Shilla Kim-Parker 00:30
This is Hot Buttons, a show about the future of fashion and culture on a changing planet. I’m Shilla Kim-Parker, co-founder of Thrilling. Joining me, as always, from New York City, is Rachel Kibbe of Circular Services Group. Hi, Rachel.
Rachel Kibbe 00:45
Hi, Shilla. It’s just you and me.
Shilla Kim-Parker 00:47
We’re missing Christina, who is off on a family vacation skiing this week. Very jealous.
Rachel Kibbe 00:52
But wishing her well.
Shilla Kim-Parker 00:53
I think she’s found the only patch of snow in the world. Since most folks— unfortunately, because of our warming planet— most folks are not having good ski vacations.
Rachel Kibbe 01:04
But she sent us pictures, and she’s got some great skiing ahead of her. So we’ll look forward to seeing her back next week, and pick her brain about that.
Shilla Kim-Parker 01:11
Or she’s at home just watching Netflix, and she sent us some fake snow pictures.
Rachel Kibbe 01:18
She’s like, “Sorry, y’all. I need a break.”
Shilla Kim-Parker 01:22
There are a couple of pieces of news that we really should dig into. First is: New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law that would been PFAS in clothing by December 31 of this year. Now, okay, PFAS are— and I’m going to mess this up— they’re perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, chemicals that help shield products from grease or water. They help make things basically water resistant. And it’s in everything, not just clothing. I think it’s really important to emphasize that, that it’s in pretty much every consumer category: takeout containers, nonstick cookware, and then obviously clothes. So this law really just addresses these chemicals in these clothes. And these chemicals have been around for a really long time since the late 1940s. They’re also called “forever chemicals” because they’re highly mobile. They pass easily from soil to food and waterways, and they’re extremely durable. They last for eight years in our bodies and they don’t biodegrade well in the environment. In fact, these chemicals have been detected in blood samples from over 99% of the US population, which is shocking. Rachel, were you surprised by this? Or were you expecting this regulation to come down the pike?
Rachel Kibbe 02:34
I think it’s it’s been top of mind for a while. So it doesn’t come as a surprise. These chemicals have already been banned in New York State. Tthe most recent ban was in food packaging and 2020. So it’s been a common topic of conversation in terms of what chemicals should be banned. And as you mentioned, they are included in a lot of treatments that make performance apparel waterproof. So they’re like plastics, highly functional for the things that we expect from our clothes, and so it’s it’s a challenge to find a replacement for them, but they’re terrible for human health. So the state has had his eyes on them for a long time, has been banning them in other product categories. And the other reason I’m not surprised that it’s now hitting fashion, and it’s getting banned in fashion, is because the state is very focused on fashion right now, both from a domestic labor and global sustainability impact perspective. So New York is clearly establishing itself as a leader in fashion regulation in the fashion regulation space. And what’s also interesting is, this ties in with Biden’s EPA efforts to limit harmful substances. So there’s support both federally and from state side for this type of legislation, and it’s harmonized with California’s most recent efforts to be on PFAS and clothing as well. So New York and California really continue to lead and push the envelope on environmental and labor legislation in our space. And, to note, the EU is having its own parallel legislative battles in trying to eliminate PFAS from not only clothing but a plethora of industries that use them. On the heels of a ban of PFAS in five EU Member States, it was recently reported that disagreements as to their true environmental impact may stall their EU Green Deal and even their energy plan, since these chemicals are used in air conditioners and machines that need refrigerants. So there’s a lot of argument about how bad they are and what they should be banned from. I’m really looking forward to… Alden Wicker, she’s a journalist, she focuses on the topic of fashion and sustainability. She has a forthcoming book and she’s been talking about PFAS for a while. Her forthcoming book, it’s on pre-order now, it’s called To Die For. It’s about how toxic chemicals used in fashion are making us sick. And she’s been calling out the dangers of PFAS and other toxic chemicals for a long while, and I’m sure she’ll have a lot of interesting and entertaining things to say.
Shilla Kim-Parker 05:17
The other piece of news we should talk about: Amazon has been in the news again for a topic that we constantly talk about, which is greenwashing.
Rachel Kibbe 05:30
Shilla Kim-Parker 05:31
Yeah, exactly. So the Telegraph, which is a UK publication, has called Amazon’s “Aware” collection, which is Amazon’s supposedly more sustainably produced line of apparel, home, and beauty products. They’ve called them, quote, “greenwashing on a grotesque scale” unquote. So I guess this publication, they ordered 20 of the lines, 103 products, and they said every item but two arrived wrapped in single-use plastic, they were delivered in large boxes filled with excess brown paper, and they called out that all but one of the products hailed from far-flung countries, such as Pakistan and Vietnam, and calling out the amount of fuel it costs to ship it to get to them. So what’s interesting here is that the Telegraph is not calling out the products themselves necessarily, or what they’re made out of. They’re really calling out the packaging and the shipping requirements, which I thought was really interesting. Amazon’s response to this was, quote, “The packaging is made of 80% post-consumer recycled material, and everything in the line is verified carbon neutral using high quality offset credits.” What’s your reaction, Rachel, when you hear those words, “post-consumer recycled material and offset credits”?
