More Than Organic: Regenerative Farming

How Regenerative Farming Helps the Planet

Regenerative farming has become the way forward for sustainability, not only in the clothing and textile industries but also in food, agriculture, etc. While regenerative farming efforts should be applauded, there is a level of transparency that is hard to gauge when standards differ across different certification groups or when there are many ways to be regenerative. Taking a step back, the goal of regenerative farming is the same, independent of methodology. The goal is an approach to farming with an aim to improve soil health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. This means there are ways of farming that help the planet, not just hurt the planet. Oftentimes soil is overused in such a way that the soil health is compromised, there is an over-reliance on potentially harmful chemicals, or carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Cotton Takes Centerstage

The focus on regenerative farming comes largely from the need to address the supply chain industry from seed to seller. Cotton is second only to polyester as the world’s most popular fibre. 25 million tons of cotton are grown every year, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agricultural statistics. The focus on cotton has led down two avenues, one gives a nod to the past, and one gives a nod to the future. The option that gives a nod to the future is the ingenuity and innovation in fibres. For example, Kassim Denim and Denim Privé collaborated with CiCLO® to create a synthetic textile that behaves like a natural fibre when it ends up back in the environment – it degrades naturally. Regenerative farming is a nod to the past, as a lot of the techniques are not new but rather have gone unused or phased out because of the bottom line. Regenerative methods can take longer or produce varying qualities of cotton. Both avenues will require innovation and standardisation as the fashion industry moves forward.

Why Regenerative Farming Needs to Move Forward Now

While sustainability concerns have largely been the reason for a closer lens on regenerative farming, there are also other factors putting pressure on the world of fashion and textiles to do better. There have been substantiated concerns about modern-day slavery and certification authenticity. Ultimately, these practices were going on right underneath the entire industry’s noses because of the perpetual issues concerning supply chain transparency and knowledge.

Modern-day Slavery Concerns

It was in 2020 that the news broke about the realities and magnitude of modern slavery in China directly related to the cotton industry. At least 570,000 Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province were forced to work in Chinese cotton fields that produced one-fifth of the world’s cotton supply, as reported by Washington’s Center for Global Policy. While the fashion industry as a whole wanted to deny involvement, the truth came out that many brands couldn’t be sure of their involvement in one way or another. While responses from brands ranged from renewed dedication to clean practices, the United States responded by blocking cotton shipments from China in early 2021. This nearly doubled the price of organic cotton. This rise in demand for organic cotton led to the entering of new or at least newly registered cotton farmers into the cotton scene. Furthermore, the need to see what was going on from seed to store meant a renewed interest in the certification processes that ideally ensured human rights and environmental standards were being upheld on the cotton farms.

Concerns About Certification

Along the fashion industry’s journey to find valid supply chains, there has been another critical misstep. Requiring cotton of a certain calibre means the need for some kind of standardisation, often provided by certification organisations like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Textile Exchange, or Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). As the trust is put in the certification process, brands entrust their transparency and sourcing sustainability in the hands of a third party. The certification crisis occurred when it came out that there were untrue claims of organic cotton on the market. The amount of organic cotton on the market was impossible based on the limited quantities of organic seeds in circulation. With the increasing demand for clean and organic cotton and the decreasing supply, there rose a market for paper-based certification schemes. Neither GOTS nor Textile Exchange performed inspections themselves but rather relied on local offices and international inspectors, such as OneCert, EcoCert, and Control Union. GOTS launched an investigation and banned several producers who committed certificate forgery. GOTS, Textile Exchange, and Better Cotton Initiative are still relied upon certification groups by the industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the European Union both terminated agreements or started rejecting organic exports from India-based companies.

Responding with Regenerative Farming

The responses to these issues surrounding the sourcing of cotton are vast. The fashion and denim industries are turning to other sustainable materials as well as regenerative farming. However, the kind of regenerative farming that means forging relationships with the farmers and farms directly. The relationships between farmers, producers, suppliers, and brands are changing for the better. Oftentimes it is too financially unviable for farmers to pursue regenerative farming, especially with upfront costs and potential variation in crops. There are several companies that are setting an example of what it looks like to form relationships with farmers to avoid an unreliable revenue stream for the farmer.

North Face and Citizens of Humanity and Denim Privé

There are several companies that have taken the developments in the cotton and agricultural industries very seriously and are forging relationships with farmers and changing the way their supply chains work, leveraging regenerative farming. North Face announced in 2021 that they will partner with agricultural technology from Indigo Ag to source traceable fibre to farmers employing regenerative practices. They will be paying a premium for this cotton. Citizens of Humanity is a denim group that is also taking on a similar approach by going directly to the farmers. They are partnering with cotton farmers in the long-term bids to secure all their cotton from regenerative agriculture. This also will require paying a premium and agreeing to amounts independent of crop fluctuations. Brands are starting to take responsibility for the volatility and unpredictability that the farmer usually faced on their own. Denim Privé sources cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative, which specifically focuses on the well-being of the farmer. Furthermore, Denim Privé has the unique position of having a vertically integrated supply chain, which means that they are involved in different stages of the supply chain, removing a lot of the guesswork in transparency.

Regenerative Farming Makes Cotton Better for the Planet

The effects of regenerative farming have already been environmentally affirmed as a sustainable direction forward. In fact, it is changing the way the industry views cotton. Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by the improved soil health through low-till or no-till practices. In the pilot year of regenerative practices of affiliated growers with Trust Protocol, 52 per cent used no-till practices, 27 per cent used reduced tillage, and 21 per cent used conventional tilling practices. These farmers are also employing carbon capture methods, such as planting winter cover crops that draw carbon out of the atmosphere and improve soil health.

The hope is that brands and farms are able to move beyond the pilot stages of regenerative farming and that healthy, transparent relationships between brands and farmers become the norm.

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