Textile waste. Swapan Photography/shutterstock
Textile waste. Swapan Photography/shutterstock

The past couple of decades have transformed how many Americans think about food. What we eat and how it is produced has become a topic of everyday discussion as a growing food movement, coupled with a deadly obesity epidemic, pushed the country to more closely examine the systems that feed us. Farmers markets exploded in popularity, kale made it onto our tables and our T-shirts, phrases like “farm to table” became commonplace, and books like “Fast Food Nation” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” shot up the bestseller list.

But for all of the focus on what’s on our plates, there has been very little focus on what’s in our closets. Like much of our food, clothing—and other textile goods—is the end product of a complex international supply chain, one that is also connected to environmental degradation and labor injustices. Yet the “dirt to shirt” movement, such as it is, remains little known. A report due out this week, “The Fibers Roadmap,” is part of an effort to rally philanthropy to change that.

Produced by the affinity group Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, the report is a high-level overview of the $1 trillion global textile, leather and apparel industry. For a sense of scale, that is roughly twice the size of the market for smartphones.

“This is a piece of our agricultural system that has been very overlooked,” said Sarah Kelley, the lead author of the report, whose firm Common Threads Consulting specializes in the industry. The report’s funders include Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s 11th Hour Project and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s One Earth initiative.

The report centers on “reshoring,” the inverse of offshoring, and what it terms the “missing middle,” or the dearth of mid-scale regional production and processing facilities in the U.S. supply chain. It also looks beyond philanthropy for ways to bring more investment into the capital-intensive textile sector. “Grants are a key tool for catalyzing early development and helping ‘de-risk’ other forms of investment, but we need to approach this with a coordinated strategy to realize the full potential for supporting the growing fiber and textile movement,” Kelley said.

It’s worth emphasizing that the industry’s impact stretches far beyond clothing. Textiles are key to furniture, food products, shoes, and countless other products. Medical supplies, too, are part of the industry, as was made painfully clear when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a dire shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment, leaving some doctors and nurses using bandannas and trash bags to protect themselves.

While the report’s development kicked off in September 2019, its arrival amid the pandemic—supply chain fragility laid bare, fast fashion struggling, and climate change ever more apparent—served to underscore its message.

“People are suddenly very aware of where stuff comes from,” Kelley said. “What happens in factories in China, and the fact that we don’t have that domestic manufacturing capacity, that really matters… It is an opportunity for some pretty radical change that we need.”

The report’s sections tease a great deal of additional research and background data to be released in future briefs in the coming months. SAFSF will also host a series of three webinars on the roadmap and the fiber industry, with the first taking place on Thursday, October 29. The report will be released to the public that day, as well as 12 case studies of U.S. fiber businesses.

Many textile fortunes, but philanthropy is limited

Mass-scale textile production has long since left U.S. shores, but its legacy persists in philanthropy. Look into the origin stories of a few older foundations, particularly those based in the Northeast, and you’ll see many were founded by textile magnates.

Funding for related causes, however, is rarer. A few philanthropies have funded efforts to support overseas garment workers, including the Levi Strauss Foundation and a partnership between the C&A Foundation—the corporate philanthropy of the global retail clothing chain C&A—and the Global Fund for Women. Funding has also gone toward preserving textiles or to fund museum acquisition of them. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose Make Fashion Circular initiative seeks to reimagine the fashion economy, is another notable example.

Kelley said they know of about 20 funders actively making grants in the fiber and textile space, with a handful more who are engaged but not currently giving out funding. Institutions include the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Cordes Foundation, the Blackie Foundation, the Island Foundation, the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation, and the Jena and Michael King Foundation, another funder of the report.

“It’s still super-small,” said Esther Park, CEO of Cienega Capital, of the funding community. Park serves on the report’s advisory board and her organization is part of the #NoRegrets Initiative, which supported the report.

In all, Kelley estimates traditional philanthropic grants add up between $1 million and $2 million a year, but some believe the field is much bigger.

“I think there are many more out there—probably hundreds more funders and investors,” said Virginia Clarke, executive director of SAFSF, noting that after nearly two decades at the organization, she still regularly comes across food and agriculture funders that are new to her.