Rachel Kibbe 06:43
I think that, as it always is, it’s just complicated, because single-use packaging, whether it’s recycled or not, is not great. In a perfect system, it would wind up recycled over and over. But it doesn’t, there’s almost always mostly leakage that’s burned or landfilled or ends up in our waterways. But packaging overall? You know, I clicked on this article expecting it to be more about the products, so when it was just about packaging, I was like, yeah, that’s the problem in the system. It’s not just an Amazon problem. And I’ll get more into that a little after I talk about why it’s such a systemic challenge. It’s the easiest and cheapest way to protect products. And it’s been the way that we’ve protected products as we’ve shipped them around the world because of our global supply chain to this point. And since Amazon is essentially drop-ship, it would be an enormous lift to control all the suppliers and mandate that they not use these traditional methods to ship their products to us. And we’ve avoided the optics of it before, we shopped online by shopping in store where a lot of times the outer single-use poly that would wrap a product would be thrown away before it was put on a shelf. So this isn’t just an Amazon problem, but it is, because of their size, if that makes sense. So now that we shop online, we’re getting these packages, not only in the poly wrapper that wraps the product, but another wrapper and things to protect the products from banging around. And it’s really alarming. And, I mean, packaging actually might be the least environmental impact of a product, but it’s the mascot for systemic hypocrisy, and it causes distrust concerning sustainability claims regarding the product it holds, so it just looks like crap. And onto offsets…
Shilla Kim-Parker 08:47
Wait I’m writing down: “The mascot for systemic hypocrisy” Wow.
Rachel Kibbe 08:58
Do you want a t shirt?
Shilla Kim-Parker 08:59
I do, actually.
Rachel Kibbe 09:03
But okay, so on to offset. So packaging is a big problem, Amazon’s got a big problem. It looks bad. It’s not going to be fixed anytime soon. They should decrease the size of those boxes, though. I have to say. Sorry, that’s the one thing— I mean, isn’t it ridiculous?
Shilla Kim-Parker 09:17
It’s wild. I’ll order a pencil and it’ll come in, like, a TV-sized box. It’s crazy.
Rachel Kibbe 09:23
And not always, but just sometimes, so it’s like, I don’t know what the system is. But, on to offsets. Okay, so the mechanics and technicalities of the offset industry are way above my paygrade. But overall, from smarter people I’ve listened to, the trending sentiment is that, at best, they kick the can down the road. And at worst they are a way for corporations to buy their way out of their environmental responsibilities without actually changing an ever growing and ever compounding, negative sort of externality. So that’s what I have to say about offsets.
Shilla Kim-Parker 10:02
So it doesn’t end for them. On that note, Amazon’s also facing pressure from their shareholders, which is actually not new for them. They frequently face pressure from the shareholders. But two of Amazon’s shareholders, Amalgamated Bank and Green Century Capital Management, they filed a resolution urging Amazon to measure and disclose the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated from their entire value chain, including third party vendors. That would be massive, obviously, if Amazon did that. If you happen to be an Amazon shareholder, that vote is happening in May. So please do vote.
Rachel Kibbe 10:33
What is that like a 2080 goal? I mean, I don’t know how they’d do that. Nt to say they shouldn’t be pressured to do that, but I just don’t know how. They’ve created a system such that… I don’t know how that would be possible.
Shilla Kim-Parker 10:48
Interesting. So you think it’s not feasible?
Rachel Kibbe 10:52
Not without a lot of inaccurate reporting.
Shilla Kim-Parker 10:56
And not meaningful to even set it as a target, no matter how far in the future it is?
Rachel Kibbe 11:01
I think you need to set those targets. It’s kind of like that chicken or the egg, you need to set those targets, you need to apply the pressure. It needs to be a goal. I just don’t know how it could happen. Because they sell so many different categories of products. We’re not just talking about the fashion industry, we’re talking about every industry. Beauty, appliances, electronics. And you’d have to get the whole— I feel that you would have to get the whole globe on board on a single measurement tool for this, and I don’t know. But, Amalgamated, like, good on them, good on their shareholders for making this request. If anyone should do it, it should be Amazon.
Shilla Kim-Parker 11:40
Right. But are you skeptical about that kind of measurement and transparency across all companies? Or is this specific to Amazon? Is your skepticism specific to Amazon?
Rachel Kibbe 11:51
My skepticism is specific to any company whose value is based on the price of the goods. I mean, not that there— of course, there’s convenience. And in a lot of ways, Amazon is a great product. It’s consumer friendly, and it’s got incredible logistics, and it’s convenient. But all in all, I think it’s the cheapest. That is going to be very challenging, because how do you require companies to do that and remain price competitive?
Shilla Kim-Parker 12:25
Right. So basically, the existential question of value oriented consumer products. All right.
Rachel Kibbe 12:36
They’ve got a lot of work ahead.
Shilla Kim-Parker 12:40
Okay, so this week, we have a very special guest and someone we’ve been looking forward to talking to for months. Tamar Haspel is an author and journalist who’s built a career around understanding health, nutrition, our systems of food and agriculture, and what all that means with regard to climate, and she’s one of the hosts of our sister podcast here at Postscript called Climavores. Please take a listen if you haven’t already, it’s terrific. A weekly show about how our relationship with food must evolve in the face of the climate crisis. So the issues facing the food industry are often remarkably similar to those facing the fashion industry. Is it possible to produce more, support population growth while minimizing emissions and improving the use of land and water? How do we, as consumers, evaluate claims of carbon neutrality, organic versus conventional or GMO? How do you treat workers fairly? How do we waste less and embrace circularity? It’s kind of amazing how similar these questions are in both industries. We are so happy to have you join us. Welcome, Tamar.
Tamar Haspel 13:37
Thanks for having me. I’m delighted to be here on my sister podcast.
Shilla Kim-Parker 13:43
In the closet.
Tamar Haspel 13:44
In the closet, yeah. I’ve podcasted from a long, like, series of closets. I should write a book: “Closets I Have Known”.
Rachel Kibbe 13:55
“Podcasting from Closets”.
Tamar Haspel 13:57
I am the master.
