As sustainable fashion enthusiasts, we’re used to hearing about all the ways we can reduce our personal impact on the planet and fight for a better industry. It’s (finally) becoming understood that the best thing we can do as empowered consumers is to buy less, opt for secondhand when possible and make the most of what we already have.
But what happens when we do need to buy something new? Clothing and textile production isn’t going to stop anytime soon, so it’s time we start looking at solutions that don’t simply minimize harm, but that actively restore and renew the planet. Regenerative clothing is the result of a growing movement aimed at improving global farming practices and reversing the impacts of climate change. Pioneered and still led today by indigenous cultures, regenerative agriculture offers us a precious opportunity to transform industries and help save the planet in the process.
What does ‘Regenerative’ mean with Cotton and Clothing?
You might not think about it when getting dressed, but our clothing is intricately linked with agriculture. Cotton doesn’t just magically appear in a factory to make cotton T-shirts, for instance! So, in order to understand regenerative clothing, we first need to understand regenerative agriculture.
Any clothing made from a natural material first started out as a crop in a field, and large amounts of precious resources like land, water, labour and sometimes pesticides are used to bring those crops to harvest. Although we typically consider natural fabrics better for the planet, they still have a significant impact on the environment and the people that produce them. Considering how much clothing is produced every year, it’s crucial that we create these materials as responsibly as possible. That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in.
According to Regeneration International, “regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and improvements in the water cycle”.
Why is this so crucial? Most of us know that there is too much carbon in the atmosphere and in our oceans. But did you know that, through industrialized farming practices and other activities, we have damaged our soil to the extent that we’ve removed an estimated 50-70% of the soil’s original carbon? As the Centre for Food Safety explains, “carbon is constantly cycling through different spheres as either a liquid, solid, or gas. Human activities—including the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, the draining of wetlands, and repeated tillage— have disrupted the carbon cycle, taking it out of balance”.
Regenerative farming practices can help restore this balance by removing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back into soil. Not only is this vital in slowing global warming, it also leads to healthier crop yields, natural ecosystem restoration and increased biodiversity, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The regenerative agriculture movement is informed by pre-industrial practices and refined by modern day science, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says. Instead of viewing a farm as a factory, regenerative agriculture sees it as an essential part of a larger ecosystem. The goal is to move away from the current status quo, which prioritizes high yields and profit over sustainability, and is extremely damaging and extractive. That being said, there’s no one-size-fits all solution. Every region will require a tailored approach that considers its unique climate and ecosystem
How does Regenerative Agriculture differ from Organic Farming?
You might be wondering how regenerative clothing differs from organic clothing. Once again, we start with the crop. Organic programs focus mainly on the removal of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as well as ecological balance and improved working conditions.
While the production process of organic materials does have a lot of benefits over conventional, it isn’t exactly harmless. One major criticism of popular organic programs is the cost of entry. Farmers are often faced with large admission fees and complicated guidelines that can make adoption difficult. In addition, it can take a few years before a farm is officially certified organic, which means the pay off can be delayed and uncertain. Another concern is that as the demand for organic products increases, more land will be needed to meet demand, which could lead to deforestation and displacement of local communities. This is because compared to conventionally grown crops, organic farms can have smaller yields. So in order to produce the same amount for our food and textiles, more land will be needed overall.
Is ‘Regenerative’ better than ‘Organic’?
Large-scale organically grown crops can still take a toll on the land they’re cultivated on, and producers often don’t do enough to address declining soil health, loss of biodiversity and overall carbon emissions. Put simply, organic production is more focused on the inputs involved in farming, and not enough on the overall impact. Organic farming also doesn’t address a lot of the major issues with conventional agriculture. For example, in order to control weed growth, many organic farmers rely on intensive tilling leading to decreased soil health, explains the Centre For Environmental Farming Systems.
Regenerative techniques go far beyond organic standards in that they account for the entire ecosystem and soil health.
How can I support Regenerative Fashion?
Luckily, we’re beginning to see more brands incorporate regenerative agriculture into their decision making. While Patagonia is probably the most well-known proponent, there are some other great companies like California Cloth Foundry, Christy Dawn, Coyuchi and Eileen Fisher that are prioritizing regenerative fibers in their designs.
Certifications will also play a big part in the growth of regenerative fashion. California-based nonprofit Fibershed offers a Climate Beneficial verification, given to brands that incorporate carbon-capturing practices, improve biodiversity and restore healthy ecosystems. One example of this is their Climate Beneficial Wool, sourced from land stewards who are enhancing carbon drawdown with practices that regenerate soil health.
Another program currently underway is the Regenerative Organic Certified Seal. To receive this verification, a company must be certified organic. The program is based on three main pillars: soil heath and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness. These types of programs ensure that consumers like us have the information we need to make informed choices, and most importantly, that farmers and producers have access to the tools they need to protect the environment.
All that being said, it’s important to remember that certifications are rarely a perfect solution. Similar to organic, regenerative agriculture certifications can be challenging to navigate and require significant funding. Many communities and producers, including indigenous land stewards, have been regenerating the earth for generations on their own. So in addition to looking for certifications, we should prioritize traceability, transparency and a commitment to regenerative practices when buying new clothes and material. Check out this video to learn how a small-scale wool farm is actively restoring the land it’s on, proving you don’t need to be certified to make a difference.
Regenerative agriculture offers us an exciting opportunity to have a positive environmental impact through production. What other climate positive practices have you heard of? Let us know below!