Up to 70% of fabrics used in our clothing today are made from plastic. Slow fashion is a movement like that of “slow food”. We seek out good sourcing for what we wear, just as we do with what we eat. Megan Meiklejohn is a sustainability expert in the fashion industry and the Senior Vice President of Supply Chain for Land to Market. Today she helps us look at our clothing through a new lens: what is it made of, where did it come from, and is it good for the land and our bodies?
Megan talks about our choices as consumers and how they can help steer the direction of the industry. She weighs in on whether leggings made from water bottles are good or bad, for example, and she tells us which brands are actually working on sustainable sourcing. All in all, she helps provide us with something of a clothing compass for making better choices for our individual health and that of the planet.
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
Have you checked to see what materials your clothing is made out of lately? Reports show that up to 70% of fabrics used nowadays are made of plastic. What would it look like if we started implementing a more sustainable, natural approach to what we wear in much the same way as what we do with what we eat? This is Episode 386. Our guest is Megan Meiklejohn. Megan is a sustainability expert in the fashion and manufacturing industries. She is the Senior Vice President of Supply Chain for Land to Market, an initiative of the Savory Institute. Megan helps us look at our clothing through a new lens.
As we give much consideration to where our food comes from, it’s time to consider where our clothing is sourced from, what it’s made of, and whether it’s helping or harming the environment and our bodies. Megan covers what we can do as consumers. She weighs in on whether leggings made from water bottles are a good idea or a bad one, for example. She tells us which brands are working on a more sustainable natural approach to manufacturing clothing. All in all, she helps provide us with something of a clothing compass for making better choices for our individual health and that of the planet with every purchase we make.
Before we dive in, I want to invite you to the Wise Traditions Conference happening on October 21st to the 23rd in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is the conference that nourishes in every way. Amazing speakers include many of the people who have been featured on this show, including Brandon LaGreca, Sally Fallon Morell, Dr. Tom Cowan, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, Stephanie Seneff, and more. You don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to meet new friends and enjoy nourishing farm-to-table meals together. I plan on being there too. Join me. There’s still time to register. Go to WiseTraditions.org and secure your spot now.
Brandon LaGreca – Past Episode
Sally Fallon Morell – Past Episode
Dr. Tom Cowan – Past Episode
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride – Past Episode
Stephanie Seneff – Past Episode
Welcome to the show, Megan.
Thanks for having me.
We’ve all heard of fast food. Talk to us about fast fashion. What is that?
There are a lot of different models out there that are an example of fast fashion. We see high production of low-quality garments that are in the stores. They are becoming the biggest option for us as clothing to buy. One of the drivers of that is our use of synthetic fibers. Of all the fibers produced annually to make clothing, around 70% of them are plastic. The reason is to drive down the cost.
Seventy percent of the fabrics in our clothing are plastic. Are you referring to things like polyester, viscose, and stuff like that?
I’m not even considering viscose in that number. It’s anything that’s petroleum-based. Plastic, nylon, acrylic, and spandex are the major ones.
We are putting this right against our skin. Why is it not good for us or the planet?
It’s a non-renewable resource. We are using fossil fuels and crude oil to refine that to get to a fiber that we are using to make into fabric and yarn while we have these other resources that are available to us that are renewable like a plant or an animal. You have cotton, linen, and all these other interesting fibers like ramie or any best fibers that are similar to linen. You have animal fiber, which is what I’m really interested in. That would be anything from wool and silk to cashmere and other materials like leather and shearling.
This is a parallel with fast food because nature gives us whole real foods which are amazing and nourishing. We substitute those with food-like substances. We are doing the same thing with clothing.
It’s exactly the same thing. How I see it is, in fashion, we are always trying to get to economies of scale and make things efficient. When we are constantly driving towards lowering the price of the raw materials and increasing the margin, we have to start looking at some point for materials that are made at scale very cheaply. That brings us to plastic fibers because they are a lot easier to make. They are chemical based. They are extruding those fibers.
It’s typically done in these massive manufacturing facilities by chemical companies and corporations. Whereas, with a natural fiber, you are pretty much relying, at some level, on a farmer. That’s very often family farmers, ranchers, and also crop farmers for the plant fibers. That is also, to a certain extent, done at scale but there’s a limiting factor within the environment that we have to live with them.
This is so fascinating. Fast food is great if you want to die fast. The thing about fast fashion is it’s convenient and cheap like fast food but the problem is these materials aren’t going to last as long. The clothing won’t even be worthy of a hand-me-down. It’s going to end up in some landfill, which isn’t good for the world. There are so many things to think about that maybe we never thought about in relationship to our clothing before.