Shilla Kim-Parker 13:59
See, I feel better now because usually I get grief for podcasting from the basement. But here you are from the closet.
Rachel Kibbe 14:05
I’m technically in a closet, too, basically.
Tamar Haspel 14:08
It’s actually the best place. Well, I’m in this empty apartment that echoes, and this is, like, the best place I have.
Rachel Kibbe 14:14
So Tamar, I know you from Twitter, from the Climavores podcast, I know you’re a prolific writer and esteemed thought leader in the food and environmental space. But can you tell us about how you arrived here? How did you arrive at writing about the topic? And tell us about your recent work, and how you arrived there.
Tamar Haspel 14:37
Well, you would totally get some pushback on the “esteemed” part in some corners of my world. But basically, I kind of fell into writing about food back in the early 90s. I did a newsletter with my mother, and this was back when “low fat” was all the rage And we did this newsletter—
Rachel Kibbe 15:01
Gave us all eating disorders.
Tamar Haspel 15:04
We did this newsletter called The Dreaded Broccoli: Enjoying the Food You Know You Should Eat. And that became a book, and after I wrote the book, it opened freelance doors for me. And then I wrote about… man, I wrote about nutrition for women’s magazines for a long time. And then, in 2008, my husband and I moved to Cape Cod, and I started looking around to do things that I could do on Cape Cod that I couldn’t do in Manhattan, where we were we had lived. And there were so many opportunities to get my hands dirty. And so I started growing food, having livestock, learning to fish, learning to hunt, and that got me really interested in the provenance of food, where it came from. So I wrote a charming, funny book that all of your listeners are going to want to buy called To Boldly Grow, about, basically dinner and the secret to successful self-improvement. And I started writing about agriculture. And so I have a column in the Washington Post where I write about both human nutrition and agriculture. And of course, that led to Mike Grunwald and I launching Climavores, about the climate impact of food. So I’ve sort of tackled it from every angle over the years.
Shilla Kim-Parker 16:24
So we’re so excited to have you here Tamar. And we’ve got so much to go through. But I thought we’d start with: one of the most obvious ways our worlds interact, fashion and food, is via leather. There’s clear agricultural, and fashion, and climate implications tied up in all sorts of leathers and furs, but I want to zero in on one of the hottest segments, which is the cattle industry, in particular cows. And before we get to the leather of it all, can you just set the stage for us about, why are cows and cow products such a— I’m embarrassed to say this— such a hot button? And maybe you can start with the scale of industry, and how important is it to Americans? And then maybe we’ll get to those cow farts and burps?
Tamar Haspel 17:14
Yeah, well, we eat an awful lot of beef. And the problem is that even though Americans have not been increasing their beef consumption— basically, back in the 70s, beef consumption started to fall in the United States to be replaced by chicken and pork, mostly because the price of chicken and pork got lower, and the price of beef did not. But globally, as people get lifted out of poverty, which is unequivocally a good thing, they tend to eat more meat and more beef. So globally, beef consumption is still ticking up. And so there’s basically two problems with cattle from a climate perspective. One of them— we’re gonna get right to those burps and farts. And that is that cows are ruminants, and they eat grass. And as a byproduct of their digestion, they burp and, to some extent, fart methane. And methane, as I’m sure you and all your listeners know, is a potent greenhouse gas. And people are looking for ways to give cows feed additives so they burn less methane. And we at Climavores, my co host, Mike Grunwald and I are watching those really carefully. But for the time being, cows are just methane machines. And the other problem is that cows need a lot of land. They graze, and even in the United States where cattle are finished in feedlots— that means that they spend their last few months there— they spend most of their life on grass. And you need a lot of grass, a lot of land, and the more cows you have, the more land you need. And that land, both for the grazing and for the feed, is increasingly coming from land that is deforested. You probably deal with this because you deal with natural fibers; one of the worst things you can do from a climate perspective is cut down trees. And so between the deforestation and the methane, cattle— beef— is the worst food for climate, going by an order of magnitude even over chicken. So it is a seriously bad climate problem. And there’s no way around it, and people like beef and I like beef, and people like the idea of cattle grazing on hillsides, and I like that too. And part of the problem, I think, is that you can’t see the methane, and you can’t see the deforestation, because in the United States, our deforestation happened a long time ago, so now the deforestation is happening elsewhere. And people say, “Well, I just buy beef from the guy down the street who raises it here in North Dakota,” or whatever. But it’s a fungible global commodity. And every steak you eat contributes to the global beef demand. And every steak you don’t eat cuts it by a steak. And that, in turn, cuts deforestation. So it’s not a direct link, but it’s pretty direct. So that’s the problem with cattle.
Rachel Kibbe 20:37
Are you saying, Tamar, beef is the equivalent of fast fashion?
Tamar Haspel 20:43
I need to know a lot more about fast fashion.
Rachel Kibbe 20:46
I’ll tell you why. Everything you said, you could almost replace the word “beef” for fast fashion.
Tamar Haspel 20:52
Like, Shein? Is Shein fast fashion? I’m betraying my ignorance.
Rachel Kibbe 20:56
Yes, it is fast fashion. And H&M. It’s all those clothes that look really pretty, and then when you wear them, you’re like, “What is this?” And then you wash them and they fall apart. And they were, like, $5 for a pair of jeans.
Tamar Haspel 21:08
I have some personal experience with fast fashion.
Rachel Kibbe 21:10
Well, we all do. That’s the thing. And it’s kind of what we grew up on. It’s been around for not that long, but a while.
Tamar Haspel 21:17
I’m too old to have grown up on fast fashion, I’m afraid.
Rachel Kibbe 21:22
Well, you know, you don’t have to tell our listeners that.
