Over recent years the term ‘regenerative’ has become almost as common as others heard for decades across the fashion and textile industry, such as ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘ethical.’ The development stems ultimately from the growing prominence of regenerative agriculture in policy-making and debates about how to resolve the climate crisis. According to US non-profit the Rodale Institute, which supports research into organic and regenerative farming, “if we converted all global croplands and pastures to regenerative organic agriculture, we could sequester [store] more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions.”1
Managing the land – through the grazing of animals, for instance – so that the roots of flora, such as grass, remain long stops the release of carbon dioxide. By absorbing rainfall, it also reduces the risk of flooding and improves irrigation, in turn also helping boost plant and species biodiversity. Such practices have long been used to varying degrees across the world, but over the past few years, a major push has emerged for them to be applied far more widely, accelerating the demand for textile fibres produced using regenerative agriculture.
Gucci, The North Face, Eileen Fisher, Vans, Patagonia, Timberland, Stella McCartney and Reformation are now among many brands investing heavily in land for regenerative agriculture to grow their materials or partnering with third-party companies such as Fibreshed or the Savory Institute to access materials that have been regeneratively grown.2 Such brands are aware that by purchasing fibre from sources that sequester more carbon than they emit, they can go beyond net zero and effectively produce climate-positive garments.3 This has led to frequent references to regenerative agriculture when promoting new clothing ranges, as well as yarns and fabrics. Natural fibres such as wool and cotton are now focusing heavily on the concept as they push their natural attributes.
Yet as interest grows in all things regenerative, major challenges are emerging. A report from World Textile Information Network (WTiN) has found that regenerative agriculture “represents a multitude of principles, practices and priorities” which are “vast and unrestrained.”4 WTiN’s analysis notes that how regenerative agriculture applies within the context of the textile industry is open to interpretation from consumers, suppliers and brands and is “not yet constrained by a widely accepted, cross-industry definition.” Calls are intensifying for a relevant standard, with a lack of concrete guidance related to regenerative agriculture creating “difficulties in defining, quantifying and measuring respective efforts,” it explains.
The Business of Fashion describes regenerative agriculture as practices that “restore soil health and biodiversity”5, while other definitions, such as that presented by the Textile Exchange, highlight social and societal impacts as additional key considerations.6 Brands and manufacturers have also set their own definitions. The Kering group, for instance, whose brands include Gucci and Saint Laurent, has established its Regenerative Fund for Nature programme. As well as focusing on soil health and biodiversity, the principles it lists also include “supporting the livelihoods of farmers” and “enhancing the animal welfare of farmed livestock.”7
In May this year, the Savory Institute produced its own definition, which reads: “Regenerative agriculture is the production of food and fiber from the biological life of the world’s land and waters through managing simultaneously the indivisible complexity of human organizations, economy, and nature to sustain all businesses, economies, and civilization.” 8 In an article outlining the thinking behind this, Bobby Gill, who leads development and communications for the Savory Institute, explains that it sees “how defining the term to be a certain set of practices can wrongly give the impression that regeneration is a guaranteed outcome from said practices.” He asserts that “there is no one-size-fits-all set of practices that can guarantee regeneration. What works at one farm might not work at another, and on that same farm it might not even work year after year.” He adds: “The actions a land manager takes should be dependent on the specific landscape, the desires of the people involved, the socioeconomic factors at play, and so much more.”
While the loose nature of Savory’s definition is understandable, the challenges this poses for farmers seeking guidance were highlighted in June in a LinkedIn post by UK wool producer Lesley Prior, whose property in Devon in South West England has a flock of Merino sheep and has supplied wool to outdoor brand Finisterre, based in nearby Cornwall, for around 15 years.9 Referring to Savory’s definition of regenerative agriculture, she writes: “As a simple farmer / wool grower, this is beyond me. How can I manage anything except that which is under my day-to-day control on my land? And yet, by this definition, the person producing food and fibre is responsible for sustaining everything – and it's all down to us.” She continues: “For myself, I need a simpler, farm-focused definition which encompasses good care for the soil and everything that depends on it. Because, if we farmers do that, anything is possible. … I have yet to see any definition that my land, my sheep and I fit within comfortably.”
While the debate goes on about how to define regenerative agriculture, the heavy focus on this area also leaves the fashion and textile industry open to suggestions that it is concentrating on this concept at the expense of wider, arguably more important challenges. Theresa Lieb, senior director of nature and food systems at the US-based GreenBiz Group, asserts that “priority efforts should focus on lowering consumption by producing durable and timeless clothing, mainstreaming the adoption of slow fashion and instituting repair and reuse models.”10 She adds: “As demand for fast fashion won’t vanish overnight, the industry also needs to reduce its impact across the entire product lifecycle. Regenerative agriculture can only be a small piece of the industry’s sustainability puzzle.”
While companies across the supply chain clearly need to address the areas highlighted here – and, to varying degrees, are attempting to do so – regenerative agriculture nevertheless represents a major opportunity to significantly boost the fashion and textile industry’s contribution to tackling climate change. Amid the challenges over definitions, standards and practices, it is to be hoped that it is not an opportunity that is wasted.
Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.
He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman, Rediff.com., World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.
Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.