With Krystle Moody Wood from Materevolve
Take a look around you—carpets, curtains, sheets, upholstery, the clothes we wear. TeXtiLes aRe evErywheRe!
Textiles are so embedded in our everyday life that we barely notice them, let alone spend time visualizing all the textiles that exist in the world and those still being created.
For this reason, and because textile pollution is much less visible than other kinds, we don’t usually think of textiles in terms of sustainability. And yet, the fashion industry is the fourth most polluting industry in the world after energy, transport, and agriculture.
As such, considering the development of sustainable textiles and processing systems is central to addressing the climate crisis.
Developing sustainable textiles and in a more sustainable way won’t be easy—the textile industry’s ubiquity and ties to agriculture, science, manufacturing, culture, and so many other fields means we must develop multidimensional solutions that reach across industries and ideologies.
As Materevolve’s Krystle Moody Wood explains to us, it is exactly this ubiquitous and intersectional nature that makes the textile industry so poised to create revolutionary change.
The sustainable textile movement is key to bringing about a more regenerative world. In this post and accompanying podcast episode, we’ll discuss the current environmental impacts of the textile industry and how we, as both consumers and companies, have the power to ignite systematic change at every level.
The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Textiles: For Sea, Soil, and Circularity
To understand the issues and solutions within the textile industry, Materolve’s Krystal Moody Wood explains that we must focus within a lens of nature. In the natural world, nothing exists in isolation—an organism is completely dependent on its environment and the myriad of other species around it.
Krystle explains that we, as both consumers and companies, must view the textile industry—its problems and solutions— within a web of its interactions and connections. More specifically, Krystle frames the impacts and relationships of the textile industry within an architecture of Soil, Sea, and Circularity.
She urges us to consider how the systems of the textile industry impact our environment. How do our textile systems and consumption habits degrade the land and sea? How can we instead use the systems to support and enhance them?
Through her work, she refocuses the emerging sustainable textile industry onto the consideration and emulation of the circular and intersectional nature of… well… nature.
For both consumers and companies, the current trajectory of the textile industry is linear, the goal being to sport every trend of the season and reach maximum profit for shareholders. On this path, little consideration is made of the impacts our decisions have on communities, the environment, and the very interdependent relationship between the two.
Krystle urges both companies and consumers to consider how their decisions impact the larger contexts of environment and community by asking themselves questions, such as: How are the materials we are putting out to the world affecting the health of our planet, its peoples, and the collective future? How can we restructure our current mode of operating so that precious resources are not only sustained currently and into the future but also regenerated for our most vulnerable communities and future generations?
The Textile Industry’s Impact on the Environment
Within her framework of Soil, Sea, and Circularity, Krystle outlines to us the main problems within the textile industry:
Krystle first explains that the primary problems with the fashion industry and “across the board” are overproduction and overconsumption. “We’ve created enough beautiful textiles in this world,” Krystle elaborates, “and we have plenty in our closets.”
Fashion companies do not need to have product launches 52 weeks out of the year, and consumers are forgetting to ask themselves what Krystle believes is the first and foremost question: “do I really need this?”
Compounding the matter is the fact that our society often completely lacks the infrastructure “setup to re-sort these [products] back into other closets if we’re done with them.”
So, where do all the textiles and clothes end up? In our landfills, and worse, in our environment.
Soil, Sea, and Circularity
Globally, an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is generated per year. More plainly put, every second, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of clothes goes to landfills around the world. Municipal landfills in the U.S. received 11.3 million tons of textiles, or 7.7% of total waste landfilled, in 2018. Many of these materials take 200+ years to break down and, in the process, release microplastics and chemicals that pollute the soil and groundwater (more on this below).
Textile overproduction also dwindles and damages our water resources. The fashion and textile industry is one of the most water-intensive industries in the world. The fashion industry uses 2% of all the freshwater extracted globally and accounts for 10% of all industrial freshwater extraction. To make a cotton shirt, for instance, requires 2,700 liters of water—that’s roughly what it takes to supply a year’s worth of drinking water for four people.
Furthermore, the water-intensive process by which we dye and treat fabrics releases toxic chemicals into waterways. In fact, textile mills generate one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution.
And let’s not forget agriculture, which, while the connection is not often made, the fashion industry is very intertwined with. Cotton, for instance, is the most common natural fiber used to make clothing, accounting for approximately 33% of all fibers found in textiles.