Tamar Haspel 21:25
Yeah. Okay, so I won’t pull out the, you know, “I’m old enough to be your mother” line.
Rachel Kibbe 21:29
You could do that. Christina does that.
Tamar Haspel 21:31
I might, if circumstances warrent.
Rachel Kibbe 21:34
So for real, the reason I say that is because the impacts are displaced from us here in the West, out of sight out of mind. The appetite, literally, for beef and fast fashion increases as economies grow, mature. And all the problems around land use and ancillary consequences that we’re trying to do fancy footwork to solve—you mentioned feed additives to limit methane— all sort of seem like we’re watching them very carefully, because it just seems like a way to do business as usual. And so ultimately, it comes down to that fundamental question of, how do you get people to want and purchase an eat less beef? The same with fast fashion.
Tamar Haspel 22:30
That is such an important question. And people are really struggling with it, because consumers are notoriously slow to change their eating habits. And, you know, you talk about fast fashion, and we even have this thing called fast food. And again, it’s cheap, it’s convenient, it’s tasty. And people buy a Whopper for probably the same reason they buy that cute little blouse that came through their Twitter feed, to pick an example at random. And it’s really hard to wean people away from this, because there’s a reason people buy that stuff. They want it, they can afford it. It scratches an itch for them. And it’s really hard, even for those of us who are knee-deep in this stuff, to change our habits based on these sort of existential questions. And my co-host, Mike, just recently said he was going to stop eating beef, and it was a really hard thing for him. And he’s, like, the number one “Beef is bad” guy that I can think of. So yeah, these are hard habits to change for all of us.
Shilla Kim-Parker 23:51
So, sticking on this topic for a second, what are the levers— because we talk about this a lot in terms of fashion— what are the levers that you and Mike get most excited about in terms of potential impacts? Is it just the introduction of really attractive competitive products that are made of alternative ingredients? Is it other policy levers? What do you guys get most excited about?
Tamar Haspel 24:14
That’s such a great question. And for the most part, there are a lot of things, each of which has some potential to change things, rather than a couple of things that have large potential to change things. And what you said, yeah, the plant-based meats, I think, do have the potential to change things, but it’s going to take time, first of all, because they’re not there taste-wise, they’re not there price-wise, they’re not there acceptance-wise, which has to do, of course with taste and price. But eventually, I suspect we will have plant-based meats making some inroads into the ground beef market. I think the whole-muscle market is going to be a little bit harder, in fact, it’s gonna be a lot harder. But we’re also excited about some of the technology that is that is being worked on. And feed additives really can reduce methane to some extent. Now, to what extent and how difficult is that to implement? Those questions are open. In dairies, we’re seeing methane digesters come in, so that the manure gets turned into energy rather than greenhouse gases. On farms where the feed is grown, there are precision ag techniques that are going to prevent nutrient runoff, and prevent more of that nitrogen from going into water, preventing more of the nitrous oxide into the air. And so I absolutely hate the silver buckshot metaphor.
Shilla Kim-Parker 25:57
I don’t know that metaphor.
Rachel Kibbe 25:58
Shilla Kim-Parker 25:59
What is that metaphor?
Tamar Haspel 26:00
Oh, so it’s like, you know, a silver bullet is like when one thing is going to solve the problem. Silver buckshot is when lots of little things solve the problem. It’s an ammunition joke. Those are some of the things that we’re excited about. And we keep watching, there’s so much technology out there that that that people are working on. But again, there’s kind of a basic problem with a technological solution to a food problem, because the people who care about food and food systems have sort of been primed, and are also basically inclined to associate a better food system with a more natural food system. And so sometimes technological solutions are a tough sell, because technology has been used, in some ways, without sufficient regard for its environmental impact, and that’s given technology kind of a bad name in some agricultural sectors. But Mike and I are optimists. I’m an optimist. And I hope that some of these, both technological and— and there are also back-to-nature solutions about regenerative agriculture, and although I hate that word, and we should probably talk about that… but there’s a whole smorgasbord of possibilities, some of which will pan out, and some of which, obviously, won’t.
Shilla Kim-Parker 27:31
I wanted to turn to leather, then. Tamar, so, I’m curious, from your perspective, how it’s discussed in the beef industry, and I assume also dairy. But is it considered, from your point of view, or from the industry’s point of view, as a byproduct? Because some folks in fashion, I think, make the justification of buying leather, that it’s a waste byproduct of the beef and dairy industry. And I’m just curious, to the extent that— is that really true?
Tamar Haspel 28:02
It is true. However— and we can say the same thing about wool and sheep, that, yes, they are byproducts. But what makes cattle ranching and sheep farming viable is the sum total of what the ranchers and farmers can get for all of the products. And if people stop buying the wool, or the leather, the price plummets.
Shilla Kim-Parker 28:32
The economics don’t work.
Tamar Haspel 28:34
Then the economics are a little bit different. And in some ways, it’s a hard argument to really swallow whole, because the meat drives the cattle and the sheep, and the leather and the wool are there. We certainly don’t want them to go to waste, that would be the worst thing that could happen to them. And so I don’t see my way clear to 100% pro- or anti-leather or wool in either case.
Shilla Kim-Parker 29:06
You know, I’ve seen arguments that leather should not be considered a byproduct, that it should be considered a co-product, because the size of the leather industry at this point is almost similar, from the studies that I’ve seen online, to the size of the beef and dairy industry. Wildly varying figures, but in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And so, to your point, at this point, it’s so intermingled, economics are so intertwined. And maybe it’s the same argument for, if one person stopped eating beef, and the impact that might have if we stopped buying leather, it might produce similar results and there might be a similar train of thought.
