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Why soil is the original creative medium of nearly everything we create

At the core of our mission at Made Thought is a belief that creative responses to the challenges of the future require radical rethinking.

We need to look for answers everywhere. So why not start with what’s under our feet?

By Ben Parker, co-founder

Soil. It’s not a sexy word. It’s perhaps not a word you even think of more than once in a while, unless you’re one of the 1% of workers who are employed in agriculture in the UK.

But it’s a word and an idea that we’ve been exploring more and more in our work as we ask ourselves – can we reframe how and why we think about soil?

Let’s begin with the why.

Soil is the original creative medium. It’s the origin of nearly everything we create. As vital to life on earth as sunlight, air and water.

But it is increasingly under threat.

At the most elemental level – as we are faced with radical climate change, from flash floods to heatwaves – soil is a barometer for the health of the planet. Too much water and it’s mud. Too little and it’s dry dirt.

And for the fashion and luxury industry especially, soil is the unexpected bedrock of the business.

Tracing back the origins of its products – from the ingredients for fragrance, the cotton for clothing, the leather for accessories (from animals that feed on soil crops), to the metal for a belt buckle – everything comes from soil.

However, today, the incredible and fragile web of organisms and nutrients held in soil are at risk from our farming practices.

Farming, and the resource it is built upon, soil, is one of the most complex systems of all. Agriculture occupies 40% of the earth’s surface and is the least regulated when it comes to environmental impact.

And as fashion brands and many others increasingly look to switch to natural fibres at mass scale, we are faced with diverse challenges.

At Made Thought, we’re asking – how can we value the Earth, through its earth?

One of these ways is to consider how, alongside its physical properties, soil holds deep cultural meaning. We might know this best through the word ‘terroir’.

This is the idea that specific soils and the conditions linked to a place, imbue what is grown or produced there with a unique character. Something that is interconnected with the world and yet totally singular.

The people who value terroir, value the earth under their feet more than anything. They present incredible opportunities for us to learn and think creatively about how and why we act.

From the savoir faire of winegrowers whose vintages are defined by the sizes of the pebbles within their vineyards, to regenerative farmers whose circular practices focus on keeping nutrients in the soil in balance with nature, the singular topic of soil alone allows us to see and understand so much.

We are moving to an age where every industry, business, brand, product and creative is now reliant on understanding these connected, complex living and natural systems.

New technologies will also allow us to expand our notions of soil as a creative medium. The possibility of using infinite types of crops to create different materials – including high performance, sustainable plant-grown alternatives to plastics and leathers – is now astounding. Soil is providing a new palette to create anything.

We have an incredible opportunity to reimagine our impact on what we take, make and waste. To reestablish our creative terroir. And to realise that design — all the things that we can and will create — is now inextricably linked to ecology.

All by looking down at the soil beneath our feet.