Not to be too dire but the situation is worse than that because we’ve devalued clothing to such an extent that we buy so much of it. First of all, I don’t like to ever put the blame on consumers. It’s a problem at a brand level. They are overproducing. They are the root cause where they are putting too much product out into the market. It’s not enough for consumers to even consume. You see these sales and this constant year-over-year devaluing of fabrics, textiles, and garments.
We have such a problem with waste, from consumer waste as well as overproduction waste. Sometimes it does go to a landfill. Sometimes it’s incinerated. For post-consumer, it’s consumer waste. It ends up getting shipped to other countries and creating a lot of economical issues there. It’s also sometimes burned within that country. The most degree to me is that we ship waste and then burn it somewhere else. It’s because there’s such a high level of plastic in that clothing. It’s very toxic. It creates pretty bad environmental and air pollution situations for other countries.
Of all the fibers that are produced annually to make clothing around, 70% of them is plastic.
I’m putting 2 and 2 together now because I have been to the Dominican Republic and Haiti on work trips. I have seen truckloads of clothing. I thought at the time that people must have donated clothing, thinking people in Haiti could use this but it’s a surplus. Maybe it was going to be burned somewhere. I don’t think it was going to a clothing store. It certainly didn’t look like it.
At some point, there’s too much clothing. People don’t need it anymore. Something has to happen to it. There’s nothing to sell. There’s nothing to give away. Even with overproduction, a common thing with brands is if they ever produce, sometimes they can donate that excess garments but sometimes they can’t for a variety of reasons. It maybe wasn’t made right. Maybe it has their label on it, so there’s an issue with donating and devaluing the brand. There’s something that has to happen to that. That’s typically incinerated or landfilled here.
There’s so much to think about. I appreciate that you don’t want to blame consumers but I also can’t help but think of Allan Savory, who talks about a Holistic Management approach to life. He says, “Every decision we make is either a choice that is beneficial for the future or one that may be hindering where we want to go as team humanity.” Here’s a choice that many of us might not have even thought of before, “Where are we getting our clothing? What is it made of? How does this affect this generation and future generations?”
That’s where consumers need to get to. They need to start thinking about what they are buying. It’s so easy to see a very inexpensive T-shirt, think nothing of it, and buy it because, “It was only a couple of dollars. What does it matter?” When I’m looking at clothing, what I’m looking at is the feedstock and the raw materials. I’m like, “What went into this garment?” First of all, is it priced? At a price point, that seems fair because, at some level, there are guarantees that there’s exploitation, whether it’s of individuals, communities or the environment. Price matters. The other thing is the raw material makeup. Is it a natural fiber? The reason that’s so important to me is that there’s always potential in the natural fibers.
I tend to think about sustainability and sustainable fashion like, “What does this represent for the future? How can we change this system to make it better?” If you are buying plastic or a polyester T-shirt, that can’t provide anything good for the world. You are not going to change that into some positive environmental impact because you are extracting oil from the ground to make it. With natural fibers, they can be managed, grown, and harvested in a way that contributes to ecosystems and livelihoods. That potential is there. We just have to change some of those systems behind those fibers.
Using these petroleum byproducts for clothing isn’t good for our world or planet. I go into some athletic stores, and they are like, “These leggings were made from 100% plastic water bottles.” I’m thinking, “Is that a good idea too?” They tout it as if it were.
I don’t think it’s a very good idea at all. It’s not where we want to be. It’s not creating a positive impact. I used to work at fashion brands. I know firsthand too because it was my job to collect a lot of these certificates. I spoke with so many fabric mills around the world who make these fabrics. There’s a good amount of fraud in these supply chains. I’m not convinced that they are really tracking the volumes of plastic bottles coming in and yoga pants going out. It’s a hard thing to do that type of analysis.
It worries me that there’s so much recycled plastic out there in our clothing and being sold as a sustainability initiative. It is not sustainability. If we could somehow figure out that this is, in fact, 100%, where maybe we can use a tracer in the fiber and say that this is from recycled materials, then that’s better. It doesn’t mean we should still be overproducing plastic yoga pants.
The other thing, which we were alluding to earlier, is to have that plastic against my skin. Let’s face facts. Manmade synthetic fibers are not going to be as breathable, healthy, comfortable or sustainable as clothing made from raw materials from animals and plants.
They are not but they stretch, and people love the stretch. That’s the battle.