Tamar Haspel 29:52
And, you know, cattle ranching becomes just a little bit less viable, and maybe we start reducing the herds. And maybe, also, if the price of leather goes down, that could drive the price of beef up, and increased prices is one of the few things that does get people to change their habits.
Shilla Kim-Parker 30:13
I was gonna ask, Rachel, what’s your point of view around leather? Because I know there are other climate impacts around leather in terms of the tanning, and it’s toxic. How do you feel about leather?
Rachel Kibbe 30:21
Yeah. So there’s certainly… I mean, it’s a whole area of expertise, and I certainly don’t know the full landscape of leather tanning and leather processing and the climate impacts of that. I know they are enormous. Just like anything, there are better ways to tan and and treat leather than others. But the traditional way, and the the way we do it at scale, overall, is really harmful to human health, and harmful to ecosystems. I don’t really… it’s one of those things, like, fast fashion, not to bring it back to that, but it’s almost like we just shouldn’t be so involved with it at all. I think that’s the major top line takeaway for me, is we should eat less beef. And this is coming from somebody who eats— I eat beef. I also buy leather, but in small, small amounts that I plan to use for a long time, and resell them, and keep them in circulation. I prefer it and it’s a personal preference over— and we’ll talk about this— over leather substitutes, for lots of reasons. And preferably used. But, yeah, leather. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of the documentaries done about… I think True Cost and some of the other more notable documentaries around fashion production and its climate impacts globally have segments on what leather tanneries look like. And these are children in bare feet in chemicals. These are entire communities that have very limited lifespans. Because of their direct contact with the chemicals that are used to treat leather. Leather tanning was not always like that. There was a very sort of symbiotic relationship between farms and leather tanners and the way things were done. It was a very slow process. It was a safer process.
Tamar Haspel 32:23
Didn’t they use the brains to tan the hide?
Rachel Kibbe 32:27
Yeah, if you see any… I saw, sort of, a… Have you ever seen Victorian Farm, Tamar?
Tamar Haspel 32:32
Oh, God, I love Victorian Farm!
Rachel Kibbe 32:35
Okay! My dad got me into it. He tried for years. I finally watched it. We nbinge-watched it.
Shilla Kim-Parker 32:39
What is that?
Rachel Kibbe 32:40
Oh, my God, Shilla. If you like Real Housewives, you’ll like Victorian Farm. I’m serious.
Shilla Kim-Parker 32:44
Tamar Haspel 32:45
Yeah. So Rachel, I wrote a whole book about growing your own food, and foraging, and fishing, and hunting, and Victorian Farm spoke to me so much. And the woman on that show was kickass. I wish I knew her name, because she was so great.
Rachel Kibbe 33:04
She’s an icon.
Shilla Kim-Parker 33:05
So this is a show about a family that farms?
Tamar Haspel 33:09
So it’s about— they recreate, basically, the conditions in the Victorian era, which, of course, ended in… when did Victoria die? 1901? And so it was the second half of the 1800s. And so they use horses, although they had tractors at the very end, they had primitive tractors coming in. And they didn’t have refrigeration, and they were preserving things with salting, and drying, and different kinds of canning. Wow. Was it an experiment? Or was— it was a family who decided to do it? Or a town?
Rachel Kibbe 33:51
It’s a reenactment, but for real. Like, they’re living like this. They’re like, in this year, we would have to do this, to grow these crops, to be able to fish this way, to be able to survive this way, for months on end. It’s two guys and this woman who’s an icon, and we can’t remember her name. We’re embarrassed. It’s amazing, and it’s nail biting. It’s enthralling. It’s just everything. And there’s a whole segment on leather tanning, which is phenomenal, although they also do a segment on fiber spinning, and everybody went deaf from the machines, and that was terrifying. And I mean, you can see how things used to be done in a way that profoundly brings you back to the ecosystems that actually were sustainable, because they had to be. They were just working with what they had. Yeah, it’s great. And you watch it and you’re like, Oh, my God that’s got Listeria written all over it.
Tamar Haspel 34:44
And other Victorian era diseases. Exactly. But, oh, it’s a great show. But we digress.
Rachel Kibbe 34:58
Sorry. That was not planned, but, God. So glad we did it.
Shilla Kim-Parker 35:04
So, it’s so funny. I was looking on PETA’s website, and they said, “What’s so great about vegan leather?” And their answer was, “Only everything.” And it’s so funny because— and I know Rachel is going to have a lot of opinions here— but don’t you think vegan leather, Rachel, was the best marketing feat in a long time?
Rachel Kibbe 35:24
“Oil spill leather,” which I have like rebranded it to? Yes, I think oil spill leather. It took, like, 10 years for people to be like, “Wait a second.” Same with vegan fur.
Shilla Kim-Parker 35:42
Right right so yeah so most alternative leathers are made out of plastic which I think most people don’t realize
Rachel Kibbe 35:50
Yeah and even plant based alternative leathers many incorporate that. Many plant based leathers from a net perspective meaning like a net carbon and emissions and probably chemicals perspective, they may be a little bit better like pineapple leather, some mycelium leather, most incorporate some mixture of poly into them or fossil fuel based materials to bind and make them functional. So it’s interesting when you like do like an LCA of them they’re profoundly better for the planet. But they’re not like I don’t know about their durability. It’s still like, it’s like going back to plastics. It’s not a byproduct.