Pulling a thread

The report is just the latest step in a long journey for SAFSF. The organization prides itself on pushing the bounds of the traditional scope of food and agriculture funding. It was this attitude that led the team to hold a workshop session on fibers back in 2013 at a conference in Providence, Rhode Island. The event struck a nerve.

“It drew in far more people than anticipated,” recalls Clarke. Other sessions, webinars and site visits followed. Then, three years ago, Kelley put together “Common Threads,” a 20-page SAFSF report on the environmental and justice impacts of the fiber industry, as well as the opportunities for foundations to create more sustainable systems.

“Even before I finished the earlier Common Threads report, which focused on grantmaking opportunities, it was already clear that grants alone would not be sufficient to fund the needed change in an infrastructure-heavy industry like the fiber and textile system,” Kelley said.

Both Kelley and one of her co-authors, Jennifer O’Connor of Guidelight Strategies, went through a nine-month training program at the RSF Integrated Capital Institute on using various forms of finance to support enterprises that address social problems. They told me it deeply informed their approach to the roadmap, which ended up zeroing in on investment capital. Note that the report’s subtitle and table of contents don’t even mention philanthropy. “We’re really trying to broaden what we consider a funder in this space,” Kelley told me.

Park, incidentally, met Kelley during the RSF program. She told me she encouraged Kelley to put together the roadmap, saying there was an enormous need for such a document to provide a foundation for investment in the sector.

“I said, speaking as an investor myself, and as someone involved in fibers, I don’t know the industry. I don’t know the pieces of the supply chain. I don’t know what this looks like,” said Park, whose organization is also a longtime member of SAFSF.

To further widen the scope, Kelley and O’Connor brought in brands, as well. “We felt it was important to have some brands involved, to get their perspective and see what the opportunities are to build a market and a supply chain that will work for them,” said O’Connor, whose husband directs sustainability efforts at The North Face, making that connection easier. The team also spoke with brands like Timberland, Wrangler and Coyuchi.

“There’s been a lot of traditional funding that’s had a siloed approach to issues,” O’Connor said of overall food and agriculture funding. The aim with the report is to give funders a systems overview so they can consider the whole landscape in their grantmaking on fibers.

The toll on land and workers

Like the food system, the fiber supply chain is deeply implicated in pollution and climate change. “The whole global system has huge environmental and justice impacts,” Kelley said.

The fashion industry alone accounts for roughly 10% of global carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping—and around 20% of the world’s wastewater, according to the United Nations. Add in other aspects of the textile industry, and those numbers rise further.

Largely, these impacts are driven by cotton, which accounts for nearly 85% of natural fibers produced. Cotton needs lots of water, attracts pests and exhausts soil, and the scale at which it is produced magnifies that destructive impact. For instance, cotton accounts for more insecticide use than either corn or rice.

Synthetic fibers also have a large and growing footprint. As the report notes: “Nearly two-thirds of all the fibers we wear and use are made from oil.” And that portion of the textile market is driving predictions of overall growth of 60% by 2022.

The workers at all levels are often among the most vulnerable in the world. Garment workers face infamously poor and sometimes deadly work conditions. Relentless cost pressure has driven a race to the bottom, moving production to where labor standards are most lax. The report notes that the U.S. industry thrived in the 1830s thanks to an alliance between Southern slave plantations and Northern mills using exploited labor. “The root of our textile system in this country is unjust and inequitable,” O’Connor said.

Five levers to restore the “missing middle”

The roadmap’s recommendations are based on what the authors heard from those in the industry. The team behind the project interviewed more than 60 individuals from the fiber supply chain, including farmers and ranchers, mill and tannery operators, supply chain experts and representatives from clothing brands like Patagonia and The North Face.

One barrier came up repeatedly in the research interviews: the commitment catch-22. Entrepreneurs in the fiber supply chain want to guarantee contracts before they increase production, but brands want a guarantee that businesses can produce at the needed scale before they will sign on the dotted line. Prototyping new fiber products suffers from a similar paradox. Racial injustice compounds this struggle.

