In fashion, despite more than 400 eco labels, an incremental ‘do less harm’ approach has addressed the symptoms, but not the principal cause, of our difficulties: an economy based on perpetual growth in a finite world. A new and global ‘leave things better’ politics affirms our co-dependency with living systems and the biosphere. The Commons, and the sharing or Peer-to-Peer economy, give shared meaning to this new politics. It is beginning to take practical form in the creation of foodsheds and fibersheds at the scale of the bioregion.


[The text below was commissioned by Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham for their forthcoming anthology, Routledge Handbook on Fashion and Sustainabilitywhich will be published in September. It’s 4,800 words long].

You probably need to be naked to read this paragraph with a clear conscience. Its author, for one, felt like stripping off as his exploration of the fashion system progressed. It took 700 gallons of fresh water to make my cotton t-shirt, I learned. It’s partly down to me that 85 per cent  of the Aral Sea In Uzbekistan has disappeared because its water is used to grow cotton in the desert. A quarter of all the insecticides in the world are used on cotton crops. Nearly all the textiles in my life will end up in landfill – clothes, household textiles, carpets, the lot.

Thanks to the tireless work of activists and advocates, millions of people are already aware of the social and environmental harm wrought by industrial systems – including the textiles and fashion ones. As awareness and concern has grown, many fashion brands have committed to do less harm – and a few have even committed themselves to a ‘leave things better’ course. But, despite decades of work, the overall condition of the biosphere continues to worsen. The reason is simple: we’ve been addressing symptoms, but not the principal cause: an economic system whose core logic is perpetual growth in a finite world.

I experienced the grim consequence of this underlying reality at a meeting of 200 sustainability managers at a famous home furnishing giant in Sweden. During 20 years of uninterrupted work on sustainability, this famous company has made thousands of rigorously-tested improvements that are recorded on a ‘list without end’. The range of improvements is startling – even  admirable – except for one fact: the one thing this huge company has not done is question whether it should grow. On the contrary: it is committed to double in size by 2020. By that date, the number of customers visiting their giant sheds will increase from from 650 million a year (in 2012) to 1.5 billion a year. And why? The senior manager who briefed our meeting on this plan put this growth into context: “Growth is needed”, she explained, “to finance the sustainability improvements we all want to make”.

Now there’s a problem with this narrative and it’s best explained if I talk about wood. The company, as the third largest user of wood in the world, has promised that by 2017 half of all the the wood it uses – up from 17 percent now – will either be recycled, or come from forests that are responsibly managed. Now fifty percent is a vast improvement, but it also begs the question: What about the second half of all that wood? As the company doubles in size, that second pile of wood – the un-certified half, the unreliably-sourced-at-best half – will soon be twice as big as all the wood it uses today. The impact on the world’s forests, of one company’s ravenous hunger for resources, will be catastrophic.

The committed and gifted people I met in Sweden – along with sustainability teams in hundreds of the world’s major companies, including many fashion companies – are confronted by an awful dilemma: However hard they work, however many innovations they come up with, the net negative impact of their firm’s activities, on the world’s living systems, will be greater in the years ahead than it is today. And all because of compound growth.

It is true, of course, that attitudes have changed for the better in many firms, but unquestioned logic of growth causes them to dissemble on their net impact. Many brands proclaim that their products are verified, accredited, or certified as being sustainable but – with no shared definition of what ‘sustainable’ actually means – the barrier to adherence is low. More than a hundred different textile and clothing industry sustainability labels and standards commit merely to ‘minimise’ negative economic, environmental, and social impacts. There are no binding targets, no collective governance of this vast and fragmented industry.

The result is an empty promise to leave the world  ‘as unspoilt as possible’.

If a lack of transparency were the problem, help would seem to be at hand: A system to measure the impacts of business on biodiversity and ecosystems is now emerging. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – TEEB – is a set of accounting tools that puts a price on the ecosystem services provided by nature and used by industry. The thinking behind TEEB is that knowing the price of ecosystems will cause companies to look after them, and many governments and companies are signing up to its framework.

There is troubling evidence, however, that this well-intentioned project will backfire. TEEB’s numbers, acting like blood in the water, have attracted the attention of predatory investors bent on ‘financializing’ environmental assets – converting natural resources such as land, ecosystems, and riversheds into abstract commodities that can be ‘securitized’ – and then traded. What’s especially deadly about this process is that these financial products contain powerful incentives to accelerate the rate of exploitation of the world’s soils, water and biodiversity. For EKO Asset Management, an early mover in this nature grab, “sustainability means running the global environment like a corporation”.