We can’t solve that problem now. With the raw materials used in our clothing like the ones you’ve mentioned, leather, wool, silk, and cashmere, how can we know if they have even been raised in a way that’s of benefit to the land?
Now, it’s hard. That’s part of the program. That’s why Land to Market as a program exists because we are trying to bring some verification and traceability into the supply chain so that the brands can put a product out for their consumers that a consumer can feel good about and that they know that this material came from a regenerative farm where they are supporting biodiversity, soil health, and farmer livelihoods.
What we are trying to do is get that communication to the consumer so that they understand that these raw materials have the potential to restore ecosystems, have animals, and move those animals around using holistic management, as you mentioned, to have a highly functioning ecosystem that can thrive rather than having something that’s tending towards desertification.
I know the Savory Institute has Savory Hubs or farms that are learning centers around the world that are doing it right, doing regenerative agriculture, and raising livestock and such that are treated humanely, without antibiotics, and all these things. They check all the boxes. Is Land to Market similar in that way? Have you found farms or centers that are raising these raw materials, whether they are from an animal or plants, in a way that is regenerative?
A polyester t-shirt can’t really provide anything that’s good for the world.
We work with all of the ranchers and farmers within the Savory network. Land to Market is a program that was started within the Savory Institute. How I see it is that we are a sourcing solution for brands. We are a verification program but we also help them architect or create these supply chains starting with the farmer. When we do that, we are getting those products from the farms to the market. I see that as an acceleration of the Savory Institute’s mission to restore grasslands. They are doing that through the holistic management of animals. We are very connected to the Savory Institute.
The way that we are showing that a farm is in the state of regeneration is through a protocol that they developed. It’s called Ecological Outcome Verification™. That’s how our program is a bit different from other certifications out there in the market. We are looking at outcomes. We are looking at complete holistic ecosystem health and land health. We look at different indicators. There are fifteen different indicators that are part of our monitoring protocol. They have looked at annually through what we call monitoring events. It’s very much a farmer’s first program. Meaning that the data that’s collected is for the farmer to make decisions upon.
Can there be tweaks to the management plan to even get more of those positive outcomes they want to see on the land? We then aggregate those numbers through the indicators. We look at the Ecosystem Health Index and look for positive trends. To be clear, we are looking at things like indicators of healthy water cycling, healthy mineral cycling, and energy flow like, “Is there enough photosynthesis happening?” and then biodiversity or as we like to say on the Savory side, is community dynamics, which I like. It’s not just diversity but it’s this interaction between all the different species and components of the ecosystem.
Is there abundance? Is there a thriving cycle of energy, minerals, and water? If we look at those trends over time and see that they are increasing, we would say, “That’s a regenerative farm.” The materials or the products coming off of that farm are verified and can be shown as verified in the marketplace through our seal.
It reminds me of where we have a 12 Spoon Restaurant Rating Program at the Weston A Price Foundation that’s launching now. The idea is that people can say, “Does this restaurant use saturated fats? Are there seed oils in the kitchen?” The things that we don’t want and want to see, and the more of the things that we want to see, including like, “Do they sell organ meats, the more they get another spoon?” The idea is that they are striving for or learning about, even as they are growing, getting those twelve spoons. It’s a lot of spoons. You guys have the fifteen things.
We are looking at fifteen indicators. We look at both leading and lagging indicators. There are fifteen indicators that are leading indicators. That’s why I say that these are farmer first because it’s a feedback loop where they have a management plan. They are moving their animals around in this holistic way to get the outcomes that they want. They start to look at these indicators. Even though it’s yearly, you can look at them all the time. Once you start seeing what they are and learning about them, you can’t unknow that.
You are always looking for bare ground, signs of soil erosion or certain plant species. Every five years, we do what’s called a long-term monitoring event. That’s when we take more quantitative data sets. We will do soil core samples to look at soil organic carbon, soil organic matter, and water infiltration tests to see and understand how quickly or slowly water permeates into the soil. That’s a good sign. In a rain event, if that water sinks in fast, the rain will sink in, and that’s great. If it doesn’t, it’s assigned that the rain will run off, and through that runoff, you will get soil erosion, which is what we are trying to prevent.
I’m putting on my consumer hat for a second. Let’s say I’m like, “Megan knows what’s going on. I love this Land to Market approach.” How can I find out what fashion groups are using some of the materials from these farms that are doing it right?
