Is regenerative agriculture the future of environmentally sustainable fashion?

A few decades ago, the idea of "organic" was just beginning to make its way into our vocabulary. Now organic food and fashion are lauded as the sustainable alternative to conventionally made produce and materials. But what is the next step when being "sustainable" is not enough. In a recent article for Vogue, Aras Baskauskas of Christy Dawn says, "What are we trying to sustain—the fires, the tornadoes, the mass extinction? We don't need to be sustainable, we need to be regenerative." He is referring to regenerative agriculture, which is increasingly being promoted as the future of environmentally-friendly fashion. Regenerative agriculture maintains healthy soil through practices like cover cropping — growing beneficial crops during times of rest or in combination with the primary crop — and crop rotation — rotating crops instead of keeping the same crops in the same field year after year. Regenerative agriculture certainly has many benefits, especially when it comes to food production and carbon sequestration, but is it really the most promising option for fashion? Is it too outdated to be considered a good investment?

Regenerative agriculture is the solution to rapidly declining soil health. Desertification, food scarcity, biodiversity loss, and climate change are all consequences of poor soil health. Most people see plastic pollution and fossil fuel production as the dire issues that need immediate action; meanwhile, our soil is quietly and quickly being destroyed. According to The Need to Grow documentary, 70% of the world's soil has already been destroyed, and we only have roughly 60 years of "farmable" soil left. After that, we could be looking at increased starvation, uninhabitable land, and worsening climate change. As Baskauskas said, there is a need to not only prevent future environmental catastrophes, but to reverse the damage already done.

Industrial farming practices such as chemical fertilization, tilling, and monocropping — planting one crop on the same field year after year — have caused our soil predicament. Driven by the need to produce more crops for less money, industrial farming is supported by outdated science, making change in the industry extremely difficult. In fact, there have been reports that regenerative agriculture practice, cover cropping, could violate farm insurance policies, preventing farmers from implementing a natural farming method. This is where the fashion industry comes in and saves the day.

Christy Dawn is a small brand focusing on dresses made from deadstock fabric. As owners Baskauskas and his wife Christy learned more about the environment, they switched from deadstock to fabric made from farms implementing regenerative agriculture. The pair were willing to invest the time and money in this farming practice, but supply chain issues created a disconnect between farmers and the brands that buy their products. Nonprofit, Fibershed, filled the void in the supply chain and acted as a connection between Christy Dawn and a bare and abandoned farm in India. Thanks to regenerative agriculture practices, the farm is now thriving with cotton and botanical dye plants, and neighboring farmers are now interested in implementing the same methods on their land. Christy Dawn is making dresses with cotton from their partner farmers in India. Fibershed is not the only nonprofit pushing for the fashion industry's support of regenerative agriculture. Hudson Carbon, a research institute in New York, is soon releasing a "new marketplace for carbon capture." The organization will sell carbon offsets to companies, and the money will go to advancing regenerative agriculture — as opposed to other carbon offset purchases that may go to tree planting or renewable energy transitions.

Not everyone believes fashion should be investing in responsible farming practices, though. Dio Kurazawa of the Bear Scouts told Business of Fashion that he doesn't see the need for farm-to-factory production. "We have to figure out a way to move beyond it," he said, referring to historic farming practices such as regenerative agriculture. The term may sound advanced, but regenerative farming dates back to the Roman Empire when farmers used cover crops, such as legumes, to improve their vineyards' soil quality. Just because practices like this are making a comeback does not mean they are new or perfect. One of the biggest drawbacks of agriculture, in general, is the vast land and water use. In a world of dwindling natural resources, available farmland is hard to find. This dilemma has led to the massive clearing of forests like the Amazon rainforest, leading to even more biodiversity loss and global warming. Instead of looking back to old practices, some suggest that environmentalists look at new technology to save the world. The development of chemical recycling in fashion and lab-grown cotton are two examples of futuristic textile production that could make the industry more environmentally sustainable.

The head of sportswear at Patagonia, Helena Barbour, defends regenerative agriculture, though. "It's very dramatic to find something that doesn't just mitigate the problem, or reduce the impact of the problem, but it actually does something good." But Patagonia's support of old school farming practices doesn't mean the largest brand at the forefront of sustainable fashion is abandoning other production options. The outdoor activewear company still has a recycling program and uses organic cotton, they are just diversifying their sustainability investments. And maybe that's the future of environmentally sustainable fashion: more options.