A new story

All is not bleak. Across the world, a multitude of social movements and grass roots projects are animated by the recognition that our lives are codependent with the plants, animals, air, water, and soils. These are the green shoots of a leave-things-better economy.

The eco-philosopher Joanna Macy describes the appearance of this new story as ‘The Great Turning’ – a profound shift in our perception of who we are, and a reawakening to the fact that we are not separate from the Earth as a complex of living systems. From sub-microscopic viruses, to the vast subsoil networks that support trees, this new story goes, the entire Earth is animated by complex interactions between its life-forms, rocks, atmosphere, and water.

Explained in this way – by science, as much as by philosophy – the Earth no longer looks like a repository of inert resources. On the contrary: the interdependence between healthy soils, living systems, and the ways we can help them regenerate, finally addresses the ‘why’ of economic activity that we’ve been lacking. This narrative points to the one kind of growth that makes sense, and that we can afford: the regeneration of life on earth.

How systems change

As articulated by Joanna Macy, a politics of reconnection can seem, at first encounter, to be naive and unrealistic. But it would be wrong to disregard this story as implausible given what we now know about the ways complex systems – including belief systems – change. “All the great transformations have been unthinkable until they actually came to pass” writes the French philosopher Edgar Morin; “the fact that a belief system is deeply rooted does not mean it cannot change”.

Transformation can unfold quietly as a variety of  changes, interventions, and disruptions accumulate across time. At a certain moment – which is impossible to predict – a tipping point, or phase shift, is reached and the system as a whole changes. Sustainability, understood in this light, is a condition that emerges through incremental change at many different scales.

There’s mounting evidence that a new narrative along these lines is ready to emerge on a mass scale. According to the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU), the heavyweight scientific body that advises the German Federal Government on ‘Earth System Megatrends’, a ‘global transformation of values’ has already begun. In the North as in the South, a significant majority would ‘welcome a new economic system’ that supports ambitious climate protection measures. What the WGBU terms ‘post-materialist thinking’ is not limited to the well ­off and educated: its studies also found a ‘latent willingness to act’ among the citizens of South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, India, and China.

There’s a cheering consequence of this account: our passionate but puny efforts so far may not have been in vain: In an age of networks, even the smallest actions can contribute to transformation of the system as a whole – even of none of us had that outcome explictly in mind. It’s like the picture in a jigsaw puzzle that slowly emerges as we add each piece.

From dirt to shirt, from soil to skin

What pieces should we need add now in fashion and fibre systems?

One priority is to shape our actions in such a way that they start to reconfigure these systems on a bioregional scale. In food, advanced prototypes are already being tested. The Food Commons, for example, launched in the US in 2009, is the the world’s first prototype for a designed regional food system. The Food Commons platform features the physical, financial and organisational elements of an infrastructure that’s designed to connect myriad small to mid-sized enterprises: farms; food processor; distributors, retailers. The platform helps these foodshed actors to collaborate by providing advanced communications tools, community-based economic models, and scientific knowledge about sustainable agriculture. For Professor Larry Lee, founder of The Food Commons, “the Food Commons represents a whole new cloth; it’s woven from threads of several successful organizations, business enterprises,and disciplines”.

Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed, in California, is confident that “fiber will follow food” in public’ awareness. She began Fibershed with a challenge, to herself, to wear clothes sourced and dyed within a 150 mile radius from her front door for a year. The essential elements for a bioregional fibershed were in place, Burgess discovered: animals, plants and people, skills, spinning wheels, knitting needles, floor looms. But there was a lack of connectivity between the many different actors. The many small farmers and producers within her region were doing great work – but on a small scale and, for the most part, below the radar.

“Our priority is to integrate vertically” explains Burgess, “from soil to skin”. As a first step in connecting the fibershed’s actors, an inaugural Wool and Fine Fiber Symposium in 2012 (and repeated in 2013) brought together the region’s producers, shearers, artisans, designers, knitters, fiber entrepreneurs, and clothes-wearing citizens. They discussed what it would it take to bring ‘farm-fresh’ clothing to the region. All manner of fine-grain issues emerged: flock health; rotational grazing; weed management; predator issues; breeding for fiber, color attributes; milling and fiber processing capacity. A Wool Inventory Mapping Project was then launched to collect data on everyone operating a dairy, ranch, farm or homestead with one or more fiber producing animals. Data from the Wool Inventory Map will be used to assess the scale, scope and location of future fiber processing facilities. Also in development is a prototyping & education facility, called FiberLab.

