Is Regenerative Agriculture the Future of Fashion?

By Sophie Benson

“Fashion is fundamentally, in many cases, an agricultural product,” says Vanessa Barboni Hallik, Founder and CEO of Another Tomorrow, the luxury sustainable brand that launched in January. Having spent 15 years in finance, New York-based Barboni Hallik set out to move into sustainable finance but her research eventually led her down the path of creating a new ethically- and environmentally-minded fashion brand. 

“When we couldn’t find any materials that obviously met our ethics and sustainability criteria, and the quality criteria, we realised we had to start at the farm,” Barboni Hallik explains via Zoom. After starting out meeting farmers in the US and failing to find the technical properties she needed, she looked further afield to New Zealand and Australia. It was in expanding her search that Barboni Hallik met Nan Bray, a marine-physicist-turned-ethical sheep and wool farmer. 

Based in the Tasmanian Midlands, Bray manages a flock of around 500 sheep. While the wool industry is often criticised for its environmental impact – the growth of trees and shrubs inhibited by grazing, soil compacted by wandering hooves, land cleared to increase flock sizes – Bray works to preserve and, in fact, regenerate more than she takes from the land. She does this by reducing grazing pressure, planting large areas with native trees, shrubs, grasses, and broadleaf plants, and shunning fertilisers and pesticides. “I have always wanted to be part of a beautiful, as well as functional environment,” she says.

Regenerative agriculture is having a moment in fashion, with the likes of Kering and Patagonia also embracing the practice. It’s a method of farming which prioritises practices such as crop rotation, reduced or zero tillage, planned grazing, and plant diversity in order to regenerate and replenish topsoil, increase biodiversity, support ecosystem services, improve water management and, broadly, improve natural resources rather than depleting them. 

Its uptick in popularity comes at a crucial time. Human activity is responsible for the loss of more than 80% of wild land animals and half of plants, and it threatens a further one million species with extinction. We are using up nature far quicker than it can renew itself; WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report estimates we’re overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%. 

Fashion’s impact, in particular, is significant. Although difficult to quantify, the industry’s heavy reliance on natural resources like water, land, animals, soil and crops makes it a major contributor to biodiversity loss, and McKinsey recently identified raw-material production, material preparation and processing, and end of life as having the largest negative impact. 

Within those steps, factors such as the excessive water use and habitat loss of cotton agriculture, deforestation for wood-based fibres such as viscose, freshwater contamination through textile dyeing and treatment, and air, ground and water pollution from leather tanning were identified as being the key areas of concern. 

But despite there being more evidence of the toll it takes on the environment than ever, the fashion industry – and its impact – continues to grow. 

“Unless we break this growth for growth’s sake model, nothing is going to change,” says Barboni Hallik. As production has ramped up both in volume and speed, agricultural methods have adapted to meet demand and even seemingly natural processes have become damaging. Cotton, for example, is grown on just 2.5% of the world’s land but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of the word’s insecticides. Mostly grown as a monoculture, the conversion of land for growing cotton also results in habitat loss. The manufacture of cellulose fabrics such as viscose and rayon, meanwhile, leads to the logging of 150 million trees a year. Laid end to end, they would circle the earth seven times. Particularly galling is the fact that 70% of each tree is wasted in the manufacturing process. 

When it comes to wool, ballooning production means more intensive sheep farming and the numbers to meet demand. But Bray has moved her business in the opposite direction. “The single biggest issue in conventional woolgrowing with regard to biodiversity and the consequences of climate change is over-stocking,” she explains. “Heavy, relentless grazing pressure reduces the forage biodiversity.”

Bray’s “aha moment”, as she calls it, was realising that good sheep nutrition relies on biodiversity. “The kicker is that in order to have abundance, you just can’t run as many sheep. I run about a quarter to a third the number of sheep per acre that I used to run and that producers in my area routinely run,” she explains. 

To make this pared down approach work, Bray moved up the supply chain “to make a much better financial margin on my yarn than I did on the greasy wool which I sold as a commodity for whatever price the market would give me!”

Perhaps one of the reasons Bray’s partnership with Another Tomorrow works is that Barboni Hallik believes in investing for both quality and environmental responsibility. “I think what it comes down to is brands are going to have to pay a lot more for their raw materials in order to make this a reality,” she says.

A willingness to invest in the environment is a common thread amongst the brands adopting regenerative agriculture within their supply chain. Patagonia, known for funding grassroots climate action, launched their Regenerative Organic Agriculture campaign earlier this year with a range of t-shirts from over 150 farms in India which are part of a Regenerative Organic Certification pilot scheme.

“Regenerative Organic farms [are] little paradises,” says Helena Barbour, Vice President of Sportswear at Patagonia. “They’re biodiverse, they use beneficial insects, and they have animals living on the farm. Many of the farmers in India said this was like going back to their traditional practices: their great-grandfathers used to farm like this.”

Designer Richard Malone also looked to India for his brand’s first steps into regenerative agriculture, winning the International Woolmark Prize after presenting a collection with pieces made in collaboration with farms in Tamil Nadu. With help from fashion collective Oshadi Studio, Malone worked with the farmers to regenerate land that had “become completely barren due to mass production”. It’s now used to grow organic cotton and plants for botanical dyes. 

While regenerative agriculture may make the most of traditional techniques, it can also benefit from modern technology. In 2018, Kering, the fashion group at the helm of luxury brands including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, partnered with The Savory Institute to advocate regenerative sourcing solutions and utilise the ecological organisation’s Ecological Outcome Verification methodology in their leather and fibre supply chains. The group also committed to regenerating one million hectares of farms and rangelands within their “supply chain landscapes” by 2025 in their Biodiversity Strategy, released in July this year.

The shift towards regeneration is continuing to spread. Mara Hoffman released “Climate Beneficial” pieces as part of their SS21 collection, as certified by Fibershed, a California non-profit that develops regenerative fibre systems which, incidentally, introduced Bray to Another Tomorrow. Maggie Marilyn has committed to transitioning their merino farmers to regenerative practices, and Eileen Fisher set out to “pursue regenerative fibres which are  grown in a way that supports biodiversity and… restores the land” in their Horizon 2030 report

Sustainability is a multi-faceted thing and there’s no one strand that will save us. But as fashion takes so much from the planet and puts it under increasing amounts of pressure, widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture could begin, at last, to redress the balance. 

Sophie Benson

Sophie Benson is a freelance journalist working with a focus on sustainable fashion, the environment, and consumerism. She writes for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Dazed, and Refinery29.