We have a number of brands who we’re working with. That’s how our program works. We work with food and fiber brands. I will plug our website here. If you want to go to LandToMarket.com, we have a whole brand list. We are working with a lot of major brands. For some people, this conversation may sound new, and they may be surprised by who we are working with. There’s a lot happening. We are doing a lot of assessment now in creating these supply chains to get these regenerative grown materials into the supply chain.
Before I worked at Land to Market, I worked at Eileen Fisher, which is a women’s clothing brand based in New York. It’s very progressive and well known for its sustainability initiatives. I was lucky that I got to work there on fibers, materials, and supply chain transparency. That’s how I got involved in this whole space because I was looking at wool. We ended up sourcing wool from regenerative farmers that are a part of the Savory Institute in Argentina, creating that supply chain, and having that fiber shipped to our Italian spinner, and then the garments were made. You are supporting regenerative agriculture when you buy that sweater.
That is still in the market. My understanding is that the program is still up and running. One great thing if you are an Eileen Fisher shopper is that you can buy their Merino wool. You are supporting something great. We have other brands which are well in their journey. Timberland has a number of styles where they are using leather from various ranches in the United States for certain styles. You can look at theirs. You have to dig a little bit but it’s part of their Earthkeepers collection, as you can find those too.
This is something new for all of us to consider. I bought a leather purse because I wanted quality. I didn’t want pleather. I wanted something that would last. It never crossed my mind to think, “How was this cow raised? What kind of conditions?” It didn’t cross my mind.
It doesn’t cross a lot of people’s minds. The problem with that is that we are starting to see this narrative and this push by some brands in particular that are driving for leather alternatives. There’s this narrative that leather is bad. It’s a high-quality product but the way the animals are raised is bad. That’s so not true. There’s so much nuance to that. It can be harmful. You can have an animal in a feedlot or a concentrated animal feeding operation. That’s terrible for the environment.
On the other hand, we have the opportunity to switch that system around, put those animals on pasture, and manage them holistically so that we are restoring that relationship between the grassland and the grazer. When you do that, you see these wonderful outcomes. The animal is that tool for regeneration. As bad as a reputation as leather has, I see it as potentially being one of our most sustainable materials out there. We should be driving for systems change, not new innovative materials in that space.
People should be driving for systems change, not new innovative materials in fashion.
I love the concept and the mission of system change. What small steps would you recommend that someone do who wants to do exactly that?
It’s important to support those regenerative food systems because it’s all connected. The fibers, leather, meat, bone broth, and even tallow-based skincare are all connected. Supporting farmers in their journey is number one. If you can support a brand who’s supporting them, that’s great too, especially from a fashion side because the textile supply chains are so long. You can seek out some options for a product, like the ones I mentioned.
You can go to our website. There are other brands too. It’s being engaged and understanding why this is so important for us to restore ecosystems through proper land management. You can do that on a local level too. Start with food and also continue learning and then think about what you are buying in terms of those feedstocks. Are you supporting a natural fiber and that potential for regeneration? Are you going to buy something that’s made of plastic? Maybe you want to rethink that or at least lower the amount of plastic because I understand it has a purpose but not for every type of garment.
What would you say to the skeptic who’s like, “It sounds good but like buying organic, it’s much more expensive? I would rather go to Target or H&M and pick up 3 T-shirts for $10. That’s better for my family?”
To a certain extent, I agree and empathize with that. I think about holistic management. You have to do what’s right for your own context. If that’s where you are, that may be necessary. That’s fine, but I don’t think we should use it as a distraction. I don’t love that argument when it comes up in meetings or talks because it’s a distraction from where we need to go because we are trying to think about systems change.
For example, let’s use H&M. If we can get them to engage in regenerative and fundamentally change their supply chains and if they can still keep the cost low somehow, which is questionable but it might have to go up a little bit but if that’s all that’s offered, then we are starting to create more value in our garments again. These are pretty complicated products. You have to harvest them. They go through that whole harvest cycle.
Someone has to do that. The fiber is cleaned. It has to be combed, carted, spun into yarn, dyed at some point, knit or woven into a fabric, and then cut and sewed into a garment. These are lengthy supply chains. There are a lot of costs along the way. I don’t think it should just be 3 shirts for $10. If we can get to a point where people can still afford a T-shirt, if they need it, and they are supporting these regenerative systems and not supporting the exploitation of the workers or the environment, that’s where we need to get to. We have to change the whole system and not worry about it from an individual point of view because it’s not going to change overnight.
One thing I think of, too, especially for families on a budget, is buying things at a thrift store and secondhand because you are at least saving it from the landfill. Sometimes you can find products made of cashmere, wool, and legitimately good materials, even secondhand.