Shilla Kim-Parker 36:32
So what I’ve seen estimates of this market at alternative leather market at 30 to $60 billion anywhere ranging within that range at but the vast majority of that is plastic, pure plastic, alternative to leather. And I think plant-based is still pretty small in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And Rachel, you mentioned it, but the plant based alternatives, I’ve seen are the pineapple, would you said, and cactus, mushroom, or mycelium, which is how most people might might have heard of it. And to your point, the problem is that leather is great, because it’s so durable. And in order to recreate that durability. A lot of times folks are incorporating plastics, although they’re not being super transparent. I’ve seen some producers of plant-based leathers talk about a secret ingredients that they incorporate into the material to improve its color. What did you whisper Rachel?
Rachel Kibbe 37:32
Shilla Kim-Parker 37:34
It’s plastic. Right? Exactly. And so it’s not actually really transparent to the consumer, what’s in the plant-based leather, and most likely, it is probably plastic to kind of imitate the durability and feel of leather.
Tamar Haspel 37:48
So my co-host who has a really uncanny knack for irritating people. I mean, I thought it was my long suit. But Mike is like, he’s a pro. And he points out that plastics, obviously they are a problem from a pollution standpoint. But plastic pollution is just another way of sequestering carbon, because it doesn’t break down.
Shilla Kim-Parker 38:16
Tamar Haspel 38:18
Let’s say it’s a really bad way because it has all these other effects. But if you’re doing from a pure climate impact, if you have a product that doesn’t biodegrade, right, nothing goes back into the atmosphere. And I have to say, from a pure consumer standpoint, clothes that biodegrade are a little bit alarming. Because who decides when that process starts. He’s not really pro plastic. But he does point out that those fossil fuels are not going back into the atmosphere.
Shilla Kim-Parker 38:55
That is a really fair point that I have never considered before.
Rachel Kibbe 38:58
We just have to get them back and put them all in one room, right? for ever and ever and then we’ll be fine. And that’s what we’re trying, right?
Tamar Haspel 39:06
Why can’t we build buildings out of them? You know?
Rachel Kibbe 39:09
Well we can, it’s just the leakage. You know, it’s like, anything could be done. It’s just like, only seven or 9% can get recaptured.
Tamar Haspel 39:17
Look, if I had to do it all over again, right now, I think I’d become a material scientist because I think some of this stuff is really cool, how they’re repurposing some things to become other things. And like mushroom leathers, like, wow.
Rachel Kibbe 39:33
It’s also the economic opportunity because we’re not going back to Victorian farms. So we’re gonna have to, we’re gonna have to come up with a very new set of solutions. I mean, go back to go back to the beginning, but also like new solutions to your point.
Shilla Kim-Parker 39:46
I want to chat a little bit about sheep and wool. Now this industry in tomorrow, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it’s been shrinking in size for decades, but it’s still fairly significant. I believe demand for lamb and mutton has decreased over time. But still, obviously a sizable industry. And many folks believe wool is a true sustainable material. And so I really would love to kind of dig into it a little bit. How do you think about from your, from your work and your point of view? How do you think about this industry?
Tamar Haspel 40:17
So, wool is, it’s funny, because I learned this recently that wool had government support, it still has a little bit of government support, but it used to have a lot of government support, because it was necessary for the military. And I thought that was pretty cool. And so it used to be that wool was one of the primary reasons that people raised sheep, but at this point, wool is a genuine byproduct. I mean, on farm receipts from sheep farmers are something like half a billion, and only, like single digit, 8 – 10% of that is wool. And the rest of it is meat. So wool is, is definitely a byproduct. But you know, the same arguments apply that, okay as this becomes the entire enterprise of sheep farming becomes less viable than we get less sheep. Now, sheep are not as bad as cows for a couple of reasons. First of all, they’re better feed converters than cattle. And so their methane, they don’t burn nearly as much methane as cattle do on a per pound of sheep basis. And, and they also can graze on much more rugged marginal land, and they can be used to clear underbrush and things like that which cattle can’t really do. They need grass, they need pasture. And goats as well. And so sheep, the estimates I’ve seen, sheep have about 40% of the impact of beef. So lamb has 40% of the impact of beef on a per kilogram bases. But again, demand for lamb in the United States is minuscule. And of course, the big thing is deforestation. And if we shifted all of our demand to sheep away from cattle, then we’d be deforesting for the sheep instead of the cattle. So that’s a function of just not eating very much of it. But um, but yeah, so sheep are definitely a better choice than lamb. And I, by extension, wool is probably a better choice than leather, but I’m totally biased because I love wool. Don’t tell me I can’t have wool.
Shilla Kim-Parker 42:39
Don’t take Tamar’s wool away, folks. So is it true, Tamar, I had always heard that sheep. Even though their methane emissions are not as voluminous as the cows, they require a lot more land per bale of material. So that’s where some of the trade offs come come into play.
Tamar Haspel 43:00
So bale of wool versus bale of leather?
Shilla Kim-Parker 43:05
This is talking about cotton now. So I apologize for for switching.
Tamar Haspel 43:10
Okay, you have just wandered outside my area of expertise.
Shilla Kim-Parker 43:17
I need a herding dog to keep me to keep me in on the right palette.
Tamar Haspel 43:23
So yeah, no, I don’t know about the wool and cotton comparison. Because you can’t eat either one of them. And food is kind of my thing. But I would be interested in knowing that. You know, I think it gets dicey comparing the two because again, will is a byproduct and cotton is primary product. And, and so, you know, the question of using land to grow clothing is is a hard one because we have land in limited supply. And we have 8 billion people to feed right. But the question is, what’s the alternative? And and that’s kind of where I look to you guys to tell me what the alternatives are. Are there good alternatives that don’t come from sheep or cotton?
