We all love visiting farmer’s markets. Being outdoors, seeing the seasonal produce and meeting the farmers that grow our food makes us feel like we’re buying something fresh and special. When is the last time we’ve had that experience buying clothes?
The materials that comprise our clothing come from somewhere, of course, but this can be hard to picture. It doesn’t feel quite as simple as knowing the local farm that grows our tomatoes. But as locally grown, organic produce becomes more popular, many farmers are seeing the link between slow food and slow fashion, and exploring how they can close the gap.
From Slow Food to Slow Fashion
Kassenhoff Growers is an organic nursery in Oakland, CA producing plant starts for home gardeners and landscapers. Helen Krayenhoff has been using plants to naturally dye fiber for years, and she sees a strong connection between dye plants and edible plants in the big picture.
“Food and farming have a clear connection. You can see fields of food, but you can also see fields of clothing in the cotton, linen, hemp, and indigo being grown. Whether you have fields of dye plants or food plants, local farming expertise can be used to create the basic resources that we need for clothing,” says Krayenhoff.
The key is to help consumers see “farm to fashion” the same way they now see “farm to table,” thanks in large part to the slow food movement.
“It’s an image we’ve been able to create in the public’s mind: people can visit farms with pastures of sheep, goats, rabbits, and alpaca and understand where their food comes from. Now we can do the same for clothing; it’s not just this thing that shows up at the store. People don’t really know how a sheep is sheared and what goes into spinning or weaving wool.”
In many ways, thinking locally and helping individuals see those connections in small ways helps to paint the bigger picture.
“When you grow your own food you have a much higher appreciation for what it takes to be a farmer. People can also purchase local wool, dye it themselves, and see what effort goes into making something and what the costs might be. When I was growing up, we made our own clothes because it was cheaper. Now it’s not. It’s harder to have that connection when this is not the case. But the people buying local yarn and fabric are supporting local farmers and helping the economy to scale the affordability for everyone.” Krayenhoff says.
Watching What We Eat AND Wear
Lydia Wendt of the California Cloth Foundry argues that while it is common knowledge to watch what you eat, you should also watch what you wear. “Your skin is your largest organ, and it is capable of absorbing 64% of the chemicals from the fabric you wear into your body.”
Some of the most hazardous fabrics to wear include petroleum-based fabrics, such as polyester and acrylic. The conventional fabric dyes being used contain toxins as well, such as petroleum and formaldehyde.
“Ideally, our clothing would be created with the same consideration as the produce that we eat.”
Coming from the traditional world of fashion design, Wendt realized that crude oil is not a source for fibers, nor is it a good way to support our environment. Ideally, our clothing would be created with the same consideration as the produce that we eat: made with food-grade fibers, which can be been dyed and softened with vegetable oils (enzymes) created by the food industry.
Organic cotton is one of the most popular fabrics people shop for when they are looking for eco-friendly options, and that is a great place to start. Any natural fiber, like hemp or wool is a good choice as well.
Local Supply Chains and the Hard Sell for Consumers
After her time working in fast fashion, Wendt started questioning how she could make beautiful fashion that is a superior quality. That is why she founded the California Cloth Foundry, which produces products and textiles that are grown and sewn in the U.S. The company boasts a completely sustainable all-American supply chain.
Their signature product is Cleaner Cotton™, which eliminates the most toxic chemicals in cotton farming and supports farmers who use sustainable cotton cultivation systems.
However, it can be difficult to sell the benefits of locally produced fibers and garments to consumers, who do not see the reasons for the higher costs.
“We hear pushback from consumers about why the cotton is more expensive, after they see the prices of organic cotton tees made in Peru. However, they may not understand that the clothing is being treated with conventional dyes. We are really trying to keep our production local and clean up our own backyard.” Wendt says.
Unfortunately, the United States is still the most expensive place to manufacture clothing, which can be a hard sell for consumers. While many choose to support US-made products for economic and sustainable reasons, the ideal combination for the fashion industry is ethics and aesthetics.
“Ideally, the goal of a clothing line is to be purely aesthetic, with the sustainable process of the clothing being the icing on the cake. By buying a product that was created in your own backyard, you are putting money back into your community and stimulating the local economy,” says Wendt.
This is where a sense of community is missing from the fashion industry. That indescribable attachment that happens when customers understand the story behind the things they buy—like the farm that grew your t-shirt’s cotton, or the group of artisans who hand-dyed your clothes. Reaching people with the true emotional story behind a product that is made from happy, healthy hands could be the key to making slow fashion a thriving industry.