“Soil is the answer”: Leading model and activist Arizona Muse on sustainability in fashion
Fashion photoshoots and the model’s high life sound like a world away from farming, soil and the big outdoors. Dirt, however, is exactly what model Arizona Muse finds herself dealing with on a daily basis now.
In 2021, the model turned activist founded her charity, named ‘Dirt’, which is dedicated to regenerating soil and promoting biodynamic agriculture around the world. Once dubbed "the new face of American fashion" by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Muse now uses her influence in the industry to advocate for a more sustainable and ethical future for fashion.
The organisation currently supports more than 20 projects, including the restoration of gold mines in Uganda, the strengthening of the biodynamic wool movement in the UK, and the creation of a biodynamic farm in Romania, aiming to become a safe haven for rescued trafficked women. The charity seeks sponsorship from fashion and beauty companies that are willing to contribute financially to Earth's regeneration.
Speaking with FashionUnited, Arizona Muse discusses her journey towards activism, the importance of soil health and the role of biodynamics in both climate and fashion.
How did you become interested in sustainability?
It sprang out of my modelling. I looked around me one day and realised that I knew nothing about where these clothes were made, and who made them. So, I started to educate myself and what I began to find was horrible. This awful story of the truth behind our clothing and this industry, that we are destroying the planet and many people working in slave labour or very unfair and unsafe working conditions. I was shocked and decided that I really need to do something about this. That was when my activism began.
Was your activism strengthened by what you experienced through your work in the fashion industry?
Definitely. I've seen the waste culture in fashion: on photoshoots, in showrooms and with the design teams – it's such a culture of waste. It's changing now but when I was modelling a lot 10 years ago, it was almost like people were proud of how wasteful they could be.
It's also a ‘fear’ culture. We have such a toxic culture in fashion. There's a steep hierarchy on photoshoots, in design houses, and I witnessed all of that. When people are working in a toxic culture, it's much easier for them to make poor-quality decisions. I see this as being all deeply connected. Our destructive behaviour toward the environment, toward the earth that we live on, and our social way of interacting with each other is intrinsically one and the same. We need to change them both quickly.
What is the fashion industry's biggest issue in terms of sustainability?
The agreed upon answer to this is the wet processing of textiles and leather, when the fibres are dyed, bleached, tanned and otherwise chemically treated. I would also add that another hotspot is on the ground at the agricultural level, conventional fashion crops such as cotton plants, viscose trees, mulberry silks and feed for livestock who will eventually become leather, are sprayed with chemicals multiple times a year.
Eventually, where they are used in the wet processing or the growing, these chemicals seep through soil and reach water bodies everywhere, toxifying the micro life and macro life within. We must use chemical free solutions, such as biodynamic regenerative farming or plant dyes with safe mordents, and we must also look at a fashion future that doesn’t involve synthetic fibres.
How did you start your charity Dirt?
At first it was just me in my living room quietly educating myself, reading, learning and speaking to those people who were interested, which was not very many seven years ago. Through all this self-education, I kept being brought back to soil. Soil is the answer. We grow everything we need in soil.
That was why I began to spend more time on farms, volunteering, talking to farmers and learning about farming. I think farming is the most amazing career, a noble endeavour. I started Dirt to support farmers and to draw awareness to biodynamic farming. I speak to farmers on a daily basis all over the world and raise funding to support the work that they're doing to regenerate soil.
What is biodynamic farming?
Nature works in a very beautifully complex way where every single species of plant, animal and fungus has its role and they all work together to build life. That's how biodynamic sees itself, as a way for humans to interact with life. Biodynamic farming is an umbrella under which all regenerative farming techniques can be used such as crop rotation, companion plants, composting and holistic grazing, but what’s special about biodynamics is that the farmers also make these medicines for their farms.
Can you explain these preparations in more detail?
These biodynamic preparations are liquid tinctures made from ingredients of animals, plants and minerals following specific recipes. It’s very similar to homoeopathic remedies — but created for the earth—and they are incredibly effective. We can think of soil in the earth as having a ‘being’ and a ‘life force’, so I personally think that the biodynamic preparations are an advantage over simply regenerative farming. Without the preparations, you're still working on the physical level rather than the non-physical, life-force level.
How does it help the environment?
Biodynamic farming doesn't just regenerate soil, through increasing root content in the soil, it also increases the soil’s capacity to absorb water and draw down more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the risk of fire, and building strong biodiverse ecosystems.
Every biodynamic farmer I speak to says my quality of life is much higher now that I'm a biodynamic farmer. This is because they are not exposed to toxic chemicals and they are building a relationship between themselves and the earth, much like indigenous ways of relating to land. They're working together with their land, educating themselves about how the land moves and needs to be cared for. It's a totally different philosophy to chemical farms.
As a model, do you decide whether or not you work with certain brands based on how sustainable and ethical they are?