Not only is cotton a very water-demanding crop but conventional cotton is also farmed in a way that depletes soils and is largely chemical-dependent. Since water is not being absorbed into the depleted soil, it runs off the field, carrying those toxic chemicals into our waterways and eventually into the ocean, contributing to ocean acidification.
The overproduction and consumption of textiles exacerbate both the causes and effects of the climate crisis—yes, it’s circular! Water scarcity, soil depletion, and environmental pollution are all connected, and they all compound to further threaten natural resources and fragile communities all over the world.
Item Quality and Care
Another big issue for Krystle is the quality of items and how they are cared for. Part of this issue, she explains, is that creators only design a product with the consumer’s first purchase in mind and fail to consider the longevity or quality of an item (again, more on this below).
The second part of this issue is that once an item is in the hands of consumers, we fail to abide by care guidelines. She explains that improper care greatly reduces the lifespan of a textile—laundering, for example, is one of the “worst things you can do to an item.”
A lack of quality and care means we are going to produce and consume a lot more items, which, for all the reasons listed above, is very damaging to the environment. But Krystle goes on to explain that this shortcoming also increases microfiber pollution.
Soil, Sea, and Circularity
Let’s draw a quick straight line here: 65% of all textile fibers are synthetic. Most synthetic fibers—think polyester, nylon, acrylic—are made from petroleum byproducts, i.e., PLASTICS!
These fibers are already really small (just think of a piece of thread!). So, when we put our textiles through a lot of mechanical agitation, (i.e., laundering), these fibers break down into even smaller pieces, washing microplastics straight into our water systems.
Then, when we are through with the item (which, again, doesn’t take very long due to the lack of quality and care), these synthetic textiles end up in the landfill and environment, where they ALSO break down into microplastics.
Textiles are the largest-known source of marine microplastic pollution, producing 35% of the ocean’s levels. (Learn more about how plastic ends up in our oceans here.) Marine microplastics end up being consumed by small aquatic organisms, which means microplastics are carried up the food chain, disrupting ecosystems in the process.
But microfiber pollution isn’t just affecting our waterways, Krystle explains. Research is revealing the growing prevalence of microfiber pollution in our farmland, as well.
How do microfibers end up in our fields? Krystle first points out that in the U.S., gray and black water ends up in our water treatment plants where part of the filtering process means separating out the “solids.” This sludge is a wonderful mix of human biosolids (if you catch my drift), so it is often used on fields as fertilizer. This would be a great way to restore soil microbiology, except that that sludge is full of microfibers! In fact, researchers suggest that 92% of all microfiber land pollution comes from these biosolids.
Microfibers are completely disrupting microbial soil systems, Krystle continues: “We’re seeing earthworms uptaking them, [and they’re] affecting the way they cast; we’re seeing the fibers mimicking route plant fibers.”
Microplastics are disastrous for organisms and ecosystems, as Krystle explains, but plastic pollution affects human health, too. Microplastics are in the water we drink, the food we eat, and even the air we breathe! Our exposure to microplastics has been linked to various metabolic disorders, neurotoxicity, and increased cancer risk.
Microplastics aren’t going anywhere, either. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but these plastics never completely degrade. So, the deficit of quality in our production and lack of care in our consumption of textiles will continue to pollute our planet and its peoples for generations to come.
The Framework of the Textile Industry
The overarching problem in the textile industry, which we can glean from the examples above, is the framework in which we create and consume products, Krystle concludes.
The linear thinking and limited purview that pervades the industry at present is at the very center of its destructiveness. It’s what allows it all to happen!
When we think only of fit, style, and profitability, we lose sight of the impacts of our actions.
As both consumers and companies, we need to shift our focus and reframe our actions in terms of soil, sea, and circularity.
Fashion entrepreneurs and consumers alike are turning to a new paradigm of circular fashion to address the current issues within the textile industry. Within a circular fashion economy, designers and consumers consider the wider impact of their decisions on the environment and communities and act accordingly.
A Consumer’s Guide to Sustainable Textiles
So, how do we as consumers stop supporting an industry responsible for so much harm and start supporting the circular fashion movement? Krystle gives us some of her best tips for making the change.
#1 Change the Way You Think
Krystle urges us to first ask the very important question: “do I need this?” More often than not, we probably don’t.
Have “nothing to wear?” Take your first shopping trip right back into your closet. Get out that dusty pair of boots and that dress you only wore once. Be bold! Try that shirt with another outfit! “We need to figure out how to do more with what we already have and be more creative in that way,” Krystle tells us.