It’s sometimes even better. I like thrift shopping. I probably don’t do it enough. I don’t like shop as much these days. That’s always a great option. The way that clothing used to be made used to be of higher quality. That’s over-generalization but that is a trend. One of the dangerous things I’ve seen in fast fashion is not that there are fast fashion and slow fashion. That’s not a binary that exists.
It’s that fast fashion has moved the entire industry a little bit closer to the bottom, where everyone is now trying to lower the cost of goods and make sure that they have that healthy financial margin. It has breeded a lot of issues industrywide and is another reason why we are seeing this uptick. For example, in polyester, because it’s not just that there are more fast fashion companies. It’s because everyone is now trying to compete with them.
In other words, if my competitor is using polyester in their shorts and undercut me price-wise, then I’m going to start doing the same thing. Lots are happening in that system. Like with the food system, as Allan would say, “Every choice we make is either creating the future that we want or creating a future that we don’t want.” We have to be really careful. One thing we haven’t talked about very much but I alluded to earlier, was the feel of the natural fabrics. I have a friend who isn’t super well health-wise. She can tell if the material is a natural fiber or not just by putting it on her body. She will break out in a rash if it has polyester. Isn’t that interesting?
She’s like the canary in the coal mine. We would all do better, not just for the Earth and big picture things but even for our own bodies to clothe ourselves with fabrics that breathe and are more natural.
Natural-made fiber is much healthier for your skin.
Natural fibers are great. I personally love wool. I am obsessed with wool. I love to wear it too. Against your skin, it’s much healthier for your skin. I don’t want to be naive. Sometimes we will find natural fibers that are blended with spandex, polyester or nylon. You also have to stick into consideration the chemistry that we’ve used in the processing and dying of those fibers. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s perfect but it’s a step in the right direction.
This has been fascinating. I want to ask you now as we wrap up. If the readers could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
I’m not sure that I should be giving this advice but the one thing that I try to tell myself because I work at a computer all day is to get outside and get some sunlight at least for a little bit each day, especially on those days where you are in back-to-back meetings. Get outside and get some sunshine.
I love it. I did that too, so I’m with you. We are on the same page. Thank you for this conversation, Megan. I appreciate it. It has been giving me at least a lot of food for thought.
Thank you so much.
Our guest was Megan Meiklejohn. Check out the LandToMarket.com website for more information on sustainable living. You can find me at HolisticHilda.com. For a review from Apple Podcasts, Christelle 708 says this, “Such great information. Varied topics with knowledgeable guests. Information is practical, and I always learn something I can apply to my life.” Christelle, thank you so much for your review. It means a lot. It can attract potential readers. Feel free to go to Apple Podcasts. Also, rate and review the show, give us as many stars as you like, and tell the world what you think. Thank you for reading, my friends. Stay well. Hasta pronto.
About Megan Meiklejohn
Megan Meiklejohn is a sustainability practitioner with experience working in the fashion, green building, and manufacturing sectors. As SVP of Supply Chain Innovation for Land to Market; an initiative started within the Savory Institute. Megan is focused on creating and scaling positive impact through strategic supply chain development and connecting regenerative growers to brands. By designing supply chains from the farm forward, she has helped brands source natural fibers that support ecosystem functioning and local communities.
- Land to Market
- Savory Institute
- Brandon LaGreca – Past Episode
- Sally Fallon Morell – Past Episode
- Dr. Tom Cowan – Past Episode
- Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride – Past Episode
- Stephanie Seneff – Past Episode
- Hair Test Kit + Consultation
- Holistic Management
- Savory Hubs
- Ecosystem Health Index
- Brain Nourish
- Grass Fed Organ Complex
- Grass Fed Liver
- Wise Traditions Conference
- Ecological Outcome Verification™
- 12 Spoon Restaurant Rating Program
- Apple Podcasts – Wise Traditions
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I have been a slow fashion shopper for several years buying mostly merino but also alpaca, silk, Gots cotton and linen.
An aspect that is not touched upon here is that many natural fabrics, especially animal fibers tend to not hold up to washing or drying in a machine. Knit materials tend to get holes in them more easily and require mending. Polymers help to strengthen the natural fibers and make them more user friendly. Sometimes, favorable polymer-free blends can be made that can take the washing machine but for animal fibers, that is rare.
Our concept of fashion is also heavily influenced by polymer fabrics so I suggest a different concept of fashion is also needed.