Can a fibershed-scale production feasibly clothe today’s large human communities, and affordably? It depends on how you define and measure such ‘needs’. Burgess concedes that fibershed systems are small scale right now, and that locally grown, dyed, and made garments can therefore be expensive and scarce. But these are early days: as shared production facilties and network coordination improve, she says, small fibersheds will link together in pan-regional networks to share knowledge and facilities in ways that improve supply.

Call of the Commons

The growth of fibershed mosaics will not be fast: these are democratic and community-driven projects whose vitality depends on the steady growth of trust – in a place, and through time. A powerful framing idea is needed to connect and gives shared meaning to such projects threouh time, as they mature.

That idea, for me, is The Commons. As new book called The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State, (edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich) explains, we are poised between an old world that no longer works, and a new one struggling to be born. “Surrounded by centralized hierarchies on the one hand, and predatory markets on the other, people around the world are searching for alternatives” the introduction explains; the book goes on to describe how millions of commoners have organized to defend their forests and fisheries, reinvent local food systems, organize productive online communities, reclaim public spaces, improve environmental stewardship “and re-imagine the very meaning of ‘progress’ and ‘governance’ “.

The maintenance, health, and sustainability of natural resources is in our shared interest, as it has always been. No individual, company, or government created these common goods; therefore none has a right to claim them as private property. On the contrary: we inherited them from previous generations and have a moral obligation to look after them them for future generations.

The commons are not just an ideological proposition.Numerous scientific studies confirm that sharing is in our genes. Psychologists at Harvard, for example, have confirmed that humans possess “a strong propensity to cooperate rather than compete over limited resources, trusting that they’ll benefit in the end”. Swiss scientists, too, discovered that children above a certain age are driven by both genes and social factors to share with others – even if they don’t have to.  The commons as an idea crops up throughout history: The shared management of water, for example – a hugely stressful issue for textile production today – dates back 8,000 years; the earliest records of collectively managed irrigation have been found in regions of the Middle East that we now know as Iraq and Iran. In Bali, too, a complex ‘irrigation society’ that dates back 1,000 years still thrives as what the ecological anthropologist Stephen Lansing calls a “coupled social-ecological system”.

The spirit and practice of commoning is reviving once again – and on a global scale. It has new names – such as the sharing economy, Transition Towns, or the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) economy – but the principle is unchanged: citizens are organising to take charge of their lives and endangered resources.  For Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, “once you put the glasses of the commons on, you see it all over.”.

That said, Commons do not run themselves. No universal rule book exists for commons governance, but in her 1990 book Governing the Commons, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom identified a number of principles that she had discovered were common in successful examples of self-governance. Based on a systematic study of fisheries, irrigation, groundwater, and forestry systems, she found that in all cases commons are not commodities to be sold for money; anyone who takes from the commons has to contribute to the commons; knowledge, skills and tools should be free, open, and shared; and they should be organised by the people who benefit from them. (See also Sustaining The Commons by John M Andries and Marco A Janssen)

In the years since Ostrom’s pioneering work, scholars in real-world contexts have deepened our understanding of what it takes for people and living systems to co-exist sustainably. Whether the context be coral reefs in Australia, arid lands in Brazil, or farmers markets in Europe, the pattern of governance to emerge described as adaptive co-management – an approach found when ‘constellations’ of people and interested parties co-habit successfully in ‘social-ecological systems’.

Dealing with difference

An important lesson has emerged from study of these diverse experiments: Paying attention to the process by which groups work together is just as important as deciding what needs to be done – perhaps more. It’s not enough to simply to proclaim the moral superiority of sharing, for example, and expect everyone to fall in line. Tough questions must be confronted, and not brushed under the carpet. Among these: How to define, map and name the resources to be shared; determining who is entitled to what; designing rules and sanctions; designing how to make the rules.

For Massimo De Angelis, how to deal with difference is the most important by far: “We have to go beyond the idea that democracy means: ‘here is my view, there is yours, let’s see who wins’. We need to acknowledge differences, allow those who don’t want to share with us, or with whom we do not want to share, to be heard”. Dealing with difference involves a lot of consensus building, collective participation, and transparent decision making.

All  this takes time, and a politics that involves endless meetings is neither attractive practicable for most people. New ways of ‘doing’ politics are needed that are shaped by the ways people live now – not the other way round.

