From Farm to Runway – The Rise of Regenerative Farming in Fashion
Environmentally responsible fashion has become a key marketing signal for many global brands, with advertising claims such as “sustainable,” “responsibly sourced,” “organic,” and “recycled” cropping up throughout the fashion industry. These claims respond to growing demand from consumers who increasingly want their fashion brands to align with their values and who have shown a willingness to pay a premium for “environmentally friendly” apparel. “Regenerative farming”—an approach to farming that aims to restore soil health and reduce emissions—is one such claim. Several global brands are highlighting the use of regenerative farming techniques to neutralize the impact of fashion production on the environment and to appeal to consumers’ appetite for earth-friendly fashion. As with all eco-friendly trends in fashion, the increased demand for products sourced using regenerative farming brings supply chain and marketing challenges for brands.
Regenerative Farming 101
Regenerative farming refers to a collection of farming methods and techniques that promote improvements in the soil and in the overall ecosystem for the raw materials used in textile products.
Methods include limiting the use of synthetic crop inputs, applying compost as a fertilizer, planting “cover crops,” and eliminating or reducing soil tilling. Cover crops, such as clover, aid in the absorption of atmospheric carbon by sequestering it in their roots. The captured carbon, in turn, provides nutrients to the soil, improves moisture absorption, and stimulates crop growth.
Fashion is paying attention, as consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the environmental costs of production and responding with their wallets. A survey of shoppers in Brazil, China, France, the UK, and the United States showed that 75% identify “sustainability” as very or extremely important. Over one-third of survey respondents reported abandoning their brand of choice in favor of one committed to positive environmental standards.
Notwithstanding its environmental benefits, regenerative farming comes with its own costs, particularly for small farmers. While fashion brands are eager for opportunities to market environmentally responsible practices to their conscious consumers, it can be expensive for farmers to implement regenerative farming practices and to fulfill the sometimes burdensome reporting requirements that brands demand. This is particularly true for farmers in developing nations.
To support the adoption of regenerative farming techniques, some brands such as Patagonia and North Face  are partnering directly with farmers and farmer cooperatives to fund the cost of compliance and to promote uniform standards. Last year, for example, the luxury goods group Kering (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga) partnered with Conservation International on a $6 million Regenerative Fund for Nature to convert 1 million hectares of livestock and crop supply lands into regenerative farms.
Ensuring Supply Chain Transparency
Fashion brands making claims about regenerative farming have to develop rigorous systems of monitoring and quality assurance far down the supply chain in order to verify that the raw materials they are sourcing and using are, in fact, grown using regenerative techniques and that any advertised environmental benefits are adequately substantiated. Setting supply chain benchmarks for responsible fashion is not for the faint of heart.
To assist with supply chain management and to promote the adoption of consistent industry standards, several fashion brands are forming partnerships with one another and with environmental organizations. In addition to Kering’s partnership with Conservation International, North Face has partnered with the AgTech startup Indigo to track cotton grown using regenerative practices through the supply chain and to measure the amount of carbon sequestered by regenerative farming practices. New Zealand Merino, Allbirds, Icebreaker, and Smartwool have partnered to create a similar platform for regenerative wool. Timberland partnered with the Savoy Institute’s Land to Market program to launch shoe collections featuring regenerative leather. The transition from conventional to regenerative farming, including investment in traceability and other technologies, requires capital, which is why brands aren’t going at it alone.
Brands promoting regenerative farming that fail to implement reliable compliance programs may find themselves targeted for false advertising claims or allegations of “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is a term used to refer to advertising claims that misrepresent or overstate the environmental benefits of a product or service. As environmental marketing claims continue to proliferate, regulatory scrutiny is also likely to increase, as we have already seen in the European Union. For its part, the US Federal Trade Commission has issued detailed guidance about a large number of environmental advertising claims, including “recycled,” “compostable,” and claims related to carbon credits or offsets. Before making any environmental claims, advertisers should ensure that the claims are properly qualified and adequately substantiated.
Rising consumer demand for environmentally responsible apparel has sparked interest and investment by fashion brands in regenerative farming practices, which aim to slow climate change by restoring soil health. Partnerships among brands and with technology companies and non-profits can help to offset investments in new technology and climate-friendly farming practices, potentially providing new revenue streams for farmers and retailers alike. Nonetheless, fashion retailers should be mindful of the unique legal and regulatory considerations that arise when leveraging their consumers’ interest in regenerative practices and materials.