Regenerative Agriculture Can Change the Fashion Industry—And the World. But What Is It?
Regenerative agriculture seems to be on everyone’s radar these days. From new regenerative agriculture certifications to sourcing commitments from big brands, the concept is gaining traction.
Is cotton cultivation sustainable?
Cotton cultivation is one of the biggest sustainability pain points for agriculture and apparel. Although it’s a natural fiber, it is a particularly chemical and water-intensive crop. While it only inhabits 2.4% of the global cropland, it accounts for 22.5% of the world’s insecticide use. Since cotton is the most used non-synthetic fiber in the world, there is a large opportunity to create a positive impact by changing our processes.
While organic cotton was the first answer to this dilemma, yielding crops using 90% less blue water and less chemical usage. It only accounts for less than 1% of the cotton production today with little room to scale.
Luckily for us and the environment, there’s another way to approach cotton farming.
The regenerative agriculture, not only decreases the environmental impact, but replenishes the ecosystem with biodiversity and carbon absorption.
In addition, it is so “attractive” for young generations that it is already gaining attention by leading sportswear brands.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Imagine coming across a field in the wild. The lush field is filled with a wide array of flora and fauna. Now think about coming across farmed land, where there are neat lines of perfectly spaced out crops covered in pesticides. There’s a stark difference between the two, not only in appearance but also in performance.
While our natural world will continue to flourish for millennia our cultivated fields turn to dust from degradation.
Regenerative Agriculture is a way to bridge the gap between the two, bringing a bit of wild to our farming system.
By tuning into the rhythms of a natural ecosystem, regenerative agriculture improves the natural resources of a farm. The holistic practice used include:
LOW OR NO TILLING OF LAND: Tilling involves digging, stirring, and overturning soil. This practice actually releases the carbon stored in the land into the environment. Reducing the need to till can help the soil retain more water, organic matter and store more carbon
INTERCROPPING: Planting different types of crops close to each other, which can produce higher yields and improve soil quality over time
COVER CROPS: Planting crops that are not for selling, but rather for providing nutrients and protection to the soil
CROP ROTATION: Rotating the variety of crops planted from one year to the next
With time this approach can enhance the nutrients levels in soil, which can help sequester more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Robert Rodale, son of American organic pioneer J.I. Rodale, used the term ‘regenerative’ to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond simply ‘sustainable’ regenerative agriculture:
“…takes advantage of the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed. In that primary sense it is distinguished from other types of agriculture that either oppose or ignore the value of those natural tendencies.”
While the way regenerative agriculture is practiced may vary depending on the region, soils, and type of crops or livestock, there are some key principles and outcomes that we use to define regenerative
Putting it into practice
While regenerative practices need to be customized to meet the needs of a specific place and type of agriculture, it is equally true that certain practices feature in most regenerative systems. These common practices include: rotating crops, planting cover crops and retaining crop residues, carrying out little or no tillage, eliminating synthetic chemicals, using natural sources of fertilizer, and introducing highly-managed grazing and/or integrated crop/grazing systems. Regenerative agriculture aims to provide the desired outcomes not only in terms of yield and quality of materials, but also in terms of soil and ecosystem health.
· Improve soil health by using cover crops, low to no-till farming, composting, crop rotation and/or intercropping, leading to observable gains in soil carbon, water retention capacity and soil organic matter.
· Ensure cotton is certified organic, prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds
· Implement sustainable innovative pricing mechanisms to support farmer livelihoods, such as price premiums
So what does this have to do with fashion?
It’s the origin materials, T-shirts and jeans are made of cotton grown in a field. Sweaters from wool sheared from sheep grazing on a field. Handbags crafted from the hides of cows raised on a farm. But what sort of farm?
Industrial farming is a big contributor to climate change. Nitrogen fertilizers, which conventional farmers spread liberally on their fields, “put out significant greenhouse gasses,” such as carbon dioxide. To reach the goals set by the Paris Climate agreement — most notably that of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — farming must stop such pollution and reduce the carbon already in the air.
The most effective approach is a process we all learned in elementary school: photosynthesis. Cover crops naturally capture, or “sequester,” the carbon in our atmosphere and store it, via their roots, in the earth. The carbon feeds the soil, as well as helps it retain water; in turn, plants grow better, and there is less soil erosion and drought (though scientists are still unsure about exactly how much carbon can be stored in the soil).
Brands might want the bragging rights, but what’s in it for the farmers?
It’s true that transitioning from conventional to regenerative farming is expensive and time-consuming. Some brands, like Patagonia, prefer farmers to go organic first. Land is eligible for organic certification from a variety of official bodies three years after the last application of a prohibited material like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Then the farmers can construct their new, regenerative system.
The other crops they grow along with their main crop — perhaps pigeon peas, marigolds or turmeric — can provide an additional income source, but brands have realized it may not be enough incentive. That is partly why Kering established the Regenerative Fund for Nature, in conjunction with Conservation International, an environmental NGO in Arlington, Va. The fund, which is valued at 5 million euros ($6.1 million), will disperse grants to farmers and NGOs, and targets 17 countries and four raw materials regularly used in luxury fashion: cotton, wool, cashmere and leather.
Patagonia is also supporting regenerative cotton farmers with a pilot program in India. The pilot started in 2018 with 165 farmers on 420 acres. This year, it involves 2,260 farmers on 5,248 acres.
“It’s about changes on the ground,” said Helen Crowley, Kering’s head of sustainable sourcing and nature initiatives. Or in the ground, really.
The North Face partnered with the agricultural technology company, Indigo Ag to source cotton fibers from their network of farms using regenerative techniques.
Carol Shu, Senior Manager of Global Sustainability at The North Face, spoke to the true potential of moving away from reducing the impact to actively doing good for the environment when they announced the collaboration stating,
“Regenerative products have the ability to shift the industry from simply ‘doing less harm’ to actually replenishing or having a positive impact on nature and resources, and as a brand that is committed to protecting the outdoor places we love to play, we believe this is another critical step in addressing climate change impacts in our supply chain.”