Examples of such new approaches already exist in other domains. The free software movement, for example, has evolved a flexible and effective culture of cooperation in which, as Yochai Benkler explains, “individuals with widely variable creativity, experience, insight, motivation and availability are able to self-identify for tasks that attract them, and for which they are suited. Mechanisms for peer review match the capabilities and availability of agents with discrete tasks”.

Our inner states are just as important to a healthy political movement as are its external activities. For Sophie Banks, who leads a programme on ‘inner transition’ for the Transition movement, “we have a global system that’s depleting the planet, and we’re burning out ourselves; it’s no coincidence. We have to change the culture of how we do things”. For Banks, one indicator of healthy politics is the quality of meetings. In healthy meetings, she observes, people feel relaxed and connected to each other. Even when there’s a lot to discuss, time is found to discuss how how the group is working, how people are dealing with differences. These events events are celebratory and not just about building and doing things.

A common thread in this new approach to politics is the need for some kind of caretaker, or steward. The steward’s job is to nurture communication between members of the community, make sure that everyone understands and abides by the rules, and generally fosters a shared spirit of reciprocity, and cooperation.

None of these skills is taught in mainstream education but, around the world, individuals with these special qualities have started to emerge. Cheryl Dahle, founder of the Future of Fish is one such. “When I began my journey to understand global overfishing, I knew that it was a sprawling and complex tangle of intertwining problems touching the spheres of policy, commerce, environment and livelihood” she recalls. “Now, almost five years in, I see its complexity through the stories of people I’ve met who live in that tangle: Each of the players in this system has an incredibly personal stake in how we humans choose to rethink the way we hunt, eat and protect fish”.

For Dahle, what she names the “people platform” question became the core design challenge: How do you design interactions between competitors – “folks who’ve been enemies on opposite sides of policy debate, scientists and business people who don’t speak the same language” – to enlist their help and collaboration? For insight, Dahle turned to the work of Adam Kahane, one of the pioneers of collaboration design. “What might seem at first glance to be abstract theory has proved incredibly instructive” says Dahle; “When we convene any group—fishers, processors or financiers – we set up the conversation so there’s something in it for them. We acknowledge the interests of everyone in the room, and we never ask anyone to sacrifice their self-interest. We work to show – to prove – that there is a reason for them to shift their thinking and behavior”.

Another technique with potential for the fashion system is Appreciative Inquiry (AI). In AI, rather than compile lists of all the problems that need to be fixed, and the wicked things that have been done, the group focuses first on what’s working; it then explores how successful ingredients might be used elsewhere, and how.

[Other next-generation institutes will teach you similar skills.  At the Presencing Institute, for example, founder Otto Scharmer runs Theory U workshops that teach people how to ‘co-sense and co-create positive change’. The Alia Institute, based in Halifax Nova Scotia, offers skill-building courses with names like Change Lab, and Human Systems Dynamics. Another network, Art of Hosting, teaches people ‘how be successful in complex circumstances when we can’t predict what ten, five or even two years down the road will look like’. In Brazil, the Elos Institute, founded in 2000 by young architects, runs a collaborative game called Oasis that’s designed ‘to awake and give impulse to communities through fast actions with high impact’. A cross between an architectural charette and an Amish-style barn-raising, Oasis games typically end with a square, a park a day care center or a cultural centre being built there-and-then].

Wild Law

Although grassroots projects are driving change, and ‘prepping’ the fashion system for transformastion,  institutional frameworks – especially legal ones – remain vital, too. Laws – and the institutions that impose them –  are what people mean by the ‘hard-wiring’ that locks us into damaging relationships with living systems.

In most of the world’s legal systems today, only humans have rights. Our laws are based on the Enlightenment notion that the universe is a repository of dead resources which we can exploit as and when we like – for the exclusive benefit of our own species. In contradiction to ecological principles of wholeness and interconnection, legal definitions of property perpetuate the division up of land into discrete parcels. Nature’s inherent diversity is at odds, too, with free trade treaties that support large-scale monoculture projects; these, as we know, destroy biodiversity.

In The Great Work, published in 1999, Thomas Berry called for a new jurisprudence to re-define the relationship between the human community and the Earth community in which it lives. “We need a legal system that governs the relationship between humans and the natural world as a totality, not as a collection of parts and which respects equally the rights of the natural world to exist and thrive” argued Berry.

Is a transformation of our legal systems along these lines feasible? The South African lawyer Cormac Cullinan, a pioneer in Earth Jurisprudence, compares out situation now with the abolition of slavery. Even when American public opinion came to regard slavery as morally abhorrent, the concept of slaves as property remained hard-wired into the legal system. It took a tremendous political effort – not to mention a Civil War – before laws were changed and slavery was finally abolished.

