The (R)evolution of Regenerative Agriculture: From Farm to Fashion

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When we think of the faces behind our apparel and textile businesses, we usually picture the cutters, seamsters, and patternmakers. We don’t have to think deeper into the supply chain to bring our work to life. But in actuality, the tireless labor and dedication of agricultural workers are at the source of most of our materials. The way we cultivate fiber matters so much more than we realize. Yet so many of us are not conscious of the impacts of our fiber choices because we are, understandably, settled into the status quo of the inner workings of this centuries-old industry.

We’re not just what we eat anymore, but what we wear, too.

However, once we uncover the facts, it’s particularly difficult to continue business as usual with a clear conscience; doing so blatantly threatens humanity’s ability to thrive. Cotton fiber is contained in over a third of today’s textiles. Still, only a tiny fraction (<1%) of that is grown organically or is genuinely sustainable to human and planetary wellness. You may wonder, “What’s wrong with conventional cotton?”

Conventional cotton is mostly genetically modified, chemical-dependent, topsoil degrading, and causes chemicals to run off into local freshwater supplies. Expensive GM seed requires increasing pesticides as the bollworm becomes resistant, sending global farmers into crippling debt at high-interest rates. The cycle continues season after season; farmer suicide is an everyday and heartbreaking reality for agricultural workers worldwide. With a cotton farmer suicide every half hour in India, cotton farming uses only 6% of the land area but accounts for more than half of the country’s pesticides. These toxins end up not only in our clothes but 60% of a cotton plant lands in our food system—cotton byproducts are used in snack food (cottonseed oil) and animal feed for the dairy and meat industries.

With the rising cost of cotton, many brands have explored synthetics as an alternative. However, most artificial fibers are derived from non-renewable petrochemicals, causing a whole slew of other issues that cannot be undone as plastics never biodegrade in a way that returns them to the Earth as organic matter. Instead, they break down into tiny microfibers and microplastics that ultimately make their way to our oceans and dinner plates.

While recycling PET and other synthetic waste into fibers may appear to be a quick fix on the surface, further research is finding that it may cause more harm than good; recycled synthetic garments shed more microfibers than their first-generation relatives. Considering the true cost calculations of petroleum-based products and no current long-term end-of-life plan, we cannot discount the severe ramifications of plastics and synthetic fibers, despite an industry push for circularity.

The outlook, if we continue with our current habits, is bleak. However, just as you may not have understood the harms of conventional cotton before reading this article, you also may not know the staggering benefits of the solutions in place. Did you know that regenerative organic agriculture has the power actually to reverse climate change? Did you know that carbon can be pulled from the atmosphere like a sponge (sequestered in the soil) by changing the way we farm? Did you know that regenerative organic cotton farmers cannot only make more money but can also proactively build their soil to be more resilient to global warming? These factors are the farmer’s key priorities at the end of the day.

Millions of farmers worldwide depend on cotton farming for their livelihoods. Climate change is no longer a distant concept—farmers are living through and experiencing increased severe weather changes that rely on solid fertile soil to protect their crops. But with the current systems in place, farmers are struggling to survive financially. Their soil has become so depleted that it is essentially dirt, devoid of biodiversity and the ability to sustain climate change. Regenerative agriculture, as an alternative, allows us to break out of this cycle and rebuild soil health, the ecosystem, and biodiversity.

Last year pre-pandemic, I attended a discussion about sustainable fashion at the United Nations where an apocalyptic projection was repeated over and over: we have less than 60 years of topsoil left for farming if we continue our current habits. Cotton was discounted as a vital solution with an imbalanced focus on circularity as the key to sustainable fashion, but I could not disagree more. The cotton industry is worth 39 billion dollars and is expected to be worth 47 billion dollars by 2027. With 80 billion garments made each year (all releasing CO2 into the atmosphere), we have a huge opportunity. If we work with nature instead of against it, using cotton to replenish soil health may be our greatest solution to climate change mitigation.

The cotton industry is worth 39 billion dollars and expected to be worth 
47 billion dollars by 2027.