Rachel Kibbe 44:14
Well, actually, that leads me to a question I wanted to ask about one of the favorite rants I ever heard you do which was calories per acre. And corn. It was riveting to me. Oh my god, I loved it. You’re like one woman army about calories per acre and corn. I was just like this is just the content we all need. First of all, I’d love you to share it. And second of all, I guess it made me think about hemp. There are so many functions for and bear with me. Everyone will understand once they hear your corn rant which I I want to give you the floor for. With hemp, There are so many functions for this crop from building materials to apparel to food. So I would say hemp is the calories, plus clothes per acre crop and loving that that calories puts put. So the US is one of the largest cotton exporters. So it would be very, it’s going to be a very big uphill battle to go back to hemp. We started with hemp, then then turned into cotton. Like, you know, the origins of our country, we produce tons of hemp, and then we become one of the largest cotton exporters, and there’s kind of battles going on to reintroduce hemp into one of the crops that we produce, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be besides probably lobbying. Will we ever go back to hemp and subsidize it in the ways that we could or should? That’s basically my question. And I also want to hear your corn rant.
Tamar Haspel 45:55
Holy moly, you know, I am not in the game of predicting what our politicians will and won’t do. Because it’s just brutal that I used to think I had some basic understanding of how politics works. But the last six years sort of gave the lie to that. And I’m like, “No, I just don’t flat out understand how these people are operating.” But I’ll give you the calories per acre thing. You know, it’s so hard to get your arms around the global effort to feed 8 billion people. And this is one of the ways that I try and do it that, that, okay, we have 8 billion people, and each one of us needs about a million calories a year, give or take. And we each of us, if you divide all the farmland, we each have about a third of an acre, if we divide all the farmland by all the people, that’s what we get. And so you got to grow at least 3 million acres. And that’s if you don’t waste anything. And there are other there’s some of the food goes into feed and that goes into grazing animals. So it’s not a perfect comparison. But basically, that illustrates the need to get as much as as much food as you can off of each acre of land. And of course, you need other things too. You need nutrients, you need protein. But calories is something that every crop has. And it’s a great way to compare how sort of productive each crop is and corn is king. And we’ve sort of gotten you know, the idea that corn is a bad thing because it gets used, I mean, it’s put in cars and pigs and Twinkies and not you know, tortillas and polenta and grits. And, and so, so it’s gotten a bad rap. But corn can produce about 15 million calories per acre. And that’s a lot of calories. And it’s also if we ate it as polenta, it’s an extremely nutritious food. Soy is the most productive legume and because it’s a protein producing crop. And protein has a high overhead for plants. So a plant that produces a reasonable amount of protein is going to produce fewer calories overall and soy rolls in at about 6 million calories per acre. Potatoes are up there with corn 15 million calories per acre, some of the other legume crops, beans, chickpeas are in the you know, two to 3 million. But then you go down to vegetables and you’re in like the 2 million calories per acre, which is why I am anti lettuce. Because, yeah, it is just an excuse to ship refrigerated water from farm to table have it. My kids would love it. I mean, I like eating lettuce, I occasionally have lettuce, having a salad on the table is a nice thing. I think it’s good to eat. And sometimes it keeps me out a little lasagna. So it’s all good except for from a climate perspective. So when we think about using our precious agricultural acres to feed people, one of the things we have to think about is trying to maximize the the amount of food we can produce on each acre. And you know, starchy staples get a bad rap. But if you look at the nutrition produced per acre in crops like potatoes and corn, It’s way bigger than broccoli, just because you’re growing so much more food, you’re getting nutrition and calories. Whereas with vegetables, you’re getting nutrition basically without calories. And in a in a in an over abundant rich world like the one we live in where obesity is a public health problem. Nutrition without calories sounds really good. But if you’re trying to feed 8 billion people, most of whom are poor. That’s not good at all.
Shilla Kim-Parker 49:57
That’s fascinating. I mean, what an incrredible lens and thinking about food in the way that I feel like most of us who are privileged, we’re all privileged, we don’t think of food in that way. What incredible perspective.
Tamar Haspel 50:10
So you’re going to join my calories per acre crusade?
Shilla Kim-Parker 50:12
Hey, any reason to give up lettuce? I’m on board.
Tamar Haspel 50:18
Pork is the best meat going, by the way.
Shilla Kim-Parker 50:20
Tamar Haspel 50:21
From a climate perspective actually. Well, okay, people will tell you that chicken from a sheer climate perspective, chicken is the best meat going. But the thing about pigs is number one, they taste better than chicken. But also you get much more meat per life taken. And I think that matters. And of course, I have huge problems with with the way pigs are raised in this country. And I don’t buy conventional pork. But a well raised pig can yield a huge amount of meat in a very efficient way that is totally delicious. So I actually think that we should turn our attention to raising pigs the right way, and switching our beef demand to pork. And then then we can have this conversation about pig skin because there’s got to be good uses besides football.
Shilla Kim-Parker 51:14
Right? Exactly right. Frying it is pretty good. So tell us about regenerative agriculture, which has become a buzzword, can you? Can you just explain what does that mean?
Tamar Haspel 51:25
Nothing. Oh, it doesn’t mean anything. It means whatever people want it to mean, which is why it annoys the crap out of me.
Rachel Kibbe 51:32
It sounds so good Tamar.
