a book I wish I had written – I am completely on board with the author’s concerns about our current clothing system and vision for a new one.  I hope this book increases awareness of the value of local fibercraft.

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Burgess begins the book by outlining the environmental and ethical morass that is current Fast Fashion.  She outlines all of the pain and environmental destruction inherent in petroleum-derived fashion, including pollution from manufacture, dyeing and weaving/sewing of clothes.  She also notes emerging evidence showing the polluting properties of microfibers.  She tackles the environmental and ethical concerns about conventional cotton production and sheep production, including non-point pollution of fresh water as well as land use concerns.  I had not considered just how large the environmental footprint of clothing really is because I am not an active shopper, but she rightly points out that clothing manufacture is a huge sector of the global economy. No person or environment is untouched by the effects of our economic choices.

Her solution to the issues of our current wasteful and destructive clothing habit is simple enough to envision, but a challenge to implement.  She believes, and I agree, that we should go “localvore” with clothing as we should with food.  De-globalizing clothing economies and changing our habits around clothing would drastically slow the consumption of resources currently deployed to making flimsy garments meant only to last for a month or two.  It would also provide revitalizing economic opportunity in rural areas.

Her critique of the increasing rate of “planned obsolescence” in clothing really hit home for me.  I have struggled with this myself – I want to buy sturdy, comfortable jeans to work in, but in women’s clothing, jeans have become so flimsy that it’s hard to find a pair that will last me a year.  Men’s clothing is a little sturdier, but it doesn’t fit me at all and I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise on fit to get properly dressed.  It’s even more of a struggle for me lately because since my surgeries, I can no longer tolerate a tight waistband across my tender pelvis and stomach.  That rules out a lot of brands of work pants.

The segment of the book that spoke to me most was (of course!) the segment on the potential for a California wool renaissance that would create a market for local raw wool, mills to spin and weave or knit it, and manufacturers to create top-quality finished garments.  I am totally on board with this vision.  Frustratingly, the only way this would really work would be if the environmental costs of globalized manufacture weren’t hidden from consumers or charged to third-world countries for clean up of environmental damage.   If the lifecycle price of carbon better matched the price at the pump, local clothing would be instantly competitive.

I am furthermore grateful for all of the groundbreaking lifecycle analysis that Burgess has done looking at local fiber’s carbon sequestration potential.  We should all wear wool with pride, knowing that every stitch of wool that replaces something made of petrochemicals is a little gift to our climate.   I only hope that we will rectify the artificial cheapness of imported fashion and imported food before it’s too late – I can safely assume that Burgess wishes very much for the same.  We furthermore agree that lab meat and lab fibers are a false hope which only serve to further centralize production while still hiding their carbon and ethical costs.

My critique of the book is twofold.  While the author’s citation of statistics and examples is commendable and thorough, so many are cited that it sometimes detracts from the narrative of the book.  The many credits she gives to people she visited and talked to while exploring her fibershed causes a similar narrative issue.  I appreciate that she wants to give producers their due, but I admit I found it distracting.  Also distracting was the organization of the book, which I would describe as distinctly “Californian-informal”.  Perhaps because I tend to favor textbooks, I struggled to follow the occasionally-meandering threads in this book.  I also wish she had more thoroughly examined the impacts of natural dyes.  It is my understanding that when mordant is added, many natural dyes are as polluting as synthetics or are worse.

Nevertheless, I feel that this is an important book for anyone who wants to explore the implications of their clothing choices.  She has groundbreaking information about new techniques for growing clothing crops more sustainably and with fewer labor rights infractions.  The book is full of striking illustrations and inspiring side-notations about farms and operations she has visited.  I would recommend it as the fiber-world equivalent to Omnivore’s Dilemma and other groundbreaking works endeavoring to spark change in our systems.

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