When we do need something, Krystle encourages us not to “just buy [something] because it’s pretty” but to really consider the larger impact of the purchase.
One aspect of this is considering a product’s end of life. Before you buy something, think about how long it might last you. Is there an option available that will last you even longer?
As Krystle puts it, as customers and citizens, “we should be buying for our values.” For example, she continues, “if we care a ton about water, we should make sure that company is doing something about water.” Do we know where and in what conditions an item was made? Is the company using the kind of practices that we would want to support?
#2 Take Care of the Products You Have
Bettering how we care for our clothes and textiles is one of the best ways to 1) prolong their lifespan and 2) limit the amount of microfiber pollution from our own washer machines.
First, we don’t need to launder our clothes as much as we think we do. Krystle explains that often, and especially with wool and cotton, we can just put worn clothes right back into the closet without issue.
When we do need to clean our clothes, we should follow the care instructions on the tag. They are literally there to tell you how to best care for your garment. How convenient!
If no care instructions are provided, err on the colder and shorter side of washing. Some studies suggest that washing clothes in cold water on a shorter cycle helps to reduce microfiber shedding.
#3 Understand and Choose Sustainable Textiles
When thinking about sustainable fabrics, it would seem that natural fibers beat synthetic materials every time. But Krystle explains that “it’s not about just choosing natural fabrics”—it’s about considering the multidimensional characteristics and contexts of an item.
The most sustainable materials are not only going to last a long time and biodegrade at the end of their life but are also going to be produced in harmony with nature and communities.
First, the use of the garment should be considered. Technical materials (which are usually made of synthetic fibers) often have a lot of functional benefits, some of which mean that the item will last a lot longer than a natural fiber cousin (especially now that you’re paying attention to care labels).
It is far better to choose reclaimed and recycled synthetic fabrics and clothes over new ones!
There are so many clothes circulating in the world, so shopping at second-hand stores helps to decrease demand for new production and keeps items out of landfills and the environment.
Also, consider choosing synthetic fabrics that are made from old clothes and other post-consumer waste. Companies have developed amazing ways to recycle fishing nets, worn clothing, water bottles, and other post-consumer waste products into recycled textiles.
This framework applies to natural materials, as well. Used and recycled is always better.
When choosing between natural materials, it’s also important to consider how they were extracted. As we learned with the cotton production example above, natural fibers have their own paper trail to account for. So, it’s important to choose natural materials that are grown and produced in an eco-friendly way—think materials, such as:
- Organic hemp
- Regenerative organic cotton
- Cruelty-free silk
- Fairtrade and artisan-made products
- Climate Beneficial™ wool and cotton
- Responsible down
- Recycled cotton or polyester
#4 Shopping Responsibly
When you do find yourself shopping, there are some really easy ways to decipher sustainable products. First, check a company’s website. Are they transparent about their supply chain and production practices?
Companies that rate high in sustainability usually aren’t shy about it; they’ll have years of available impact reports, names of partners, and ways to prove they are fulfilling their mission statement on being a “sustainable brand.”
Rely on third-party reviewers, too. Certifications to look out for include:
- Regenerative Organic Certified
- Responsible Down Standard
- Responsible Wool Standard
- Two Organic Standard Certifications
- USDA Certified Organic
- World Fair Trade Organization
A Company’s Guide to Sustainable Textiles
Fashion companies have tremendous power to transform the systemic structures that are key to the sustainability movement. Krystle highlights some of the most important ways companies can address the widespread issues within the industry.
#1 Connect Your Goals and Departments
The first thing Krystle encourages a company to do is to synthesize and broadcast your overarching goals so that each department is working together to meet them.
Strategic planning and goal setting needs to happen in a multifaceted way that includes all operating levels, from executive offices to manufacturing lines. Sustainability goals shouldn’t be separate from material development, sourcing strategies, or marketing tactics.
That is why Krystle believes it is a foundational first step to enhance the existing infrastructure that makes communication, collaboration, and integration easier between people, teams, and departments. Narrowing in on existing structures and strengthening them is one of the most efficient and effective ways to reach collective sustainability goals.
#2 Connect to Your On-The-Ground Impact
Krystle points out that part of the problem is that designers are stuck behind a desk. They have no idea what kind of on-the-ground impact their designs are having.