The advantages of regenerative organic farming, including cotton and other fibers, staggeringly outweigh the risks. It is important to focus on individual solutions as spokes in the wheel of a collective movement. The industry is perpetually being reinvented and with over 570 million farmers worldwide (500M of whom are small landholder farmers,) no one is going to stop farming tomorrow because of a topsoil projection. Realistically, however, they may adopt alternative farming methods that replenish the “skin of the earth,” reestablish soil health, reverse climate change, and end poverty in farming communities. The values of regenerative organic farming address the majority of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

I was instantly hooked when I learned about regenerative organic farming from friends at the Rodale Institute nearly three decades ago. “Sustainable” suggests maintaining the current situation, which is no longer enough in today’s world. “Regenerative” means going beyond doing no harm—but instead, repairing the damage we’ve done. Given my extensive work with organic cotton farmers around the world, I have been on a mission to partner with leading experts in India’s cotton belt to establish a groundbreaking farm project called “RESET” (Regenerate Environment Society & Economy thru Textiles), which helps farmers (with an emphasis on female farmers) convert their farms to regenerative organic farming methods, using beneficial soil building techniques. Fiber farmers are also food farmers, so cotton is rotated and cover-cropped with various plants, like legumes and sorghum.

With a cradle-to-cradle approach (what we take from the Earth, we must return to the Earth), biomass from cover crops has added value in today’s market. Rather than burning excess crops at the end of a growing season, this matter can be collected and turned into packaging, fuel, or other natural solutions. In one harvest, farmers can have three potential income streams: fiber, food, and a source of energy and/or other new products. Our RESET farmers are not only proactively positioned to better weather climate change, but they spend less and make more—enjoying a renewed sense of empowerment and autonomy.

Humanity is in the middle of a major transformation, or as I call it, an “ECOrenaissance.” Governments all over the world are officially taking the initiative. At COP26, 45 governments pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming by making them more attractive, accessible, and affordable than unsustainable alternatives. Similar commitments were made from the private sector, with almost 100 high-profile companies from various sectors committing to becoming ‘Nature Positive,’ with commitments like supermarkets pledging to cut their environmental impact and fashion brands guaranteeing the traceability of their materials. Alongside these global pledges, movements like Carbon Underground and Regeneration International have advocated for the power of soil and demonstrate that consumers, businesses, and governments all play a vital role in shifting the paradigm.

Even the U.S. government is joining the regenerative party. President Biden and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are calling on United States farmers to offset their emissions to battle climate change and compensate them for implementing sustainable practices. ‘Build Back Better’ is the most extensive effort in American history to combat the climate crisis. By investing in resources for farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners, this bill provides the tools necessary to deploy important conservation practices and the research essential to educate and inform farmers. Similar to the RESET farmers, this incentivizes farmers to sequester carbon in their soil and allows them to make more and do good in the process.

‘Build Back Better’ is the most extensive effort in American history 
to combat the climate crisis. 

While these initiatives are making waves on their own, the digital age has become a significant catalyst for sharing and storytelling to an even larger audience. With documentaries like Kiss the Ground educating the public on soil health and the opportunities of regenerative farming, digital media has become a means for connectivity to discuss sustainable development goals. It has also explicitly allowed for more transparency and accountability within the fashion industry. With brands now able to attach QR codes to the tags of their products to show the entire journey of the product through the supply chain, technology has allowed us to redefine sourcing models and truly connect the source to the story.

I believe that through the lens of design, we can change the world. We are becoming aware, challenging the status quo, and asking questions. We are finally viewing waste as a resource. After years of intensive research, textile scientists have found innovative and efficient ways to recycle textile waste. An essential part of the mechanical recycling process often involves blending the short-staple recycled fiber with virgin fiber for stability. So, while we may have a ridiculous amount of unwanted clothes, there will always be a home for virgin organic fibers in the circular economy.

It’s so important to view the rebirth of our industry with forgiveness and understanding. Things are not black and white, and solutions do not live in silos. Everything and everyone are interconnected, no matter how far-flung. This may feel at odds with the fast fashion industry—protective, insular, and competitive. By shifting our efforts toward serving humanity and healing ecosystems, we also serve ourselves. This is how we breathe life and meaning into fashion’s circular economy—while celebrating our Earth and future generations.

 

 

Updated, December 23, 2021.

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