Photograph by Jack Bool
This story was published as part of a wider series that delves deep into the fast-developing world of material solutions. Discover more from Fabricating Change here.
If you pull up the EPA’s data on US greenhouse gas emissions looking for information about how our use of land impacts climate change, you might notice two things: First, agriculture is the fifth highest emitting sector, responsible for 10% of the country’s emissions. And second, “land use, land use change and forestry” is a net carbon sink in the US, which effectively offsets 12% of the country’s current emissions.
Those two facts together—that agriculture is currently contributing to climate change, and land is capable of sequestering carbon—combine to give you the basic building blocks of Climate Beneficial Wool, a program that seeks to leverage fashion supply chains for planetary good that’s been embraced by brands like Mara Hoffman and the North Face.
Started in 2020 by California-based nonprofit Fibershed, Climate Beneficial is a program that exists to support local fiber farming practices that can restore degraded land. The idea is that utilizing a menu of 35 agricultural practices that include compost application, planting windbreaks, and implementing rotational grazing can draw down carbon so that working landscapes can be converted from carbon sources to carbon sinks. Though Fibershed isn’t unique in advocating for those practices, what sets Climate Beneficial apart is its creation of financial support for farmers, which creates buy-in that can lead to the long-term change necessary for real carbon drawdown.
“If we want nature-based solutions to be centered in our working lands, we’re going to have to invest and overcome decades, and centuries, in some cases, of disinvestment,” says Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess.
“If we want nature-based solutions to be centered in our working lands, we’re going to have to invest and overcome decades, and centuries, in some cases, of disinvestment.”
Climate Beneficial stands out in the sustainable material space in part because of what it’s not. In a sea of proprietary innovations and flashy new technology that promises to erase the harms of our current fashion system, Climate Beneficial Wool takes a different approach. Its creators believe the real solution lies in providing support to the supply chain partners who already have the power to positively impact the land, if only they have the resources to do so: farmers.
There are a few parts to what Fibershed does with Climate Beneficial. First, the organization outlines “carbon farming” practices based on peer-reviewed science, developed alongside academic partners, that farmers and ranchers can adopt on their land. Second, it verifies farms and ranches that have been implementing those practices using satellite imagery and photographic evidence. And third, it uses that verification to bring interested fashion brands into partnership with participating farms and ranches, so that producers can receive a premium for their fiber that helps support the cost of making positive changes to their operations.
New York-based independent label Mara Hoffman was one of the first major brands to sign up to use Climate Beneficial Wool in 2020, and it has continued to incorporate the fiber into collections since that initial launch. “Knowing that there is a farm that can rely on us purchasing their yarn, and they can continue to make improvements within their farming practices, is our reasoning [for being involved in the program],” says vice president of sustainability Dana Davis.
The Tricky Business of Measuring Soil Carbon
The idea of using farming to draw down carbon, popularized under the title “regenerative agriculture,” has catapulted from niche to mainstream in the span of less than five years. With that explosion in popularity has come big claims about the climate potential—but it’s also been followed by major blowback, including from those who say the premise is based on flawed science.
The people behind Climate Beneficial don’t use the term “regenerative” much in referring to their work, and Burgess is clear that “the wool program [they] run does not sell carbon”—they’re not in the business of carbon offsets. They are honest, too, about the challenges of quantifying soil carbon, a key measurement in ascertaining whether or not a method of farming is really benefiting the climate, that have surfaced as a result of the conversation around the regenerative movement.
“Soil carbon measurement is a very slippery thing; it’s difficult to do,” admits Jeff Creque, a farmer and carbon farming leader who was involved in the formulation of Climate Beneficial’s framework. Measuring the carbon in one individual sample of soil is straightforward, he says, but getting a more complete picture of how soil carbon is accruing in a landscape over time is more tricky because the natural carbon cycle means soil carbon ebbs and flows throughout seasons and even over the course of years.