“We haven’t been able to get the lines of credit that other farmers have been able to get,” Jason Lindsay, a network coordinator for Southeastern African-American Farmers’ Organic Network, told the authors. “[Banks] are saying, ‘we have an open-door policy’—and we can walk through that door as much as we want to… we’re just not leaving with the funds.”

Addressing the commitment catch-22 is the first of five key levers for investment identified by the report. The authors recommend a capital pool that would be scaled over roughly seven years, starting with a $250,000 loan fund, graduating to a $2 million guarantee pool, and ultimately establishing a $5 million capital fund.

To address other gaps, the report identifies the need for a regional technical service network as a potential lever for change, as well as bolstering the industry’s voice on U.S. trade and agricultural policy. One brand representative told them it was hard to see much promise for the U.S. garment industry, given “favoritism toward big ag, soy, etc.”

Other levers aim to address gaps at the foundation of the textile industry. First, it suffers from a startling lack of data and research. The industry has not been the subject of a large-scale governmental report since 1987. Second, the industry’s supply infrastructure is “fragmented, fragile” and outdated, according to the authors. In one of the more far-reaching sections, the report encourages investment in regional infrastructure projects in areas like wool processing, slaughterhouse hide equipment and hemp testing.

Philanthropy’s role

At first glance, the report’s vision for future investment is notably ambitious. In the first year of its seven-year roadmap, the authors recommend roughly a half-million dollars in grants to advance things like a fiber platform in the Farm Bill and regional technical assistance. Some of those amounts rise in succeeding years, but others decline.

Where the numbers become especially large is in the report’s calls for infrastructure investment, calling for $12 million in the first year, rising to $50 million and then $100 million by 2027. The authors anticipate that the pool would be a mix of loans, investments, guarantees and even grants.

“There will necessarily be many investors, funders and funding sources,” Kelley said. She sees the Fair Food Fund, which has raised $3.7 million over its first five years, as a “model and inspiration.” Moving beyond philanthropy to the venture capital world, two companies focused on producing bio-synthetic “spider silk” recently raised $374 million in funding, according to a report co-authored by Fibershed.

While angling to reach beyond foundations, the report also advances several increasingly common critiques of current economic principles. It argues against market rate returns, noting they are reflective of extractive practices that do not account for externalities like pollution. It questions whether the fundamental business model of selling more products to more people each year can be sustainable.

Coming amid accelerating evidence—in the form of fires, hurricanes, rising temperatures—of the costs of environmental degradation, those calls may find more receptive ears than they once did. But like the food systems, it seems that only a broader movement can truly move the industry. When or if that will happen in philanthropy or beyond is impossible to tell.

“It’s funny how there are certain topics that just rise and fall in philanthropic circles, and it’s hard to know what makes that happen,” Park said. She sees interest in fibers as a natural step as funders expand their awareness of agricultural systems. “The ag piece of food and ag often gets lost in the bigger discussion,” she said. “To the extent that more people are paying attention to the ag side, the attention to the fiber piece will start to grow out of this.”

Avery C. Anderson Sponholtz, who directs philanthropy for the #NoRegrets Initiative and the Globetrotter Foundation (also funders of the report), sees a potential hook for philanthropy if young people catch the textile bug. While the U.S. is awash in “young designers who have the ability to generate CAD drawings and ship them off to China,” shifting those energies to creating profitable domestic production models could be transformative, she said. And it may draw in philanthropic support.

“Philanthropy is fond of helping young people achieve new and integrated business models,” she said. “The making is what feels like a big barrier here.”

It’s not hard to imagine clothing claiming as much attention as food in the coming years. The success of new entrants like billion-dollar unicorn Allbirds, which just moved into eco-friendly apparel, and the massive growth of brands like Patagonia show that some consumers are clamoring for greener clothing options. As a new generation comes of age, raised not just on kale, but also the principles that brought it to their plates, perhaps they will ask the same questions about what they wear as their parents asked about what they were eating.

Ultimately, the team is modest about their potential impact, but hope they can move funders to be part of the transformation. “Nobody is kidding themselves. Philanthropy is not going to save the fiber world,” said Clarke. “But they can make a huge difference, just like they have in the food and ag space.”

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