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‘I could no longer be a hypocrite’: How Rebecca Burgess became an eco-fashion activist

Rebecca Burgess.

Paige Green

Fashion consumers take note: Planet Earth is in environmental peril and our obsession with clothing isn't helping. Rebecca Burgess is an educator, writer and natural-dye farmer from Northern California who is trying to make us rethink our wardrobes in myriad ways. Six years ago, Burgess committed to developing and wearing a wardrobe of garments whose dyes, fibres and labour were all sourced within 150 miles of her home. Her efforts were so successful (and lauded) that she established Fibershed, a resource for creating organic fibres and natural dyes, and hand-processing them into clothing. It's all part of a growing "slow fashion" movement focusing on turning away from high-volume global production and embracing handcrafted, local fare. Today's textile industry is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses on Earth and one of the largest water polluters. Burgess says we have to decentralize the fabric supply chain and develop an international system of regional textile communities that will support local farmers and artisans. The passionate eco-warrior was in Toronto recently as part of the Textile Museum of Canada's Conscious Consumption program, and I caught up with her to discuss ways that fashion can reduce its ecological footprint, the value of quality over quantity, and the logistics of changing the system.

Something that started as a personal experiment has blossomed into an incredible movement. Why did you decide to start wearing a wardrobe that had all been produced locally?

I was at an airport, sitting in a plastic chair, and CNN was on. I was watching U.S. troops being deployed to Afghanistan and it dawned on me that all of this effort to protect oil resources was something I was actually complacent about. Even though I wasn't deploying those troops and I wasn't armed and trying to protect our derricks and distribution lines, I realized I was sitting in a plastic chair, and my clothes were dyed in fossil carbon synthetic colour. I looked around and every piece of the material culture – even the paint on the wall – had fossil carbon pigments in it. There's all this that we're digging and extracting out of the Earth's core for fuel, for colour, for form plastics, plastic clothing – the acrylics, the nylons, the stretchy jeans, all of that. I'm complicit in this war because of my connection to, reliance on and consumption of these materials that come from the Earth's fossil carbon resources. I was also on my way to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico at the time, about to start exploring these natural dye recipes that were plant-based and had been part of the landscape in North America for several thousand years. I thought if I'm going to be writing and publishing about natural dyes and I'm concerned about war and imperialism and people taking from other people, I should probably look at what I'm wearing: It's the one arena in which I have some control, because I'm a weaver and I'm a natural dyer. I made a commitment that around the time the book was to launch I would be a role model. I knew I needed to hold my own values true by wearing these clothes. I could no longer be a hypocrite.

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It's astounding just how much waste there is. Was that something you became increasingly aware of the deeper you got into it?

Definitely. The wonderful documentary The True Cost pretty much sums up for me the core issues around labour, water pollution, climate and waste. And Greenpeace came out with a digital booklet called Dirty Laundry, all about the wastewater in China related to endocrine disruptors that we're using in clothes as finishing agents. They bioaccumulate in our bodies and don't break down. Imbalances are created and that's the core environmental cause of cancer that we know of and also leads to early aging and weight gains that are unexplainable. A lot of the things that we see in our modern world we can draw back to some of these compounds that are used in the fashion industry.

What kind of reception do you get from fashion industry insiders?

I think they've dismissed a lot of this. I haven't actually had a direct naysayer comment from the industry but I can imagine what their qualms would be. "So you want regional production? How are we going to clothe the population?" They can make some very tactically strong points, but my retort to that is that we have communities on the landscape, like in my home community. We're throwing away and under-utilizing over a million pounds of wool that we did a qualitative analysis on and 900,000 pounds of it is wearable. So it could be in your Dior line. It could be whatever you want it to be. You could actually materialize this into something useful, which could help your marketing campaign.

But it's also about building awareness for the consumer to want to pull back and rethink their buying habits.

That would be it. We would need them to come on board with us and say, "Yeah, let's educate. Let's use our marketing bullhorn to change behaviour!" We'll still make money but we might help a lot of small communities and regional economies to stay stable, instead of having these very desperate poor economies in Southeast Asia, Mexico and South Africa. We could decentralize that and we could have healthy, working communities all over. And you could highlight skilled artisans again in your supply chain. Wouldn't that be interesting?

The whole notion of recycling clothing is becoming increasingly popular, whether it be shopping vintage or just trading clothing with others. How positive is that kind of thing for your cause?

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Part of our solution set is to keep clothes in play as long as we can. Zady, an online aggregator, came to the conclusion that if we wore our clothes 50 times instead of five we would reduce carbon emissions by 400 per cent per item per year. There's a new milling program called Evrnu and it's all about keeping natural fibre clothes in play. But whether you're recycling natural fibres or coming together to trade clothes in a clothing swap, all of that has great value because you're keying into the human need for novelty but you're not asking for more exploitation.

I think you must be idealistic and optimistic to carry this heavy torch. How long could it take us to get to the kind of world that you see?

It's up to this collective of people on our planet right now to say how much we want to invest in this system of regional economies, the regeneratively farmed agriculture that produces the clothing, and the recycling systems that accompany that. The whole system that localizes is just waiting for our investment. We did a mill feasibility study to see how much it would take to process the wool in our community and produce local cloth. That wool mill would cost $26-million. I took it to Silicon Valley investors and they said, "What's the demand?" So I have been road mapping what demand really is. And maybe it's all of our commitment to just investing in one sweater per year that was farmed locally. If a whole community did that, I could get that mill off the ground tomorrow. If my small town community of 7,500 people bought one sweater per year, that would be it! That's all I need to show – that either a small group has a big interest or a large group has a small interest.

Are some of the garments these farmers and artisans produce for sale on retail websites?

There are some. There's the www.fibershedmarketplace.com for our Northern California community. We have a list of artisans and farmers on our non-profit site and there are sites associated with a lot of these people. If you go on www.fibershed.org, you can see all the communities across the world that are starting to organize and list all the farmers and artisans in their areas. The way I got the wardrobe made during my one-year challenge was to pick a farmer that I liked – a lady who raised the softest sheep's wool and was a sweet woman to work with. Then I went to a design school and drove a student from the school to the farm. The designer would meet the farmer or rancher, have lunch together, and we'd tour the farm and draw up what the sweater would look like. It was the most beautiful way to get garments made.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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