Towards Nature Positive: How Italy's 'Wool City' can inspire a natural fibre revolution

23 October 2023

Biella, located in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, is home to Italy’s wool textile industry. This traditional and iconic city now hosts the annual Natural Fibres Connect conference, from where Liesl Truscott, Strategic Director, Nature Strategies at The Biodiversity Consultancy, reports back.

The Natural Fibres Connect conference is organized by a collective of fibre suppliers, including The Schneider Group, Sustainable Fibre Alliance, Mohair South Africa, and the International Alpaca Association. This year, the conference (and mill tours) attracted over 400 farmers, herders, traders, mill owners, fashion brands, standards owners, sustainability experts, NGOs, and more from all over the world – in-person and online. We gathered in Biella to ‘connect’ over fibre, fashion, and a sustainable future. All these stakeholders can play their own part in a more sustainable future, determining how growing, supplying, working with and marketing natural fibres can play its part in a Nature Positive world.

Why Biella? Why now?

Biella is located about 80 kilometres northwest of Milan, which is arguably the fashion capital of the world. Did you know Milan was once the city of Mediolanum but in the 1500s changed its name to Milan, inspired by the English word ‘milaner’ meaning ‘fine wares’? Subsequently, a milliner, comes from the word Milan, where the making of fashionable ladies’ hats became associated with the city. Today Milan is the home to some of the biggest brands in luxury: Armani, Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana, Ermenegildo Zegna, Prada, Valentino, Versace, to name but a few.

In the very early days, it was common for families to have looms in their homes, passing the trade down from generation to generation. In the 1700s, during the Industrial Revolution, the fabric industry moved out of Europe to more competitive geographies. To stay competitive, the mill owners of Biella focused on quality in the high-end and luxury market. To meet the needs of this market, the mill owners expanded their fibre sourcing to places like Australia and New Zealand for long and fine merino wool fibre, to Mongolia and China for luxurious cashmere, to Peru for its alpaca fleece, and to South Africa for mohair. With innovation like this in its DNA, Biella looks like the ideal place to be a torch carrier for the changes required for a Nature Positive revolution.

The Biodiversity Consultancy was a proud sponsor of this year's conference, and I was delighted we were not alone talking about a Nature Positive future during the conference. And while the attendees were immersed in the history and tradition of farming and textiles, eyes were very much fixed on the horizon. And where to next. Progressive topics ranging from regenerative grazing to rangeland stewardship, and from the slow fibre movement to regenerated wool were on the table, all potentially contributing to a carbon net zero and Nature Positive world.

What’s the connection between fibre, climate, and nature?

The common ground here for farmers, herders, processors, and brands alike, is the land. According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the global agricultural land footprint is approximately five billion hectares, or 38 percent of the global land surface. About one third of this is used as cropland, while the remaining two thirds consist of meadows and pastures for grazing livestock. Conventional agricultural markets attempt to squeeze as much as possible out of land, leading to practices that often result in environmental degradation and contribute to climate change. These negative ‘externalities’ are not part of the market equation. The FAO, in 2018, calculated that global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use change related to agriculture (including deforestation) were nearly 4 Gt CO2e of the 33 Gt CO2e global emissions.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Farming holds a key for our survival, beyond the obvious need for food and fibre. Agriculture, and the way people work with the land, can be regenerative and contribute to the climate and nature resilience that we desperately need. Given the significant portion of the Earth’s surface dedicated to producing food and fibre and the livelihoods, culture, traditions, and communities bound up in farming, herding and land stewardship, there is so much value that gets overlooked, beyond the product, in living on and off the land.

When it comes to climate and nature, Nature4Climate says it best:

Humanity cannot achieve the 1.5ºC target of the UN Climate Paris agreement without nature. It’s that simple and that important. So, we need to protect, restore, and sustainably manage our natural ecosystems and the people that live in them; and we need to do it now. It is in addition to the energy transition – we need to do both.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among others, position nature-based solutions (NbS) as an essential tool in the climate stabilisation toolkit, alongside the restoration and recovery of ecosystems and habitats. The IPCC put forward the position that NbS can reduce risks for ecosystems and benefit people, providing they are planned and implemented in the right way and in the right place. More and more First Nation leaders are stepping forward to share knowledge accumulated through centuries of indigenous practices that work in harmony with nature.

So, what does this focus on landscapes mean for natural fibre producers around the world, the mills, fashion houses and even the ‘consumers’ of fashion?

Well, it means a significant shift in the way society values, incentivises, and finances the nature and climate-related work of the farmers and the ‘outputs’ beyond the fibre and fashion that we will all benefit from. Deploying finance for nature-based solutions through innovative funding models could take us from a commodity-driven business model to a much more holistic model, where those closest to the land are rewarded for their contribution to a habitable Earth.

This shift in value and values would also be part of a just transition as we desperately need people and skills to steward the land with nature and its biodiversity in mind. Innovation in nature finance is evolving fast but there is much more to do to go from concept to scale. Significant thanks to investment solution finder, Clarmondial, and others that brought this exciting conversation to Biella. 

To conclude, there was so much food for thought (and some pretty good pasta) during those three days in Biella. I think we all came away with renewed excitement and curiosity for the corners of this extraordinary planet and the richness of culture woven into the luxury wool and hair fibres the rest of us enjoy. With 2024 being the International Year of the Camelids and further out, in 2026, the International Year for Rangelands and Pastoralists, momentum is growing during this Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.

The farmers and herders of wool fibres will be a critical part of a Nature Positive future. And Biella a key connector. Let’s keep the Natural Fibres Connect conference solutions and stories alive. I’m already counting down the days to being back there next year.


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