Image: Harvest & Mill
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It’s time to collectively move beyond ‘sustainability’.
It isn’t enough to sustain or even limit our depletion of natural resources. We are balancing on a tipping point, and need to get our carbon emissions to zero soon and start ‘giving back’ as well. That’s where regenerative fashion comes in.
Agriculture is a major contributor to global warming, accounting for approximately 20 percent of global emissions. And farming is a large part of fashion. It’s easy to forget, but a lot of the materials we wear start their lives on farms — cotton and hemp fibers are plucked off plants, and wool and leather come from sheep and cows respectively.
But, regenerative agriculture can play an important role in tackling the climate crisis.
It comes down to soil. Soil is one of the most important natural resources we have. When it is rich and fertile, it provides nutrients to the plants and animals we rely on for food. Additionally, soil is an important store of carbon dioxide, which plants pull from the atmosphere as they grow. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that soils could sequester more than 10% of manmade CO2 emissions, and the International Resource Panel recently put out a report that outlines how land restoration and rehabilitation can benefit all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
However, intensive agricultural techniques have contributed to the degradation of soil. Depleted soil is less productive and stores less carbon than nutrient-rich soil full of organic matter, which makes it all the more alarming that 33% of the Earth’s soils are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The Connection Between Farms and Fibers
The word regenerative has its roots in regenerative agriculture, where farming techniques are chosen and used for the way that they restore and replenish the natural environment. Regenerative growing has the power to make soil richer, increase biodiversity, and capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere compared to conventional and organic farming practices.
Like organic farming, regenerative agriculture eschews chemicals, making farms safer and healthier for the people working on them. However, regenerative techniques go well beyond organic standards in that they focus on the positive outputs of the farming, and not just positive inputs.
Techniques like growing a diverse range of crops close together reduce the need for pesticides (chemical or otherwise) because certain plants that naturally repel pests can be included in the mix. Similarly, plants that attract pollinators will attract bees and butterflies to the whole area. And, because different plants contribute different nutrients to the soil, the diverse planting makes the earth richer, and all the plants growing in it stronger. In conventional farming, soil is dug up and organic matter mixed in to make for healthier soil, which releases carbon. However, regenerative growing leads to richer soil that is a more effective store of carbon because it doesn’t need to be tilled.
Regenerative practices can be applied to things other than plants too, as long as they are positively affecting the soil. For example, regenerative cattle grazing is where farmers and ranchers manage their cattle so that they more closely mimic the natural movements of herds and graze just the right amount to promote healthy cycles of plant regrowth.
Buying products made of materials from farms that are using regenerative practices is a way of supporting farmers that are ‘giving back’ to the environment. And it can help mitigate some of the effects of the climate crisis.
What to Look for in Brands Embracing Regenerative Practices
At the moment, the term ‘regenerative’ refers broadly to the kinds of practices described above instead of adherence to a strict set of standards — though a seal of approval is coming soon. I expect that within a few years, certifications for regenerative materials will be as common as organic certifications are today, but in the meantime, here are things to look for if you’re trying to buy regenerative.
Natural fibers and dyes: First things first, because we’re talking about materials that have their origins on a farm, we’re talking about natural materials. That means fibers and dyes that are made from plants or that come from animals. If a material is synthetic it might be recyclable or ‘circular’, but it won’t be regenerative.
Supply chain transparency: Because regenerative practices happen at the farm-level and not at the factory or fiber processors, brands embracing regenerative practices will need to have visibility into their supply chain all the way back to the farm. This usually means direct relationships with the farmers producing the fiber.
Organic certification: Because regenerative farming techniques go beyond organic techniques, brands using regenerative materials are likely to be using materials that are certified organic. Though not every farm using regenerative or organic techniques will be officially certified due to certification costs, many of them will be, making organic certification another thing to look for if you’re hoping to buy regenerative.
Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) certification: Though official regenerative certifications aren’t widespread yet, there is one in the works. Regenerative Organic Certified was established in 2017 by an alliance of farming and business leaders including representatives from Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s. The ROC Framework includes requirements for ‘Soil Health and Land Management’, ‘Animal Welfare’, and ‘Farmer & Worker Fairness’ and official certification will begin later this year.
Fibershed’s Climate Beneficial™ verification: Nonprofit Fibershed has developed a Climate Beneficial™ verification that applies to wool from animals grazing on managed landscapes where Carbon Farming practices (that align with the regenerative practices described above) are being used. It’s worth noting that this verification is currently limited to fibers harvested in Northern California, and to goods processed and manufactured within the US.
