Vogue Business Regenerative Agriculture.
Updated: Mar 24
BY RACHEL CERNANSKY
In theory, regenerative agriculture can address multiple sustainability crises. But critics worry that greenwashing and selective practices could dilute its potential.
Fashion brands have caught onto the idea that regenerative agriculture is a powerful solution for climate change. But some of the field's top experts are worried that in the process of adopting the practice, the industry is going to create problems for it.
Agriculture is one of the top sources of global greenhouse gas emissions, and topsoil could all be gone within 60 years, according to the UN, if current rates of degradation keep up. A shift in farming practices can address both crises by building soil health so that it's able to absorb, rather than generate, significant amounts of carbon. Fashion brands like Kering, Patagonia and The North Face are turning to regenerative sourcing in droves.
While it's generally understood to mean farming practices that rebuild soil organic matter and restore soil biodiversity — resulting in carbon storage as well as improvements for the water cycle and ecosystem services generally — there are no official guidelines for what the term needs to mean or verification of brands making the claim.
The resulting fault lines are already showing: people are finding room for interpretation of what regenerative means, with some zeroing in on carbon storage exclusively while others say it is supposed to be a wholesale change in how food and fibres are grown, from the use of chemicals to persistent racial and economic inequalities across agriculture worldwide. And as interest in the concept grows, so do concerns about greenwashing. Experts wonder if, without clear guidelines around regenerative agriculture, brands might selectively apply some practices but not the full intact concept, as well as rely on the soil-building work by farmers as a silver bullet for their environmental impacts, instead of making it part of a much more transformative change throughout the entire supply chain.
"I'm concerned we're not leaving the door open to push harder towards greater change over time — and that's what regenerative is," says Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess. She's concerned the word is being overused and could lose meaning over time. "We should celebrate that there's a tension in this direction. We just need to acknowledge where the holes are."
Scaling regenerative practices
Initiatives are emerging to help brands adopt regenerative practices.
The Rodale Institute, a US nonprofit that supports organic agriculture research, launched a certification system for regenerative organic farming last year and works with brands including Taylor Stitch, Everlane, Patagonia, Jungmaven and Yes And/Metawear. Last month, New Zealand Merino Company launched what it says is the first regenerative wool platform, ZQRX, with brands including Allbirds and Smartwool. And Indigo Ag, an agricultural technology company that launched a partnership with The North Face in February, works with farmers to implement practices like using more cover crops, says director of product Noah Walker, and connects them with brands.
Each works with farmers to implement more regenerative practices and with brands to expand the market those farmers can sell to. Indigo Ag is still in pilot phase with fashion, but the hope is that it can help farmers improve soil health —which translates to more carbon removed from the atmosphere — while earning a premium from brands, while also helping brands meet their climate targets.
New Zealand Merino Company innovation and sustainability manager Dave Maslen says that nearly 200 growers are signed up with the ZQRX platform, which launched with three brands. CEO John Brakenridge says a number of well-known fashion brands are likely to join later this year. But what might be most ambitious about its vision is that it doesn't plug into the existing supply chain —it requires brands to connect with growers and avoids the commodity market entirely — and that the platform could potentially be scaled to other crops.
"It can't be some sort of bulk onto an old model that got us in trouble. This has to be a reengineering of the [whole system]," he says. "It's a complete disruption to the traditional commodity' world. This is about long-term change," says Maslen.