Fibershed has worked with academic partners at UC Davis, Colorado State University, UC Berkeley, and more to build a framework to try and get around these issues. Over the course of more than seven years, Fibershed and academic partners collected peer-reviewed data on “all types of California soil” to build databases and computer models that allow the organization to say, essentially, ‘if you apply x practice to y type of soil, you can expect z increase in soil carbon over time.’ It then uses that data, in combination with satellite imagery, receipts for things like compost orders, photographic documentation, and sometimes in-person sampling, to verify the carbon impact that a Climate Beneficial ranch’s practices are having.
“Knowing that there is a farm that can rely on us purchasing their yarn, and they can continue to make improvements within their farming practices, is our reasoning for being involved in the program.”
Part of why it works, says Burgess, is because they’re relying on hyper-localized data for the region they work in—they know what carbon impact specific practices might have on a certain type of California soil, she notes, even if those practices might not have the same impact in a different part of the world.
Though Creque brushes off critics who claim that soil carbon sequestration is too finicky to be a real solution (“the fact that we have deep, enormous volumes of stored fossil fuel carbon is a direct result of natural carbon sequestration,” he says), he also admits that it’s not “permanent” sequestration in the way some climate advocates want. He says it makes more sense to look for persistence than permanence in soil carbon—a net flow of carbon into, rather than out of, the farming system.
But even then, “it really is dependent on how the farming is done,” he adds, “because we can build up a bunch of soil carbon and blow it all off over a few years with a few years of tillage.”
Incentivizing Good Practices
While the possibility that someone could undo years or even decades of good practices has been used by some to discredit “carbon farming” as a genuine climate solution, Burgess sees it instead as a reason to focus on creating systems that support and encourage long-term commitment from farmers.
Some of how Climate Beneficial has sought to achieve that is by creating a program that is focused on and shaped by rural growers, rather than by brands. Stacie Chavez, an alpaca farmer and president of Imperial Yarn who has been instrumental in helping build out the domestic Climate Beneficial fiber supply chain, says that once farmers get started with the practices, the benefits are often self-reinforcing.
“I’ve gotten to see with my own eyes the difference we’re making on the landscape,” Chavez says. “I’ve seen invasive species of plants be eradicated and fields that look healthier and full of life.”
But for growers to get over the hurdle of taking those steps in the first place may require some financial support, and that’s part of what the Climate Beneficial program is meant to do. Wool farming in the US is predominantly practiced by people who stick with it because it’s been their family’s business for generations, according to Burgess. But they often have to get day jobs because “wool production in the United States is not the moneymaker,” she says. “Ag is a low-margin, really tight business.”
“If you buy a pound of wool, I’d rather you include the cost of restoring the creek or compost applications.”
What that means from a climate perspective is that even as there’s increasing agreement from the environmental community that our current agricultural system needs to be radically overhauled, farmers rarely have the resources to make impactful change. In fashion supply chains, that gap is made clear by the way profits are split: only about 4% of a finished garments’ earnings get passed back to the growers, while about 75% of that money goes to the brand. “Ag has been extracted from to the point where it is unable to invest in itself,” says Burgess.
That’s one reason the group was excited that in September, Fibershed, NCAT (National Center for Appropriate Technology), Colorado State University, and other partners working on Climate Beneficial were awarded up to $30 million in grants to expand the program through the USDA’s climate-smart commodities program, which is meant to help the Biden Administration reach its goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.
As the fashion industry becomes more enamored with sustainability—or at least the appearance of it—brands are increasingly expressing interest in investing in environmental programs, too. But often those programs come out of different budget lines that may or may not last, Burgess notes. Her ultimate goal with Climate Beneficial is to build the cost of restoring the land and soil into the price of the wool itself. Doing so, she notes, has the added benefit of acting as a “built-in constraint” on the market, a constraint that’s inherently incompatible with the kind of grotesque overproduction fast fashion relies on.
“If you buy a pound of wool, I’d rather you include the cost of restoring the creek or compost applications. If this society doesn’t internalize the cost—the real cost—of living on the planet, we’ll kill ourselves faster than we thought possible,” she says. “I don’t really want to sell carbon or ecosystem services. I want the creeks to run clean because of the price of wool.”