Partnerships with the Savory Institute: The Savory Institute is a nonprofit that aims to regenerate the world’s grasslands by properly managing livestock. The nonprofit is supporting companies like Kering, Eileen Fisher, and Timberland in souring animal fibers like wool and leather from farms using regenerative techniques. Those collections are not yet available. We’ll update this post when they are.
Now that you know what to look for, here are our top picks when it comes to brands embracing regenerative practices.
Harvest & Mill uses USA-grown organic cotton for its t-shirts, socks, and joggers. All designs come in an undyed, unbleached natural finish fabric, and colored versions are created using low-impact dyes.
Italia A Collection sells clothing made from natural fibers like linen, organic cotton, and bamboo. The brand also has a collection of pieces made with Rambouillet wool from Lani’s Lana in Modoc County, California — one of the first producers of Climate Beneficial™ wool.
Christy Dawn has partnered with Oshadi Collective, a community of farmers and craftspeople in southern India using regenerative growing techniques to produce cotton. The first harvest of cotton from that partnership will be transformed into dresses in the coming months. In the meantime, you can buy dresses made from deadstock fabric.
California Cloth Foundry uses its ‘CA Cleaner Cotton™’ which is grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley using sustainable farming techniques for its range of comfy sweats, shorts, shirts and dresses. The pieces are dyed or treated using natural methods and blended with other sustainable fibers including regeneratively-grown hemp, Climate Beneficial™ wool, and Lenzing Modal™.
British brand Solai’s eye-catching pieces are made from a blend of linen and GOTS-certified organic cotton and colored using azo-free dyes. The brand has partnered with Oshadi Collective, a community of cotton farmers in Erode, Tamil Nadu that use regenerative techniques.
Story MFG’s organic clothing is dyed with leaves, bark, roots, heartwood and fruit in a replanted forest where all waste is used to fertilise the gardens. The dyes used have regenerative qualities as well, for example, the brand’s natural indigo sourcing comes from an effort to fix nitrogen levels in over-tilled and farmed soil.
Trace Collective’s clothes are fully traceable from ‘ground-to-garment’ and made solely from regenerative materials including organic cotton and linen. They work with hemp farms in Romania, linen growers in Italy and France, yarn plants in Tunisia and Poland and mills across Europe. Most of their clothes are then produced at a social workshop in Spain that helps women at risk enter the workforce.
Sustainable fashion brand Sheep Inc. introduced a hoodie with no carbon footprint, meaning it leaves no trace in the environment. Each hoodie naturally removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than its manufacturing creates, producing a naturally carbon negative footprint without the need to offset. The hoodie is 100% biodegradable to ensure zero trace at the end of life. Sheep Inc. uses extra-fine 19.5μ Merino wool from three regenerative sheep stations in New Zealand. These three farms are at the forefront of the regenerative farming movement, using innovative land management, feeding, and grazing techniques to capture more CO2e from the atmosphere than their operations emit.
Regenerative Bedding & Textiles
Alterra Pure sells sheets, pillowcases, and duvet covers made from organic, fair trade cotton from farms using regenerative techniques. The brand sources from cotton farm co-ops in the Odisha region of India. End products are GOTS-certified and produced in a LEED-certified factory.
Bristol Cloth is a regeneratively farmed wool from Fernhill Farm in the UK, dyed with organic plant dyes by Botanical Inks and woven by the Bristol Weaving Mill. The majority of the production is set within a 15 mile radius of Bristol. As well as knitting yarns, finished fringed blanket scarves are available to purchase.
Coyuchi is committed to using sustainably grown, organic and natural fibers for its bed linens, blankets, and towels. For organic cotton they have partnered with smallholder farming communities like Chetna in India, and for wool and down they prioritize regenerative agricultural partners, including ones that provide Climate Beneficial™ wool.
Farrier Leather works directly with farmers, nonprofits and organizations that facilitate the respiration of soils and grasslands. Its small leather good hides are sourced from grass-fed farms within the United States and vegetable tanned in Haiti, and any organic cottons used in its products are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). A percentage of every purchase also supports the Savory Institute.
Qwstion’s bags are made of Bananatex®, the world’s first technical fabric made from a type of banana fibre known as Abacá. Abacá is self-sufficient, requiring no pesticides or extra water, and cultivated within a natural ecosystem of mixed agriculture and forestry. So, the plant has contributed to reforestation in areas of the Philippines once eroded by palm plantations. It’s also available for other brands to buy!