Shilla Kim-Parker 51:35
Comforting, like a blanket,
Tamar Haspel 51:36
I’m old enough to remember when they used to call this agro ecological farming. Because basically, it just means farming with attention to environmental impact. And, you know, people have all these different definitions of regenerative. And usually, it is taken to mean actually like increasing soil organic matter, which increases sequestered carbon in the soil. But people use it in all kinds of ways. And, and there’s a real tendency to define it as a series of practices. But one of the huge problems we’re having in agriculture is that some of the practices that we think of as being regenerative, don’t actually turn out to have the kind of measurable results that we had hoped. And you know, there are a bunch of examples: “no-till,” for example, so used to be back in the olden golden days, that farmers would use these big plows to plow up an entire field before they planted after they harvested. And they would disturb, you know, a good eight inches of the soil, sometimes more. And it was discovered that when you do that, you break up basically the ecosystem of the soil, and it loses its nutrients, it leeches those into water. It promotes soil erosion there problems with it. And so farmers in the Midwest started using a no-till system where they didn’t churn up the soil every year. Instead, they did, you know, targeted planting with with drills, and they tried to leave the soil as undisturbed as possible. And there are lots of unequivocal advantages to that. It’s a good thing. But it doesn’t seem to sequester more carbon, at least in some areas. And like all these practices, it’s variable. So in some places, you will, but in a lot of places you won’t, and even things like cover crops. A cover crop is a crop that a farmer plants in between, you know, the the cash crops, so you’re growing corn one year and soybeans the next year, and in the middle, you plant you know, hairy vetch, or Clover or, or winter rye. Something to keep the ground covered, to have roots in the ground, and then you kill it back in the spring, and you leave that material in the soil. And that was thought to increase carbon sequestration. But again, it’s tough. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it has an impact on crop yields. That is not necessarily favorable.
Rachel Kibbe 54:22
There’s something called the Higg Index, and it’s come under a lot of scrutiny. It’s it was it’s one of the main and primary ways that the fashion industry at large was using to measure environmental impact, but it takes overall numbers around especially for fiber production around environmental impact, or numbers that are based on certain areas of the world. And the argument is that that’s not accurate because to your point, something regenerative in one area – if you grow a cotton crop in one way in one area, and that’s regenerative and might not be in another area of the world and so you can can’t measure apples to apples, it just doesn’t work.
Tamar Haspel 55:03
You cannot model it, you have to measure it. And this becomes even more important in agriculture as people are finding ways trying to find ways to compensate farmers for sequestering carbon in their soils. And if this is going to work, it has to be measured there just no way. There’s no way around it because it is it is incredibly variable. So my problem with the definitions of regenerative is that I don’t like the ones that define practices. I like the ones that define results. And I think it has to be a measured results-oriented idea. And you know, for me, I would call it regenerative if it improves environmental outcomes without depressing yields. That’s the definition that I would go with. But that’s a very general one, and people take issue with it. And you know, I’m not going to die on that hill. But that’s kind of my my working idea about it. But lots of people want to define it by practices, and that’s the Road to Perdition.
Shilla Kim-Parker 56:09
So, consumers, we should be skeptical when we hear that term. What advice would you give for folks as they’re shopping for, for their family for the week ahead. Or, you know, in thinking about who to vote for, what are some of some of the things that we should be thinking about, as consumers and citizens,
Tamar Haspel 56:30
There are two things you can do that are unequivocal wins. And if you do these two things, you actually don’t have to worry much about the other things. Number one, eat less beef. And number two, waste less food. And both of these are budget friendly, and especially the waste part. And here in the United States, we waste about a third of all the food that comes into our food system. And that is, as they say, in the old country, a shonda, it’s a real shame. And so work on that, work on ways to recycle leftovers, or to not have leftovers in the first place. Check your crisper people. And I had to do the walk of shame with half a bunch of cilantro this morning. And it really put a crimp in my morning.
Shilla Kim-Parker 57:20
Where were you walking to with your cilantro?
Tamar Haspel 57:22
The garbage disposal. Now, I’m not at home right now at home, I have a full proof no food waste system, which consists of a chicken coop. And anything that gets a little too old for human consumption. The chickens are not fastidious about it. And so we turn it into eggs. And then of course, if I can’t do that, then I’ll compost it. But, but here I’m down in Miami Beach and dealing with my mother’s apartment. And I don’t have those options. And so I have to be doubly careful about not wasting food. So eat less beef, waste less food, and you can feel better about yourself.
Shilla Kim-Parker 58:03
I will not be doing our third co-host justice, who is off skiing right now with her family. She really wanted us to ask about organic versus GMO cotton.
Tamar Haspel 58:12
CAn I say one really quick thing about that because it’s important.
Shilla Kim-Parker 58:16
I’d love to talk about it if you feel like we should go there, great.
Tamar Haspel 58:21
We can go there really quickly. So the problem with organic is really simple. And it goes back to that whole thing about calories per acre, even though obviously, we’re not talking about calories. And that is that organic agriculture does have some better environmental outcomes, but it comes at a price. And that is a decrease in yield. And so usually in crops, the average is about 20%. Now, my understanding in cotton is that the yield penalty is a little lower, it’s probably about 15%. But for every you know, 20% cut in yield, you need 25% more land to make up for it. And land is the key here. And we’re trying not to deforest. And so it’s really important that we don’t go for systems that grow less of whatever it is we’re trying to grow. And I’m pro organic for a number of reasons. I think it’s always going to be a niche. And I think there’s room for it in our food system and in our fiber system. But it is not a solution for the world.
Shilla Kim-Parker 59:30
That’s really helpful. And I think it touches on what we often have to consider with every sustainable solution is scale, to your point about decreased yield and the requirement of more land per yield. Scaling is often the dynamic and some of these sustainable solutions that we don’t really consider and obviously as as we think about organic farming, that is something that we really have to puzzle through. super
Tamar Haspel 59:55
Super important, super important. Man, we could go on couldn’t we?
Shilla Kim-Parker 1:00:01
Tamar, thank you so much for joining.
Tamar Haspel 1:00:03
Thank you guys for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Rachel Kibbe 1:00:05
Yeah, this was such a pleasure.