Fashion makes a sizeable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, representing about 10% of the global total per year, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Several clothing brands are working to make the fashion industry more sustainable by incorporating regenerative farming practices into their manufacturing process. But what is regenerative farming, and how can it help make fashion more green?

In January, the luxury group Kering, owner of Gucci and Saint Laurent (among other brands), co-founded the Regenerative Fund for Nature, aimed at converting one million hectares of land producing raw materials for fashion from regular farmland to regenerative agriculture in five years. In February, the Merino Company in New Zealand announced that it joined with Allbirds, Icebreaker and Smartwool to create the first platform dedicated to regenerative wool. Meanwhile, The North Face and Patagonia now sell clothing made of regenerative cotton. 

What is Regenerative Farming? 

Regenerative farming is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertiliser use, and more. These practices help us fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground. 

It forgoes pesticides, store-bought fertilisers, tilling and monoculture, as well as weed pulling. If done right, regenerative farming practices increase soil biodiversity and organic matter, leading to more resilient soils that can better withstand climate change impacts like flooding and drought. Healthy soils create strong yields and nutrient-rich crops. It also diminishes erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality on and off the farm.

Climate Saviour

In addition to rising temperatures, the climate crisis has altered the water cycle drastically. The result is shifting precipitation patterns and increased evaporation that causes more frequent rainfall events and more severe droughts. In many areas, rainfall has become either increasingly abundant or in desperately short supply, relative to longtime averages.

Extreme downpours can lead to polluted runoff and erosion because the ground isn’t able to absorb the precipitation at the rate it’s falling. And at a certain point of inundation, plants can drown. On the other end of the spectrum, less stable precipitation together with increased heat is causing more and more drought, and in extreme circumstances desertification, leading to a complete loss of farm production in some areas.

However, if a farmer is using regenerative methods, he or she is instead mitigating climate change effects by building organic matter. The more organic matter you have in the soil, the more water-holding capacity you have.

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Fashion and Regenerative Farming

Making the transition from conventional to regenerative farming is expensive and time-consuming, so clothing manufacturers are working on it slowly. 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 fertilisers and pesticides. Then the farmers can construct their new, regenerative system. Patagonia is also supporting regenerative cotton farmers with a pilot programme in India. The pilot started in 2018 with 165 farmers on 420 acres. This year, it involves 2 260 farmers on 5 248 acres.

The Regenerative Fund for Nature, in conjunction with Conservation International, an environmental NGO in Arlington, Va., is valued at 5 million euros and will disperse grants to farmers and NGOs, targeting 17 countries and four raw materials regularly used in luxury fashion: cotton, wool, cashmere and leather.

Fashion is slow to the carbon sequestration game, but it is better late than never. For such an energy-intensive industry, it is encouraging to see signs that it is trying to become more sustainable, and regenerative farming practices are just one of the tools it is using.