The Real Foundation of our Wardrobes
When was the last time you thought about the soil while shopping? We’ll assume it’s been a while. But lurking in our closets, hidden in our cotton t-shirts, wool sweaters, and leather handbags, is one of the most important elements to life: soil. How does our soil makes its way into our closets? Let’s start from the ground up.
What does the soil do?
Earth, ground, land—the soil goes by many names. The technical name for soil is the pedosphere, which means the outermost layer of the earth. Soil performs five functions that form the literal underpinning of life on earth.
The first function of the soil is perhaps what it is best known for: a medium that facilitates the growth of plant life. Because of the rich nutrients and organisms that dwell in the soil, planting a seed under good conditions (usually including water, sunlight, and the right temperature) yields plants in all forms- trees, grasses, flowers, vegetables, and fruits. All plant-based fibers in our clothes, including cotton and linen, started from nothing more than a seed planted in the soil. Many animal-based fibers, including wool, alpaca, and leather, come from ruminant animals (sheep, alpaca, and cattle, respectively) who survive by eating grass and other plants, which grow out of healthy soil.
Second, the soil provides a habitat for a countless number of organisms. These organisms make it possible for plants to grow, but that’s not their only purpose. In fact, one of the most important things these organisms do is enable the soil to serve its next two key functions as a regulation system for both water and air.
We’ll look at the soil’s third and fourth functions—regulating, storing, and filtering water and air—together. Healthy soil contains around 50% solid material and 50% open space. Of the open space, around half holds water and the other half contains air. In addition to storing air and water, the solid material in the soil, made up from many organisms, nutrients, and microbes, functions as a purification system for organic and inorganic matter in the air and water.
Finally, the soil serves as our foundation. It provides strength and anchoring for everything we build on earth- roads, bridges, houses, and skyscrapers.
The soil and climate change
When it comes to climate change, we often think about melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and a depleting ozone layer. These huge phenomena, while often receiving the focus of our attention, are arising in response to an infinite number of small systems and delicate, interconnected processes on planet earth that are rapidly changing as the globe warms. These include nutrient exchanges between fish and trees, rising ocean pH levels, and the loss of vital organisms in our seas and soil.
The rapid depletion of topsoil is one of the most significant environmental issues facing our planet
While soil does not receive much attention, declining soil quality is one of the most significant environmental issues facing our planet. Overall, 40% of the world’s agricultural soil is degraded or seriously degraded. In the case of soil that is seriously degraded, 70% or more of the topsoil has been completely depleted. Topsoil is the layer that allows plants, including our food, but also our plant-based clothing fibers, to grow. It can take 500 to many thousands of years for a single inch of topsoil to form, so the rapid depletion of this vital layer of the earth presents a major threat to global food security. When we consider feeding and clothing a growing global population, the loss of soil is a major problem in its own right, but it’s also a serious threat when it comes to climate change. Let’s consider one way in which our changing soil is directly involved in climate change—carbon sequestration.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the key greenhouse gas that is implicated in climate change. Increased human activity, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels, has led to a dramatic rise in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. What does the atmosphere have to do with the soil? Well, the soil has the ability to absorb carbon in a process known as carbon sequestration, which is technically defined as the capture and long-term storage of atmospheric CO2. Healthy soil has the ability to sequester, or absorb, a lot of CO2. Unhealthy soil, on the other hand, loses the ability to absorb CO2. In fact, unhealthy soil whose nutrients have been degraded over time, releases its natural stock of carbon. When this carbon is released into the air, it transforms into CO2. So while healthy, nutrient rich soil combats global warming, unhealthy, depleted soil contributes to it.
Our garments and the ground
Now that we know about the functions of the soil why these matter for climate change, let’s look at three ways that garments directly impact the ground. The vast majority, 93%, of the world’s soil degradation is caused by: overgrazing (35%), agriculture (28%), and deforestation (30%). Our clothes play a role in all three.
Cashmere and wool: fibers linked to overgrazing
Cashmere and wool are two animal fibers that have a lot to do with the soil. Goats, which produce cashmere, and sheep, which produce wool, eat, or graze, on grass to survive. Grazing is a natural activity that, when managed well, has benefits for both the soil and the animal. However, grazing isn’t always managed well, and when too many animals graze on the land, a phenomenon known as overgrazing takes place. When lands are overgrazed, it essentially means that animals are eating the grass faster than it can grow back. This depletes the soil, exhausting its nutrients, increasing its vulnerability to erosion, and decreasing its ability to retain water. Overgrazing linked to wool has caused widespread soil degradation in the Patagonian region of South America, while overgrazing linked to cashmere is at risk of turning 90% of Mongolia into a desert.
Chemical cotton: a crop that takes a toll on the soil
99.3% of the world’s cotton is produced chemically, through farming methods that rely on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed to kill pests and weeds that threaten the cotton plant. Yet pesticides can’t precisely tell which organisms are a threat to cotton and which are not, so they also end up killing organisms in the soil that aren’t dangerous to cotton. The loss of biodiversity in the soil weakens the soil in a similar way that overgrazing does.
Rayon: a fiber linked to deforestation
As we learned in our materials crash course, rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber that is produced from wood. It turns out that to produce the amount of rayon we use in our clothes, 70 to 100 million trees from forests around the world are cut down each year. Cutting down forests is called deforestation, and it creates a major problem for the soil. The roots of trees anchor the soil and exchange vital nutrients with it. When trees are cut down, the soil both loses its structure (making it more vulnerable to erosion) and loses vital nutrients.
Dig in to a sustainable wardrobe
How can you support healthy soil the next time you shop? Here are a few tips.
• When you buy natural fibers, especially cotton, choose certified organic options whenever possible.
Organic farming is an agricultural approach that puts the health of the soil at the center of all of the activities a farmer undertakes. Because organic agriculture does not rely on the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a farmer must rely on a toolkit of traditional methods including crop rotation, low-till or no-till farming, cover crops, and the application of compost. All of these contribute to the health and vitality of the soil.
• Transition your wardrobe towards bast fibers- linen, hemp, jute, and ramie.
Bast fibers, including linen, hemp, jute, and ramie, are gentle on the soil. Even if not grown organically, they require very little pesticides or fertilizers to grow—just a fifth of the amount required for cotton production. Bast fibers can grow on degraded or depleted land, including land with high levels of soil salinity. There is even evidence that bast fibers can help repair damaged soil. That linen t-shirt is looking better and better!
• For wood-based fibers, support companies that have transparent supply chains and sustainable forestry certifications.
The best way to know whether your rayon, modal or other wood-based fiber isn’t coming from unsustainably managed forests is to support companies that are being transparent about the source of their materials. Certifications like the Forest Stewardship Council, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative do the work to ensure that the pulp does not come from ancient or endangered forests.
Finally, when considering what do with the clothes you no longer want, don’t throw them away. One of the many negative impacts associated with the millions of pounds of clothes in our landfills is that chemicals from the dyeing and finishing process can seep into the soil, which results in the elimination of rich nutrients in the soil. When it rains, these chemicals contaminate underground water—the same water we end up drinking.
The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. For better or worse, your next piece of clothing is no exception. Go ahead, tell us about your #SoilStyle.