Regenerative cotton: the solution to ecological clothes manufacturing?

Polly Stevens considers the practices and potential of regenerative agriculture in the fashion industry

Polly Stevens
8th November 2020

In September, the clothes brand Patagonia made headlines for what many have called one of their boldest moves yet: a simple tag on the inside of their new line of shorts reading the four word message "Vote the a**holes out". While Patagonia has always been vocal about the inability of politicians to prioritise climate change, previously suing the Trump administration to protect national monuments, the message was not the only reason that the shorts, which sold out rapidly, attracted the attention of environmentalists.

"Vote the a**holes out" was printed on the tag of Patagonia's new line of shorts
Image: Outlander Magazine on Twitter

The other was their material. Patagonia have recently piloted their first crop of regenerative cotton on more than 150 farms in India, and are hoping to launch more Regenerative Organic Certified apparel over the next few years. Other brands such as Kering and Prana have also invested in regenerative farming practices, and the term has recently become something of a buzzword amongst fashion industries.

"regenerative" is one step above "sustainable"

So what exactly is regenerative agriculture? According to Regeneration International, the term refers to "farming and grazing practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity". Essentially, "regenerative" is one step above "sustainable"; rather than simply maintaining the planet's current state, regenerative agriculture aims to actually improve it.

The processes involved in regenerative agriculture are wide-ranging; they may include the use of compost rather than synthetic fertiliser, the plantation of windbreak trees which shelter fields from soil erosion, practices such as crop rotation and intercropping to optimise soil nutrients, and no-till approaches to seed-planting. Besides sequestering carbon, regeneratively farmed land may help combat hazards exacerbated by climate change such as flooding, by increasing the absorption capabilities of the soil. Some farms also implement "pollinator strips" of crops which attract bees to the area, and use "trap crops" rather than chemical pesticides to divert pests.

Intercropping is a regenerative farming method that optimises soil nutrients
Image: Markus Winkler on Unsplash

the fashion industry could be key in bringing regenerative agriculture into the mainstream

Currently, the regenerative movement is new and results are unlikely to be widely available for customers for the next few seasons of production. However, the incredible promise of regenerative farming for addressing environmental issues means brands are unlikely to be able to afford to overlook it. Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed, a non-profit organisation developing regenerative textiles, explains how key the fashion industry could be in bringing regenerative agriculture into the mainstream. "It's more poised than the food industry to lead [the conversion], because fashion is more permanent. You don't know what I ate for breakfast, but you know what I'm wearing."

So could regenerative cotton really be the solution to ecological clothes manufacturing? Well, with increasing popular interest in doing what's best for the planet - most recently highlighted in the election result, where a man prepared to prioritise climate change in policy-making prevailed over a climate denier (yes, Patagonia, we did "vote the a**holes out") - it seems hopeful.

Featured image: Jan Kopriva on Unsplash

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