Changes to the legal status of living systems and property rights are emerging in a wide variety of legal systems around the world – including unexpected ones. In 1996, for example, a celebrated legal text in the United States called Should Trees have Standing? gave serious consideration to the proposition that trees might be given legal rights in the same way that minors or corporations are given artificial legal personalities. To most people’s surprise the Supreme Court although it voted against the proposal, also found that there was some merit to these arguments.

More recently, a dozen US municipalities have introduced ordinances that grant equal rights to human and natural communities. In 2009 the city of Spokane become one of the first cities in the world to legislate for the rights of nature. “Ecosystems, including but not limited to, all groundwater systems, surface water systems, and aquifers, have the right to exist and flourish” the measures declared. “River systems have the right to flow, and to contain water of a quality necessary to provide habitat for native plants and animals, and to provide clean drinking water. Aquifers have the right to sustainable recharge, flow, and water quality”.

Then, in 2013, Santa Monica passed a Sustainability Rights Ordinance which recognizes that “natural communities and ecosystems possess fundamental and inalienable rights to exist and flourish in the City”. The Ordinance includes protections for this right from acts by “corporate entities” which, it states, “do not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law that subordinate the community’s rights to their private interests.” The Ordinance also articulates the rights of people to self-governance, a healthy environment, and sustainable living.  It is of course true that state and Federal authorities usually veto measures – but the political lesson is that such measures are being passed at an increasing rate.

At the scale of the nation state, radical legal expressions of a new world view are emerging in Latin America. Ecuador’s national constitution was revised in 2008 to recognize and protect rights of nature. Indigenous elders played a critical part in the revision of the new constitution which grants to Mother Earth “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and restoration”. A key concept in the new thinking is buen vivir, a term that translates loosely into English as “good living” or “well living”. The Uruguayan ecologist Eduardo Gudynas, a leading scholar on the subject, emphasizes that buen vivir is less human-centric than western notions of wellbeing, or welfare: “Buen Vivir is not just about the individual, but the individual in the context of their unique environmental situation. The dualism in Western knowledge that separates society from nature vanishes under this perspective”. With Buen Vivir the polis is expanded, and the concept of citizenship is widened to include these other actors within environmental settings. 

Ecuador new constitution is not a one-off. In 2010, when Bolivia hosted a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth, it was attended by 30,000 people from 100 countries. One outcome, a Universal Declaration on Rights of Mother Earth, was presented to the UN. And a Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature has been created with an initial 60 member organisations from around the world. Bolivia herself went on to introduce its own new legislation, an ‘Act of the Rights of Mother Earth”, and created a new ministry to oversee the Act.

Buen Vivir has been welcomed by many as an alternative project for civilization, but its critics portray the concept as a mystical return to an indigenous past, and charge that it lacks any practical strategy. They also point out that Iit has been accompanied by new plans, enthusiastically promoted by the same government,  for energy, road-building and extractive industry mega projects. Official rhetoric even talks about “Oil exploration to live well” or, “hydroelectric plants in the Amazon to live well”.  Gudynas counters by citing examples of legal and tax reform,and the introduction of environmental accounting, right  across South America. “The Buen Vivir perspective is not only post-capitalist, but also post-socialist” he argues; “ It departs from the uncritical faith in progress of the modernist world view. It reconnects nature and  society, modern and indigenous peoples”.

A shift away from seeing Earth solely in terms of ‘resources’ to be exploited for our own use is beginning to appear in international law and governance at a global level, too. An Earth Charter along these lines has been formally recognised by many transnational organisations, and a large number of universities are involved in the the Earth System Governance Project, which was launched in 2009. This multidisciplinary network of scholars and practitioners, working across the global North and South, is forging new connections between the social and natural sciences in exploring new models of  environmental governance.

A new concept of the world

This between-two-worlds period of history contains myriad details of an emerging economy whose core value is stewardship, rather than extraction. For most of us, political participation means appreciating the potential of the the places where we live now, adapting what we can of the apparatus of modern life – but with a different mental model of what can, and should, be done.

Some of our assets are technological solutions. Some are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution. Many more assets are social practices – some of them very old ones – learned by other societies and in other times.

The more pieces we fit in – each piece a new way to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves in partnership with living processes – the easier it becomes.

In the words of Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”

With thanks to Tess Curran from Peppermint Magazine for advice on this piece.