That is why one of Matervolve’s key consulting strategies is experiential learning. Taking your executives and team leaders on-site at raw material farms, within production facilities, or inside cutting-edge material labs is the best way to have them start widening their purview and considering the larger impacts of their work. There’s no better teacher than experience!
#3 Spend Less on Marketing and More on Materials
Finally, Krystle emphasizes the need for companies across the board to start shifting their strategies and financial resources from marketing toward material development. This shift is not only necessary for the sake of the environment and people but also for companies’ futures.
As the climate crisis worsens, sustainable material development and a switch to natural fiber systems will be key to building company resiliency and longevity.
The future of material development is a bright one. Companies at the forefront of solving key issues, such as raw resource protection, biodegradability, and functionality, will be able to navigate the uncertain future ahead. It is fundamentally a smart business decision.
Krystle makes it clear that when she refers to “natural fiber systems,” she doesn’t mean a simple switch to cotton or hemp. Instead, she urges companies to invest in material science and integrate sustainability within all levels of their operation.
So, she concludes, “it’s really investing in how materials are made, who you make them with, and ensuring that they fit those sustainability values that you’ve really built as a company.”
From that fundamental priority shift, marketing campaigns move beyond simply pushing a product and can instead work to “educate on the living systems that you’re supporting as you create these materials and products.”
I think we can agree that this sounds like a far better strategy!
Materevolve: A Systems-Forward Approach to Fashion and Textiles
Materevolve is a technical materials consultancy firm launched in 2018 by Krystle Moody Wood. With a collective experience of over 25 years, Materevolve’s team helps individuals, companies, governments, and organizations understand the roles and impacts of textiles through a lens of soil, sea, and circularity.
Within this larger framework, the consultancy aims to home in on the industry’s intersectional nature to inspire systemic solutions and bring about a more regenerative world. Their programs include experiential learning, educational speaking, and strategic partnership, and technical textile consulting.
“It’s really investing in how those materials are made and who you make them with and ensuring that they fit those sustainability values that you’ve really built as a company.” — Krystle Moody Wood, Materevolve
Krystle Moody Wood, Founder and Principal Consultant at Materevolve
Krystle Moody Wood, founder of Materevolve, started her career in corporate material development for companies, such as Vans, The North Face, and its parent company, VF Brands.
As a materials developer, Krystle gained valuable expertise in textile production and focused her work on furthering textile sustainability initiatives within the companies she worked for. But after ten years in the corporate world and working within nonprofit education, Krystle realized that her potential for creating high-impact change would be greater if she could have full control over her partners and philosophies.
Thus, she created Materevolve to educate and empower industry, environmental, and community leaders to effect change in a systematic and intersectional way.
“[Fashion] is not just about fit, style, and profit anymore […] this lens of nature incorporates the people that are making the product, as well as the microorganisms that are making that product. [It’s] looking through soil, looking through sea, [and] looking through circularity that really shift the way we create products and why we create products. That for me is the major shift that needs to happen.” — Krystle Moody Wood, Materevolve
Closing: Sustainability is an Investment
Sustainability is no doubt an investment. It requires time, money, education, and resources, both from consumers and companies.
Both groups are realizing that sustainability is not only worth the investment but also that the investment is the ONLY way forward. Scientists and policymakers across the globe agree that regenerative systems between industries, governments, and communities are a necessity if we are to ensure a healthy future for our planet and its peoples.
Krystle believes that the textile industry is pivoting in response to this. Bold, conscious fashion entrepreneurs and the leaders of tomorrow are looking to the regenerative circular movement for solutions to the broken systems that have plagued communities and ecologies.
The textiles we wear and display express how we wish to present ourselves to the world.
Materevolve believes it is time for us all as members of the natural world, as citizens, as consumers, and as leaders to ask ourselves the fundamental question: Does this idea, decision, action, purchase, system, or impact really express how we want to present ourselves in the world?
Additional Resources and Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Bernhardt Textiles
- William McDonough
- B Corp
- Textile Exchange
- Dark Waters
- Materevolve Instagram
- Materevolve Linkedin
- Krystle Moody Wood Linkedin
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Alma Rominger is an educator and farmer passionate about regenerative agriculture, composting, gardening for mental health, and outdoor education.
Alma believes that the health of the earth and the health of its people are intrinsically connected and has spent her entire career advocating for both. She currently specializes in Bokashi composting systems and soil ecology through her work with Compost Queens, a women-owned community composting company based in the San Antonio area.