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The Challenge Facing Fashion’s Latest Sustainability Buzzword

Big brands are betting on regenerative agriculture to help reduce their environmental impact. But without clearer standards, the fashionable concept risks becoming a greenwashing tool.
Two farmers in Odissa, India stand in a field hold cotton balls picked from the surrounding plants.
Farmers in Odisha, India have been working with California-based bag business Terra Thread to certify their cotton is farmed according to regenerative and organic practices. (Gallant International)
By
  • Esha Chhabra
BoF PROFESSIONAL

Key insights

  • Big fashion brands and independent labels are embracing regenerative agriculture as a win-win solution that could allow them to source climate-positive materials.
  • The challenge is that the concept doesn’t have a singular definition, and without clear standards it risks becoming a tool for greenwashing.
  • It’s a complicated issue because what works on one farm might not work on another and companies are taking differing approaches. Experts say the key is to focus on outcomes that demonstrate soil health and carbon levels are improving.

Regenerative agriculture is trending.

The concept has been embraced by fashion giants like Gucci-owner Kering and The North Face-parent VF Corp., as well as more independent mission-driven brands, as a way to meet ambitious sustainability goals.

The problem is that there isn’t a singular agreed standard of how regenerative agriculture should be defined and measured.

Broadly speaking, the term applies to a holistic approach to farming that aims to work with and restore nature, rather than trying to control it. The idea is that farming practices like minimising or avoiding tilling, intercropping and managing pests through natural alternatives to pesticides can help improve soil health, encourage biodiversity and increase carbon capture.

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Fashion brands have framed their interest in the space as a win-win that could allow them to source natural fibres like cotton and wool in a way that could actually be beneficial for the environment. But without clear standards, it also risks becoming another tool for greenwashing.

“If everyone starts claiming that they’re doing regenerative agriculture, but there’s no data to back it up, and no standard protocol, then it is worrisome for brands like ours who are putting so many resources into it,” said Vikrant Giri, the co-founder of LA-based bag business Terra Thread, which certified its cotton supply chain as both regenerative and organic in 2022.

It’s a complicated challenge. Though regenerative agricultural practices aren’t new, drawing on indigenous approaches to farming that have been in use for centuries, what works on one farm may not always work on another. How impact should be measured is an evolving science, and even basic principles — like whether a farm has to be organic to be considered regenerative — remain up for debate.

“It definitely feels like the Wild West,” said Janessa Leone, whose namesake brand sells sweaters made with wool farmed using regenerative practices.

Mixed Metrics

With a variety of regenerative standards in place, there are big differences in how companies are approaching their bids to source regeneratively farmed raw materials.

For instance, Giri has been working with the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a California nonprofit founded by brands Patagonia and Dr. Bronners and the organic agriculture research organisation Rodale Institute.

ROA’s certification looks at social as well as environmental impact and requires organic farming practices. “It’s a complete oxymoron to call something regenerative when it’s based on chemicals designed to destroy life,” said ROA executive director Elizabeth Whitlow.

But such an approach is costly and time-consuming. Despite decades of effort, less than 2 percent of the world’s cotton production is organic. Farmers are wary of making a switch that takes several years and can mean lower yields, at least in the short term. Some argue a more flexible approach that focuses on outcomes, rather than inputs will enable swifter adoption.

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VF Corp., which has set a target to source its most important materials from renewed, recycled or regenerative sources by 2030, is taking a “holistic” view (framed by standards defined by French environmental consultancy Pur Project) to promote environmentally and socially conscious farming practices, said sustainability lead Jeannie Renne-Malone.

In the US, it’s working with agricultural technology business IndigoAg to track its efforts, measuring organic soil matter and soil carbon content on the farms where some of its raw materials are sourced. IndigoAg’s system encourages farmers to use cover crops, reduce tillage, and incorporate livestock and crop rotation to improve soil health and carbon sequestration, but it doesn’t require the use of organic practices or non-GMO seeds.

Elsewhere in the world, VF might take a different approach to achieve its goals of promoting soil health, biodiversity and carbon sequestration and enhancing water cycles, Malone noted. “We’re exploring any and all approaches to regenerative. It’s really about taking an outcomes-based approach and ensuring that it works for that farmer,” she said. This year, VF-brand The North Face is expecting to produce more than 10 million products using cotton grown with regenerative practices.

In the absence of uniform standards, data is a critical but complicated piece of the puzzle. Leone has spent the last two years working with the Oregon ranch that supplies wool for her brand’s hats and sweaters to start building a picture to back up her claims of regenerative sourcing. Soil samples show the ranch is capturing 1.86 tonnes of carbon per acre, she said. Multiplied across the 32,000 acres where the sheep that produce her wool graze, that adds up to approximately 60,000 tons of carbon sequestered each year. That, Leone says, is about the same as taking 43,600 cars off the road for a year.

But few brands have such a direct relationship with their raw materials suppliers, and even where they do, measuring farm-level impacts can be expensive and time-consuming. Adding to the complexity, the science around things like soil-carbon sequestration is still evolving.

Standard Practice

The lack of clarity over standards can be a barrier to credibly scale regenerative farming practices, creating confusion and adding to the risk for farmers who might want to change the way they operate.

“Each brand has different ideas and goals,” said Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation cotton farmer in California. “Brands need to make a solid commitment to the farmers they work with to support the change.”

Leading fashion companies are working directly with farmers to overcome this challenge. For instance, Cannon is part of a network of growers involved in the California Cotton & Climate Coalition, or C4, which connects farmers with brands seeking regenerative cotton. Participating companies, which include Reformation, Carhartt and surfer Kelly Slater’s label Outerknown, help cover farm-level costs and commit to buying cotton before the harvest to support growers in making a transition to regenerative practices.

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The programme doesn’t require farmers to operate organically, but encourages growers to decrease their use of synthetic fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides, which are already tightly controlled in California. Its core focus is whether farmers in the initiative are successfully increasing soil biology and carbon levels.

Meanwhile, efforts to align on at least basic standards are gaining steam. Industry group Textile Exchange is working on establishing a collective definition of regenerative fashion, while cross-industry efforts to establish a science-based framework to report companies’ impact on nature are also set to add more clarity around how businesses should focus their efforts.

Advocates say some flexibility is beneficial, too. For instance, while Outerknown is working with C4 in California, it’s also working with a regenerative organic-certified cotton farm in Peru to source additional volumes. “Embracing various partners when it comes to regenerative ag has been beneficial for us,” says Dylon Shepelsky, R&D and innovation manager at Outerknown. “While ROC is a gold standard, the C4 coalition exists to protect rural jobs in California within the context of a changing climate.”

Despite the challenges, many in the industry remain optimistic that the buzz around regenerative agriculture can make a real difference.

Further Reading

Case Study | Fashion’s Race for New Materials

Brands are pursuing a raft of initiatives to adopt recycled textiles, regeneratively farmed cotton and mushroom-based leather, but giving fashion’s major materials a sustainability makeover still requires billions of dollars worth of investments and deeper, longer-term commitments to scale. BoF breaks down some of the key innovations, the companies leading the charge and the barriers to change.

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