More and more. It used to not be possible eight years ago when I started my activism. If I had done that, I would have had no work and therefore no income. There were not enough brands that were doing good things. Now it's fairly possible. I also hardly model anymore because I'm so much more interested in my activism work. But occasionally they overlap where I can model for brands that are doing something better. They may not be perfect yet, but they're on the road and are trying. I feel like that's also my access point. It’s important to spread the message and support them on their journey because I think we need to have a culture of inclusion and encouragement when everyone's trying to become more sustainable.
What do you think is preventing brands from promoting sustainability?
Right now, a lot of businesses feel like they can't talk about anything that they're doing because if they mention something, they'll get criticised for the other things they haven't done yet. And that's sad. But what's even sadder is the greenwashing that's happening by other businesses that really aren't doing anything, or not enough, and are glorifying the tiny things that they might do in the future. That's annoying to watch because it plays down the great work that some brands have already done.
Considering all the greenwashing, what do you have to do to trust a brand and be sure that they are really sustainable?
Look at their materials. I have to know everything about the fabrics they use, where they are dyed and what they're dyed with. And the brands should know. They always know if they're doing it well. If you read their sustainability page, for instance, and there are a lot of fluffy words that don't really mean anything or they're just saying things like "one day we have the ambition to do that", then that means they've done nothing or not enough. I like a sustainability page that's super clear and simple and says “we did this, we did this and we did this” – all in the past tense. Then I feel reassured that they are doing the right thing.
Are there other aspects that you look for when working with brands?
The social side is also important. I need to know that they're using factories that are paying people fairly. Are they paying attention to transport? Are they thinking about where their factories are? What packaging are they using? Those are the really important things that I look at first. It's quite easy to tell now because brands are so impressed with themselves when they're doing it right that they're eager to tell you.
Could models potentially have a greater impact on changing the fashion industry and advocate for sustainability?
I advocate for everyone to find their own inner activist. The longer I advocate for change, instead of feeling powerless, I feel empowered. I really invite everyone, whatever your job is, to do the same. Educate yourself, and then start talking about it and spread inspiration. Get ready to say something when you see someone behaving in a way that isn't conducive to a better future – whether that's working against this ‘fear’ culture, at your children's school or the packing materials that your movers use.
Every time I go into a shop and they ask me if I want a bag, I don't just say “no, thank you”. I say “no, because I'm trying to save plastic”, and I say it with a smile. If you can say something rather than not, that's activism and it feels amazing. I really suggest it to everyone, models and everyone else, just start and you'll love it, I promise.
What do you hope to achieve with Dirt over the coming years?
We hope to fund the transition of a lot of land so that it can be farmed and cared for biodynamically – that's one of my big goals for the next five to ten years. One thing that we can all do as citizens is buy biodynamic food products. Hopefully soon there will be more and more textiles that are grown biodynamically.
The fashion industry is new in the biodynamic movement because it hasn’t been asking for biodynamically grown raw materials. What I noticed is that the fashion industry, with almost no exceptions, didn’t know that biodynamic farming existed. This is one of the reasons I started Dirt, to communicate between this amazing agricultural movement, and the also amazing, but in different ways, fashion industry. Billions of dollars go from the fashion supply chain to buy raw materials from farmers every year and hopefully that can start going towards the biodynamic movement or supporting conventional farmers to transition.
Do you have any personal goals for the biodynamic movement?
Another goal is that more people get to interact with biodynamics because for me personally, the time that I'm spending on biodynamic farms has been transformative. I feel so good every time I go there and my brain is so awake. I hope more and more humans can come into contact with biodynamic farming, and maybe even choose to become biodynamic farmers. It is my ambition to become a farmer myself as soon as possible. It’s my dream.
What do you think the future of the fashion industry will look like?
Overproduction will be curbed and we won't produce things that we don't need anymore. A lot of things will be made to order and factories will start working in different ways so they can actually fulfil made to order collections. And of course, fashion brands need to start paying their supply chain much better. Consumers need to get used to waiting longer for things. We shouldn't be used to walking into a store and having everything available for us right then and there. We should think ahead and walk in, try something on and order it. In order to accomplish that part of the transition, we may have to admit and look into the fact that the reason for shopping is often addiction-based rather than need-based.
What needs to change in order to ensure a more sustainable future?
It has to become common awareness that clothes are grown by farmers so that consumers can support farmers better. At the moment farmers are living in an impossible situation. They're paid so little for this huge amount of work that they do all year long and they take all the risk for crop failure. In a perfect world, farmers would sell all their crops before they grow them. If they could grow linen, for example, in partnership with the brand who's going to pay them ahead of time so they don't have to buy the seeds and equipment and pay the workers all by themselves, that would transition the economics of farming so quickly in such a beneficial way for farmers and afford them to make much better decisions for their land. Supporting farmers is one big climate solution. And Biodynamics ties it up nicely in one big healthy package, certified by Demeter.